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Department of Chemistry + Physical Sciences

History of Onondaga Lake

Prior to the American Revolution the area around Onondaga Lake was the center of the Iroquois Confederacy.  In 1654, the Onondagas, one of the six primary tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, revealed the presence of salt springs on the southern shores of the lake to the French.  This set the path for the development of commercial salt production, which began on the lakeshore in 1793.


Solvay Process Company Facilities (later Allied Chemical, later Allied Signal, then merging to form Honeywell) circa 1900 along Erie Canal 

The salt industry was a central industry for Syracuse, also known as “The Salt City”.  Salt was produced by factories on the shores of the lake, and transported to other areas, via the lakes outlets.  The Erie Canal, which was completed in the early 1800's, was known as "the ditch that salt built", because salt was a major cargo transported on the canal.  As noted by Mark Kurlansky, Liverpool, NY was so-named in order to compete with salt shipped out of Liverpool England.  

By 1882, the lake's water level was lowered after its outlet to the Seneca River was dredged.  This resulted in the low lying swampy area that is now the northern end of downtown Syracuse being drained and filled.  By draining and filling this area, the wetlands were eliminated, which had the positive effect of greatly reducing the threat of malaria for residents of the growing city.  This water level was again raised when the barge canal was completed (1905-1918).


"Old Salt Building" located on Free Street (Hiawatha Blvd) Circa 1890 

Onondaga Lake was not only known for the salt industry that it supported, it was also known as a large tourist area.  By the turn of the century the shoreline of the lake contained many major tourist attractions, including hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks.  The lake was so popular that people traveled from as far as New York City to visit the lake and its shores. Onondaga Lake fish were served in restaurants around the state.  One of the more popular resort areas was the "Iron Pier" located near the present site of the Carousel shopping mall at the south end of the lake. The "Iron Pier" featured a variety of recreational activities along its huge resort pavilion.  In addition, steamboat services left from the pier to transport tourists to other resorts around the lake.

Although the salt industry had many positive effects on Syracuse, it also had some devastating negative effects.  Solvay Process Company (later Allied Chemical, later Allied-Signal, presently Honeywell) found the presence of the salt brines and limestone in the area extremely suitable for the production of soda ash (Na2CO3).  The Solvay Process Company began the production of soda ash in 1881, and began the production of organic chemicals and chlorine gas in 1918.  Waste produced from production of these materials were land filled along the western and south western portions of the lake; and in some cases waste was directly discharged into the lake.  This severely degraded the quality of the waters of Onondaga Lake and surrounding areas. Sewage disposal and other industrial discharges that were increasing during this period had the effect of further degrading the water quality.  By 1940, the lake was declared unsafe for swimming and by the 1970's fishing was banned on the lake.


Solar salt fields, looking Northeast, with Spencer Street bridge (over Onondaga Creek) in foreground. Note salt houses along Spencer Street. 

In the 1970's, work was started to restore the water quality of the lake and cleanup contamination around the lake as part of the overall environmental movement in the U.S.  Various laws were enacted, including the Federal Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, and state and federal superfund regulations. These laws, along with scientific studies of the lake, and improved treatment of sewage water discharged to the lake, have significantly helped to improve the water quality of the lake. However, contaminants (mercury, chlorinated solvents, etc.) in the lakes sediments and land filled wastes along the  lake shore and within the lake watershed still pose long-term risks to the lake's water quality

You can read more detailed information about Onondaga Lake Environmental Investigations. Information on current clean up plans for Onondaga lake can be found at the Onondage Lake Partnership, which includes information on the clean up of wastewater discharged to the lake. Information on the cleanup by Honeywell international (the successor corporation to Allied) can be found at the New York State DEC (NYSDEC) on the agreement reached by Honeywell and NYSDEC.

For more history on Onondaga Lake, consider taking a course in the ETG program at Onondaga Community College. In addition, you can review some of the courses available at B. McAninch's website*.

Sources for the images:

* Please note: Onondaga Community College is not responsible for the content of personal homepages. If you have questions about a faculty homepage, please contact the individual directly. These links do not contain official College information.