Before the American Revolution, the hills surrounding Onondaga Lake were
the center of the Iroquois Confederacy. During the late 17th and early 18th
century, European settlers, mostly trappers and traders, followed Jesuit
missionaries and French explorers to the area. Onondaga Lake, its creeks,
and rivers served as transportation routes.
When the Erie Canal was built in the early 1800s, it opened
the interior of New York State to new settlement. Many were attracted to
Syracuse by its developing salt industry. In the early 19th century, the
lake's outlet was dredged to lower the water level and drain wetlands that
have since become the northern end of downtown Syracuse.
By 1900, the shoreline of Onondaga Lake was dotted with
major tourist attractions including hotels, restaurants, amusement
parks and seven resorts. At that time, fish from Onondaga Lake were served
at restaurants around New York State.
Lakeview Point was the first resort built in
1872. In 1906 it made way for the White City amusement park, built by the
Syracuse, Lakeshore and Northern trolley company.
By the end of the 1890s, the Syracuse,
Lakeshore and Northern Railway provided a busy trolley schedule, bringing
patrons from Clinton Square to White City in just 12 minutes for a fare of
five cents. Just before reaching White City, the trolley would pass by the
Syracuse Steam Yacht Club, built over the water on wooden pilings.
By 1899 the trolley company had built the
Rustic Theater at Maple Bay, hosting vaudeville acts and special events such
as "The Wedding of the Century," attended by thousands.
Iron Pier resort, a large amusement complex, was the gateway to the west
shore resorts. It was located near the current
site of the Carousel Center Mall. The resort's 600-ft pavilion offered
steamboat service to other resorts on the lake for a fare of 25 cents.
Each resort had its unique character. Rockaway Beach was
famous for 25-cent duck dinners and was the headquarters for ice boating
White City was modeled after the 1893
Exposition and had a popular "Shoot the Chute" water ride. Long Branch,
still popular today as a picnic area, was a favorite for both picnics and
its variety of amusements, including the carousel that is now the showpiece
of the Carousel Mall.
Pleasant Beach had the usual open-air dance pavilion and
bowling alleys; other popular attractions were a daredevil hot air balloon
act and $4 all-day clambakes. Pleasant Beach was also the longest existing
resort, holding out until the 1960s when it was demolished to make way
for Route 690.
Pollution from the growing city and expanding industries slowly forced
the resorts out. In the 1940's the lake was declared unsafe for swimming. In
the 1970's fishing was prohibited. The State initiated a national resources
damages claim in 1989 to force industrial polluters to pay for lake cleanup.
Onondaga Lake was listed as a Superfund site in 1994, due to the mercury
contamination of the lake's bottom.
Onondaga Lake is now widely considered to be the most polluted major body
of water in the country.
The Golden Age of Onondaga Lake Resorts,
Donald H. Thompson, Purple Mountain Pr Ltd; 1st edition, October 15, 2002,
ISBN: 1930098367 .