This just in: A century of local news

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 roster.

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 1918-19

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 Park, 1933

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 found.

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 Government, 1961

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 Onondaga Historical Association.

Friday, August 20, 1999