Onondaga County is at the heart of New York State – the crossroads where the major east-west and north-south routes of the Eastern United States intersect. From the earliest days when the Onondagas were responsible for the council fire at the center of the Iroquois confederacy, Onondaga County has been the focus of transportation and commerce.
Today’s Onondaga County is about one-quarter of the original Onondaga County created by New York State in 1794. That 52 by 70 mile tract, divided as a bonus for soldiers who stayed on duty until the end of the American Revolution, extended from Madison County on the east to Seneca Lake on the west and from Lake Ontario in the north to the south of the Finger Lakes.
Father Simon LeMoyne, a French Jesuit missionary, wrote back to France about the salt springs here. His report led to having a mission and trading post set up on the northern shore of Onondaga Lake in 1655. This settlement, known as Ste. Marie deGannentaha, was abandoned after two years, but visitors can visit a recreation, which is part of the County’s park system.
Expeditions during the American Revolution showed patriot soldiers from New England the riches of this land and there was rapid settlement by war veterans after 1794. This increased population led to the creation of Cayuga, Cortland, Seneca, Tompkins, Wayne, Yates and Oswego counties out of the original territory.
While the geographic “crossroads” was evident from the first, the situation was enhanced in 1825 by the completion of the Erie Canal, a water-level route across the center of New York State from Buffalo to Albany, connecting to the Hudson River and making New York City the new nation’s major port. Limestone, which was the earliest cash crop for the pioneers and was essential to construction of the Erie Canal.
The Erie Canal went directly through the center of Onondaga County, creating a commercial center in Syracuse where a canal to Oswego allowed boat traffic north to Lake Ontario. Many small villages drew life from these canals, where the heavy commercial and passenger traffic lasted until after 1870.
Other transportation routes followed. The first railroad arrived in 1839 and by 1900 more than 100 trains a day were passing through stations in Syracuse. The Hancock International Airport, north of Syracuse, evolved out of a World War II Army Air Corp’s Base and replaced earlier smaller airfields. When railroad traffic diminished after World War Two, the New York State Thruway provided the major east-west transportation route across the state starting in 1955. A similar limited access north-south highway, Route 81 that opened in 1962, recreated the earlier crossroads in Onondaga County.
An enlarged waterway, known as the Barge Canal, replaced Erie and by 1925 many parts of the older route were filled in and used for an automobile highway. Several remnants of the original Erie Canal are now state parks.
As a major industrial center, the County has been home to numerous manufacturing operations. Pottery has been commercially made here since 1849, with the Syracuse China logo now known throughout the world. Candles have been made here since 1855.
Onondaga County’s oldest landmarks are two unusual meromictic lakes where the water in the lowest depths has changed little in since the plunge basins was formed 11,000 years ago. These turquoise green remnants of a glacial waterfall twice the size of Niagara are two of only 13 in the world. One of these, Round Lake, is surrounded by a forest untouched by human hands and is on the National Register of natural Landmarks. Both lakes and forest are protected by the surrounding Green Lakes State Park. Molded by geography and commerce, the crossroads of New York State continues to be in Onondaga County.