When I am not writing about hidden urban waters in the city of New York, I look north at other cities in this state of the same name. Having written about Albany and Buffalo, the city of Syracuse also grew with the construction of Erie Canal. This vital waterway was widened and routed north of the city center a century ago, but the city has an older waterway that connects to its Native people: Onondaga Creek.
Nearly the entire urban section of Onondaga Creek is accessible to the public by a Creekwalk path that follows the stream, such as the above photo where it flows under the Washington Street Garage.
Where it Flows
The official map of the Creekwalk shows the stream flowing underneath buildings between Armory Square and Erie Boulevard, then snaking around a highway and widening into the city’s Inner Harbor. It then empties into Onondaga Lake. Further upstream the creek flows through the reservation land of the Onondaga people, the Natives of this region who were the leaders of the Iroquois Confederacy- Haudenosaunee, a government that preceded the arrival of European settlers.
On this map from 1834 we see the city center with Erie Canal flowing on a bridge above Onondaga Creek. To the west are salt storage sheds as the city sits atop a massive underground salt deposit. A mill pond provided water to the city and powered a gristmill. The city was incorporated in 1825, the same year as the completion of the Erie Canal. On this map, it has Oswego Canal as its branch, flowing northwest to Onondaga Lake and continuing further to its namesake city. The most recognizable item on this map is Clinton Square, the heart of the city.
On a map of Syracuse rom 1895, the canal has competition from railroads that follow its through the city. The salt mines have moved farther from the city center as urbanization has leaped to the left bank of the creek. The design of Leavenworth Park is reminiscent of Washington Square in Manhattan, minus the triumphal arch.
There were no casualties in 1907 when the bridge carrying Erie Canal across Onondaga Lake gave way and flatboats fell into the creek, damaging buildings on its banks. Postcards from that incident show onlookers witnessing a cascade of the canal’s water dropping into the creek.
The bridge was quickly repaired but exactly a decade later it was repurposed. The original Erie Canal was widened into the New York State Barge Canal, and the Syracuse section was routed north of the city. The original course was then filled and designated as Erie Boulevard.
Where the canal flowed
Clinton Square during the original canal’s heyday had two rectangular parks on either side of the canal, flanked by the Syracuse Savings Bank and the Gridley Building. In this 1920 view, the canal that bisected the square was covered in favor of a parking lot. In the background we see an abandoned section of the canal which would be buried in 1923 for Erie Boulevard. For more details on the architecture of the city center, the Downtown Committee of Syracuse has a detailed walking guide.
A postcard from 1907 shows the junction of the Erie and Oswego canals with Syracuse as an inland Venice. Other communities along the original canal such as Brockport, Lockport, and Middleport have similar scenes today, where the canal flows through the city center.
The same view today at Erie and Oswego boulevards has Syracuse Savings Bank as the recognizable landmark. Where the canals diverged is a monument of a mule and its driver. Installed in 1990 across the street from the Erie Canal Museum, it honors the young men and their animals who towed flatboats on the original canal. Behind the monument is a parking lot and Interstate 81 that was routed through the city center in the 1950s, destroying hundreds of homes and workplaces. There are plans at this time to downgrade this expressway into a boulevard and reroute Interstate 81 around the edge of the city.
Along the Creek
The mouth of the creek at Onondaga Lake is marked with a railroad overpass that brings freight and passengers to the city. A century ago, the train station was in the city center. As is the case with Albany, today’s Amtrak station is on the outskirts by the lake.
The Inner Harbor section of the creek is a post-industrial grassland that awaits redevelopment. In the past two centuries it was polluted by the salt mines and factories. Its future includes parks, museums, and apartments.
Taking this tour upstream, 500 Plum Street is an excellent example of a repurposed building, a former factory transformed into offices facing the creek.
At Evans Street, the creek flows in a constructed ravine beneath Interstate 690, a spur highway that runs east-west through Syracuse. This highway was built in the 1960s as part of a bigger plan for a loop around the city center. The width of nearby West Street hints at this unrealized scheme.
At Erie Boulevard is an arch bridge that carried Erie Canal across the creek prior to 1917. A century later the width of this road was assigned to a bike route that’s part of the Empire State Trail, a 750-mile network of connected trails stretching from Buffalo to Albany, Plattsburgh, and New York City. The western leg of this trail between Buffalo and Albany follows the route of the original Erie Canal.
Upstream at Tallman Street we see the creek in a low-density residential neighborhood. Continuing further, urban becomes suburban and then rural. That’s where the creek flows through the land of its namesake Native nation.
I can imagine taking my experience as a historian and researcher in NYC and bringing it to this upstate city, which has a renowned university, the New York State Fair, and plans for an urban revival as the defining city of Central New York, nearly halfway between Albany and Buffalo. Besides Onondaga Creek and its lake, this city has a handful of smaller hidden streams: Harbor Brook, Furnace Brook, and Meadow Brook that flow behind backyards and under the streets.
Every urban waterway needs an advocacy group to monitor for pollution and educate the public. The Onondaga Environmental Institute promotes the restoration of Onondaga Lake and its creek.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has a detailed page on the history, pollution, cleanup, and fishing at Onondaga Lake.
As NYC’s hidden history is best told by Forgotten-NY, for Syracuse, the Twitter and Instagram Account Syracuse History shows the city’s smallest house, abandoned buildings, traces of the old canal, and much more. The Onondaga Historical Association also offers many old maps and photos of this creek.