Syracuse New York Museums

We grew up in Syracuse New York. While that is not a reason for our readers to go there with us, some of the museums in Syracuse New York are noteworthy of a visit if you are in the area as we were recently.

Erie Canal Museum

If you grew up along the canal path, you probably know the song “I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal, 15 years on the Erie Canal”.

The Erie Canal is a 363 miles canal that ran from the Hudson River in Albany New York to Lake Erie in Buffalo New York–meaning it also ran through Syracuse, New York. It was built to create a water route from New York City to the Great Lakes.  Although President Jefferson denied New York State’s request for the federal government to pay for the canal, Governor DeWitt Clinton and dozens of other influential businessmen were convinced of the value the state would derive from a canal to link New York City, via the Hudson River, to the Great Lake and the rapidly growing Midwest. Undeterred, they, with the financial backing of the Manhattan Company (the bank originally founded by capitalists including Arron Burr), taxes generated by Syracuse’s important salt industry and other sources, authorized the building of the canal in 1817. When it was completed in 1825, “Clinton’s Ditch”, as it was called,  was the second longest canal in the world and greatly affected the development and economy of New York, New York City, and the United States.

The museum is located in an historic weighing and toll station building on Erie Boulevard, which as the name implies, follows the course of the former canal. The museum explains the decision to build the canal through the center of the State rather than the shorter route through Lake Ontario (which they believed would have benefited Canada more than New York State) and the many technical challenges encountered in building the canal up and down rolling passes, over non-navigable rivers and ravines and through swamps in a period in which the new country lacked hydrological engineers. It explains the nature of and solutions to these challenges. It uses hands-on displays to demonstrate hydrological principles and the operation of its 83 stone-walled locks and explains how the canal led to new inventions, including the first hydraulic cement (which hardens underwater) and how the work was divided into small sections in a way that allowed, what was then the longest canal in the world, to be completed in only eight years.

It explains and provides pictures and models of the different types of cargo, passenger and maintenance boats used on the canal and how they were towed by horses and mules before the advent of steam-powered boats. And to better understand life and travel on canal, you can take a self-guided walking tour through and atop a reconstructed cargo/passenger “packet” boat. The museum also explains and and demonstrates the technologies used to weigh the boats (through the use of weigh locks) and charge for (by tons per mile) use of the canal.

The canal, which ended up costing about $7 million dollars to build, was an immediate and huge success. It recovered its entire building cost within the first year and slashed the time required to move goods and people between Albany and Buffalo from two weeks to five days, in much greater comfort and slashed the cost of transport by 90 percent. So success was the canal, that it ended up repaying investors six-fold ($42 million) before the state decided to suspend charges and allow free access to the entire canal. And this does not even consider the even greater benefits, including:

  • Facilitating the creation and growth of towns and cities across the length of the canal, including by attracting millions of European immigrants inland;
  • Spurred economic development by depositing tolls in local banks, which then lent money to cities, businesses and citizens;
  • Spurring the creation of thousands of new businesses and facilitated tourism, including to Niagara Falls;
  • Facilitating development of America’s Midwest and helped establish Chicago as the commercial hub of the central part of the country;
  • Establishing New York Harbor as the nation’s largest port and helped the city grow into the nation’s largest city and its primary financial and commercial center;
  • Created a model for the nation’s local and regional banking system;
  • Dramatically reduced the cost, not only of transport, but of all shipped products;
  • Opened export markets by allowing goods (especially grain) to overseas markets;
  • Generated import duties on imported goods, which became one of the federal government’s primary revenue sources;
  • Effectively created the country’s civil engineering industry; and
  • Stimulating the building of hundreds of other canals (including many branches off the Erie) across the United States and Europe.

The canal, which was twice deepened and widened, reached its peak volume in 1855. Its role, however, was gradually diminished by the arrival of the railroad which provided even faster (one day between Albany and Buffalo), less expensive and more convenient and comfortable transport and travel.

In the end, neither railroads nor even automobiles and trucks and the interstate highway system could totally eliminate the role of the Erie Canal. It was rerouted and greatly expanded into the Barge Canal system between 1905 and 1918 and continues to operate today, albeit at a greatly reduced level, after the 1959 opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Even now, however, parts of the original canal are still used by all types of recreational boats, some of the locks and aqueducts survive and the Erie Canalway National Historic Corridor is home to almost 50 historical sites, parks and museums.

Although the main floor of the museum details the history, building and operation of the canal, the growth and operation of the canal are commemorated in murals that line parts of the historic Weighlock Building’s exterior and a gallery of historic photographs that detail the building not only of the canal, but of many of the towns and cities whose creation and development it enabled.

Much of the museum’s second floor focuses on the canal’s impact on Syracuse, which, at the time of the canal’s inception, was little more than a crossroads anchored by the 1805 Bogardus Tavern, the interior of which is represented in a full-scale recreation of it’s interior. Additional displays suggest the growth of the city with a replica of an early, canal-side general store counter and pictures of the growth of the city’s canal-side “skyline “which was dominated by the Onondaga and Syracuse Savings Banks that grew on the strength of toll deposits and, which in turn, fueled growth of the city through their lending.

The display continues to show and explain how the influx of immigrants (especially German and Irish) into, and the shipment of products out of the city fueled its growth. Syracuse, for example, briefly enjoyed the status as the nation’s second largest producer of beer (after New York City) and became a leading producer of candles (by what was to become the Muench-Kreutzer Candle Company), pottery china (by what was to become Syracuse China) and later, furniture (from Stickley Furniture, whose founder, Gustav, became a leader of the nation’s Arts+Crafts Movement.

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Syracuse Salt Museum

Syracuse New York is also known as the “salt city”. The Salt Museum, which explores the influence of salt,  is located in Onondaga Park, above the city’s salt springs and on the site of original salt works next to the freshwater, Onondaga Lake.

The city’s salt industry, and the resultant salt taxes, was not only instrumental in funding the building of the Erie Canal (supplying about half of the $7 million cost), but was also instrumental in spurring the growth of the city, increased the state’s general funds.

The museum’s introductory film, along with several exhibits and dozens of interpretive panels, explains the development, and eventual decline of the industry.

Salt was the only effective means of preserving food prior to refrigeration. Taxes from central New York salt, in fact, became so critical to both the state and federal government that the state took control of the salt fields in the late 18th century and formed the 15,000-acre reservation. It created small blocks of production to multiple producers as a means of avoiding a potential monopoly. Even more importantly, the food preserved by Central New York salt was instrumental in feeding Union soldiers and, according to one general, was almost as important as the soldiers themselves in the Union’s winning of the war.

How did Syracuse salt come to play such as critical roles in such landmark events?

The story of Syracuse salt began in 1656 when the Onondaga Indians led Father Simon LeMoyne to the outlet of the underground salt springs. While LeMoyne understood how the brine could be converted into salt, exploitation of the springs had to wait more than another century, until two black settlers began evaporating small amounts of brine for their own use.

It was not until 1788 when two Revolutionary War veterans helped the Indians create the region’s first, low-volume salt works. By 1806, entrepreneurs sought to produce larger volumes of salt by digging a 30-foot deep mine and using small, rudimentary, manual pumps to bring brine to individual evaporation kettles over individual fires.

But since most of the high-salinity brine was located much deeper in the earth, large scale production required the use of large drilling rigs, more powerful, water-powered pumps and more efficient, large-scale evaporators. The pumps brought the water up into large cisterns, where impurities gradually sank to the bottom and from which brine could be released via plugs and gravity-fed through hollowed out logs into arrays of up to 50 metal kettles, called “boiling blocks”. The kettles, meanwhile, sat atop large, wood-fired fire pit, in which fires were set directly under some of the front kettles, and through which a series of flues channeled the heat to the other kettles.

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Once the water evaporated and formed into crystals, it was dried for 14 days, inspected and barreled for shipment. By mid-century, however, the central New York wood supply became depleted. This initially prompted salt producers to shift to Pennsylvania coal. But since this was much more expensive, the producers found themselves at a disadvantage to producers in Michigan and Canada who had access to both wood and more accessible salt deposits. (It was, ironically, the Erie canal, which was partially funded by taxes on Syracuse salt,  allowed Midwestern salt to enter Eastern markets.)

Since the the Civil War effort effectively required all the salt that could be produced, the Syracuse industry was temporarily protected from this increased competition. 1865, in fact, was the industry’s best year, with salt boilers producing about 5,000 pounds every eight hours and more than 7 million bushels over the course of the year.

The producers, therefore, gradually began converting their processes to “solar salt method” in which the brine was spread out over large “aprons” to dry under the sun. These aprons, however, had to be protected from rain, which would reduce the concentration of the brine, dissolve forming salt crystals and force the producers to dump what remained and start from scratch. They therefore, build long lines of wooden roofs on rollers that, on the first threat of rain, would be rolled over the aprons to protect the brine and forming salt. By the time it was crystalized, the salt was shoveled into woven baskets (with holes in the bottom) where draining was completed before barreling and shipping. By 1890, virtually all of the producers had adopted the solar model.

By this time, however, the salinity of the brine had fallen (thereby reducing salt yield), manufacturing and transportation costs had increased and midwestern producers had grabbed a growing share of the market. The number of Syracuse producers declined and, by 1908, the state auctioned off its reservoirs, its pipelines and its equipment to private companies. By this time, however, the city, based on its transportation (both rail and the canal), its large labor supply, its gypsum and limestone mines and its rapidly growing manufacturing base, was growing rapidly even without the benefit of salt. The land around the lake proved to be more valuable as a site for factories than for salt mining and production. Its salt was increasingly being used not as a food preservative, but to pack fish (especially the lake’s salmon and whitefish), in ceramic production and to de-ice railroad tracks. The coupe de grace came in 1922, when a hurricane destroyed many of the yards and most producers decided against rebuilding. By this time, the Onondaga Salt Springs Reservation had produced a total of more than 11.5 million tons of salt.

Salt did, however, leave a longer legacy in addition to the city’s nickname as “Salt City”. In 1988, the Solvay Process chemical company developed the “Solvay process”, which used salt and limestone to create soda ash, which was used in the manufacture of products including glass, ceramics, paper and soap. Over its 96-year history, it extracted almost 100 million tons of salt from a nearby brine field (in the town of Tully), before being forced to turn to other suppliers. The company did produced thousands of jobs. It, however, was also the primary contributor to turning Onondaga Lake into one of the most polluted lakes in the northeast. By 1985, it too found itself a victim of competition from more cost-efficient western producers and was forced to close. The lake, meanwhile, has been largely rehabilitated and is now the site of a lovely park in which the Salt Museum now stand.

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