Syracuse: History

Location Favorable for Saltworks, Transportation

In 1570, attracted in part by the naturally occurring brine springs on Lake Onondaga, Chief Hiawatha chose the village of the Onondaga Nation as the capital of the Iroquois Confederacy. In 1658 the French built Fort Sainte Marie de Gannentaha on the lake shore but abandoned it two years later because of Native American hostility. Pioneers who arrived in the late 1700s established saltworks, starting an industry that thrived for nearly 100 years; for many years most of the salt used in the country came from this area. At the same time, Thomas Wiard began making wooden plows, and the region began to prosper. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1819 and the arrival of the railroad in the late 1830s brought new industries, further spurring economic growth. Over the years the community went by a succession of names; when it was incorporated as a village in 1825, the name Syracuse was chosen after an ancient Sicilian town that also lay near salt springs.

In 1851 Syracuse was the scene of what came to be known as the Jerry Rescue when Jerry, a slave who had escaped 30 years earlier, was reclaimed by his former master. He was freed from jail by a band of abolitionists, who smuggled him into Canada. When Charles Dickens visited Syracuse in 1869 he described it as "a most wonderful out-of-the-world place, which looks as if it had begun to be built yesterday, and were going to be imperfectly knocked together with a nail or two the day after tomorrow."

City Responds to Twentieth-Century Challenges

By the early 1900s the salt brine springs of Onondaga Lake were depleted and salt production in the city once known as "Salt City" declined. Talented inventors emerged, helping build Syracuse's manufacturing legacy; their creations included the first air-cooled engine in the world, the first synthetic penicillin, the first loafer, and the Brannock Device for measuring feet. Post World War II, an influx of GIs to Syracuse University created a need for affordable housing and prompted a trend towards moving to the suburbs. The creation of the Interstate Highway System replaced the railroad as a primary means of transportation and accelerated suburban growth. Renewal programs begun in the 1960s have since revitalized the downtown area, which has become Central New York State's primary commercial center as well as the area's center for entertainment and cultural activities. Syracuse is well poised to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century; a diversified market structure protects the city as it moves from manufacturing towards a knowledge- and service-based economy.

Historical Information: Onondaga Historical Association, 321 Montgomery Street, Syracuse, NY 13202; telephone (315)428-1862