Oneida Lake Education Initiative

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History of Oneida Lake

Prior to European exploration, prehistoric Native Americans utilized Oneida Lake’s fishery. Artifacts that document their lifestyle have been unearthed at Brewerton, Shackelton Point, and other sites near the lake. Later, the Oneidas and Onondagas, members of the powerful Iroquois confederacy, settled in the region. The Oneidas, who called the lake Tsioqui (meaning “white water,” a reference to impressive wave action), constructed fishing villages near Oneida Creek’s mouth and along Fish Creek, near Sylvan Beach. Their annual Atlantic salmon harvest yielded huge quantities of what was then a common Oneida Lake fish. The Onondagas also valued the lake’s fishery and, from camps at the Oneida River outlet and near Chittenango Creek’s mouth, they netted and speared eels, salmon, catfish, and pike. Archaeologists have recovered numerous Iroquois artifacts throughout the Oneida Lake region.


White settlers developed lands surrounding Oneida Lake in the latter eighteenth century. The Scriba Patent, a land company founded by George Scriba in the 1790s, marketed a significant acreage that stretched from Oneida’s north shore to Lake Ontario. The Military Tract, an area of government land that embraced the lake’s western end, was reserved for veterans of the American Revolution. Parcels not given to former patriots were eventually sold to the general public. The Oneida Lake region was sparsely settled until the early 1800s, when the “Yankee Invasion” of Upstate New York sparked the area’s first major development. During this era, which lasted through the 1830s, thousands of New Englanders left their marginal farms, seeking better land. The Oneida Lake locale, especially its fertile south shore, attracted many Yankees.


The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, bypassed Oneida Lake. However, the lake was linked to the Erie by the Oneida River and through two Oneida Lake canals. The first of these, sometimes called the “Side Cut Canal,” was built in the 1830s and connected the Erie with Fish Creek at a point about a half-mile east of Sylvan Beach. Logging, centered in Oneida’s north shore communities, and the sand business, based along the lake’s east end, brought modest prosperity to this waterway’s users. The second Oneida Lake canal joined Upper South Bay with the Erie at Durhamville. Constructed in the 1870s during the heyday of New York State railroading, the canal proved to be a dismal economic failure.


The Erie-Barge Canal, an enlargement of the old Erie, was completed in 1918. Unlike its predecessor, this canal used Oneida Lake as a part of its course. The “Barge Canal,” as most people called it, connected Oneida Lake with the Great Lakes and Hudson River, making the lake a significant cog in the state’s water transportation network. Hundreds of tugs and barges used the lake during the Erie-Barge’s peak years. Brewerton, Cleveland, and Sylvan Beach prospered as canal ports.


Lakeside communities grew at different times. Constantia’s and Brewerton’s earliest settlers arrived in the 1790s. Bridgeport’s genesis occurred around 1802 and Lakeport’s by 1811. These villages served as commercial centers for the surrounding farm population and as summer retreats. North Bay was popular with sportsmen in the 1850s, while Sylvan Beach’s initial growth occurred in the 1870s. The 1880s and 1890s witnessed Sylvan and Verona Beaches’ transformation into the “Coney Island of Central New York.” Scores of hotels, thousands of vacationers, two amusement parks, and even a boardwalk highlighted summers at “the Beach” during this era. Railroads carried upwards of fifty thousand tourists there on peak weekends.


The glass industry supplemented Cleveland’s and Bernhards Bay’s nineteenth century agrarian economies, while Jewell and West Monroe benefited from being stations on the Oswego-Midland Railroad (later renamed the “Ontario and Western”). The Syracuse to Watertown Railroad connected Brewerton with the state’s population corridor, enabling that village’s considerable number of commercial fishermen to export their catches. A trolley line brought Syracuse tourists to Lower South Bay, where grand steamboats like the Sagamore and the Manhattan awaited. Thirty-five licensed steamboats navigated Oneida’s waters during this era. Cottage and camp construction altered the lakeshore in the latter 1800s and early 1900s, and accelerated as post-World War I prosperity and the “Roaring 20’s” embraced the United States.


Although slowed by the Great Depression, the development of Oneida Lake’s periphery proceeded throughout the twentieth century to the point where, by 2000, few parcels of wild lakeshore remained. Despite this, productive wetlands still thrive near Toad Harbor, the Cicero Swamp, and the Verona Beach State Park. While woodlands lend their greens throughout the north shore vista, the south shore and west end are rapidly suburbanizing. The completion of Route 81 around 1960 made the lake an easy commute for people working in Syracuse. The Town of Cicero is the fastest growing township in Onondaga County today, and similar development spreads throughout Madison and Oswego Counties. The last remaining lake-bordering crop field, a lush meadow west of Lakeport, now sprouts condominiums. Federal and state monies recently financed renovation of Sylvan Beach and Brewerton harbors and these places hum with pleasure craft all summer. The Oneida Lake scene of 2006 presents vivid contrasts with its rustic, bucolic past.





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