This just in: A century of local
By Dennis Connors
Top Ten lists. They are everywhere. We seem to find them a handy way to
organize our lives.
Now, with both a millennium and a century about to end, they have become
an especially popular way to organize our history. But historians view these
lists with mixed emotions. We know that the outline of history is a lot
grayer than the clean, neat lines formed by a top ten list. It is full of
nuances, shades of right and wrong, sometimes reflecting luck as much as
noble, deliberate deeds.
But, these lists do get the general public thinking and talking about
history. And, for historians, that is a valuable exercise. The concept here
was to pick the top 10 stories covered by The Post-Standard since it began.
Having been born in January of 1899, the life of The Post-Standard parallels
the span of the 20th century,
but the stories had to have specific local impact and directly involve
The Post-Standard's reporting.
For example, while the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor was clearly
one of the major news events of the century, there was not a local reporter
taking notes on the docks while bombers soared overhead, so it did not make
The following list attempts to select incidents that had a profound
impact on the community or are a particularly significant illustration of
how the Syracuse area was shaped by broader events. There may have been
stories that, due to tragic or sensational aspects, captured readers
interest to a greater degree, but the following may stand the test of time.
1. Influenza Epidemic of
This pandemic killed nearly 20 million people worldwide. In America,
about 500,000 died, ten times the number of Americans killed in World War I
fighting. It accounted for the period of America's highest death rate during
the 20th century.
Central New York was not spared. Local officials canceled church services
and theater performances across the city to limit gatherings where the
contagious disease could spread. Trolley cars were ordered to keep windows
open, even in cold weather. At its height, during the winter of 1918-19, 50
people a day were dying in our community from the deadly virus.
2. Opening of Onondaga Lake
The 1920s brought an end to the local salt industry that had dominated
the shoreline of Onondaga Lake since the beginning of the 19th century. That
decade also witnessed abandonment of the state's old Oswego Canal, which had
occupied the entire east side of the lake.
It was a golden opportunity that the community seized. A local
businessman named Joseph Griffin lobbied hard to develop a plan for making
the entire lake shore publicly accessible space for recreation. Funding was
an issue, but, ironically, the arrival of the Great Depression brought
public works dollars from Albany under then Governor Franklin Roosevelt.
The east shore was turned over to the county and a landscaped park and
parkway constructed, literally from the ruins of the old canal and salt
works. The project didn't address the lake's pollution, but it assured the
creation of Onondaga County's most heavily used park and guaranteed us all a
permanent place in the lake's future.
3. Closing of the Franklin
Auto Plant, 1934
During the 1920s, Franklin's West Side factory was the community's
largest employer, with more than 5,000 workers at times. It reflected the
strength of both the national and local economy during that decade.
That would radically change by the early 1930s. The Depression altered
the whole pace of life in Central New York. Franklin's demise occurred over
the course of more than four years. The 1934 bankruptcy was the inevitable
finale. At the end, its work force was a mere skeleton of what it had once
been, but the community had always harbored hope that a turnaround could be
In 1934, the presence of the empty, but sprawling factory on Geddes
Street was a profound symbol of the magnitude of the nation's economic ills.
4. The Removal of Trains from
Syracuse Streets, 1936
Despite the Depression, the 1930s saw Syracuse finally fix the annoying
image and dangerous reality of having the New York Central Railroad's main
line run down the middle of Washington Street.
It was a massive public works project and a shining light for progress
during an era when the economic clouds hung heavy and dark. The city
elevated the tracks, built a stunning new passenger station and celebrated
the opening with a massive "Jubilee."
5. Central New York's
Reaction to VJ Day, 1945
Like all across America, the announcement of Japan's surrender on Aug. 14
sparked a spontaneous celebration in the streets of downtown Syracuse . It
would be treasured as one of the fondest and most emotional memories, ever,
for a generation of Central New Yorkers. World War II and its repercussions,
politically, economically, and socially, shaped all of our lives for the
rest of the century.
6. The Syracuse Nats Win the
NBA Championship, 1955
There have been a stunning array of great sports moments in Central New
York during the 20th Century. But the Nats were an especially beloved team,
deeply connected to the community. And the basketball championship that they
won that year, in particularly dramatic style, was the top drawer in the
country. Syracuse will likely never have a professional national sports
championship home team at that level again. It was a lofty moment in the
communal life of our town.
7. Restructuring of County
This lacks the sensational spark of what we might usually consider top
news stories, but it marked a profound shift in the way our county would
handle the last half of the century.
The new charter that was adopted by voters in November created a strong
form of executive-led county government. It consolidated a somewhat
uncoordinated system of boards, commissioners and committees, answerable to
a large board of supervisors, into a more efficient and effective
administrative structure. Capably led by new County Executive John Mulroy,
Onondaga County was able to successfully tackle a variety of pressing issues
from the strength provided by a coordinated metropolitan region.
8. Closing of Allied's Solvay
Process Operation, 1985
This massive soda ash plant had been a fixture on the west side of
Onondaga Lake since the early 1880s. Its scale and appearance seemed to
confirm the community's 19th century roots in heavy manufacturing. Its
creation of unsightly wastebeds along the shore contributed to and
symbolized Onondaga Lake's environmental malaise.
But it employed thousands at good wages and paid its corporate taxes. Its
closing was a shock to the area, reflecting the trend after the 1970s
whereby decisions to increasingly close local industry were made in distant,
corporate board rooms. It also brought a renewed hope that the lake's legacy
of pollution could be erased.
9. Former Syracuse Mayor Lee
Alexander Pleading Guilty to Extortion, 1988
Alexander's fall was not the only example of a local political accident
this century, but it carried the weight of Alexander's distinct image being
a reflection of our community. He was charismatic, elected to office four
times, served as a national spokesperson for American cities.
He had his share of detractors, like any politician, but Alexander seemed
to bestow a particular significance to the city as mayor. So likewise, what
did his ultimate corruption say to the nation about our community's
standards? Did it engender a certain cynicism that will make it difficult
for us to demand quality leadership in the future? Time will tell.
10. The Opening of Carousel
Center mall, 1990
While some may cringe at the thought that a trip to this mall often ranks
at the top of visitor lists of things to do in Syracuse, there is no doubt
that it has significantly altered both the retail and urban planning
landscape of our region.
It brought a whole new vision to our future and how we might treat the
area between downtown and our central lake. It also shut the door on any
lingering hopes that downtown could somehow revitalize its traditional role
as the retail center, forcing us to forge a new identity for the heart of
our community that is still taking shape.
Dennis Connors is curator of history at the
August 20, 1999