Ask any son of Ireland or any American of Irish descent to describe the colors of the Irish national flag and the first word you’ll hear is “green.” And nowhere in Finger Lakes country is the color green or the Irish presence more keenly felt than in Syracuse. It was during the three great waves of Irish immigration that Syracuse rose from a sleepy frontier town to become a 19th century industrial powerhouse. The influence of the Irish culture in central New York is reflected in its neighborhoods, public houses, prominent businessmen – even the local cuisine. For those living farther west, what German immigrants did to build Rochester is perhaps the only ethnic equivalent that comes to mind.
Early settlers discovered spring-fed pools of brine alongside Onondaga Lake and immediately realized the commercial potential for producing salt. Boiling houses were constructed where the brine was reduced over roaring fires. The work was arduous but relatively simple, so many unskilled Irish immigrants flocked to these facilities. In doing so, they helped build the nascent salt industry and even more important, invented one of the city’s most enduring examples of local cuisine: salt potatoes. The workers would toss raw spuds into the boiling brine to coat and impregnate them with a heavy dose of salt. The cooked potatoes were eaten for lunch, giving rise to yet another Syracuse industry – the cultivation of the small, round, white potatoes used almost exclusively for that purpose today.
How popular are salt potatoes? Well, you can’t attend a company picnic, clambake or summertime backyard barbeque anywhere in the Syracuse metro area without expecting to see them on the menu. One local banquet facility, Hinerwadel’s Grove, even markets a “kit” containing 4 pounds of potatoes and 1 pound of salt. Most grocery stores in and around Syracuse carry the item, but in satellite cities such as Ithaca, salt potatoes remain virtually unknown. (In all honesty, any type of white potatoes may be substituted for “real” salt potatoes. A recipe can be found on page 21.)
Admittedly, salt potatoes could never be characterized as “heart healthy,” but the little buggers are definitely delicious, especially when dipped in melted butter. Salt potatoes are not blood pressure friendly, either, but taste wise they beat the living daylights out of a big gob of tofu.
The Erie Canal
For young Irishmen not interested in work at the boiling houses, construction of the Erie Canal provided thousands with an income source. Whether digging with picks and shovels or driving a team of draft horses pulling a scraper, the work, while physically exhausting, gave jobs to many who were illiterate. The Erie Canal Museum located in Syracuse houses a trove of photos and descriptive narratives documenting the contribution Irish immigrant labor made during the canal’s construction. Furthermore, as canal construction took eight years, it provided steady employment and the opportunity to build a nest egg for the future. Those who chose to save their money – instead of investing it with the constant stream of camp followers – could build tidy sums.
Once the canal was completed, the boiling houses experienced unprecedented growth as Syracuse became the center of salt production for the entire nation, eventually earning its popular nickname – the “Salt City.” For more information on the museum, visit www.eriecanalmuseum.org.
After the canal was completed, many of the Irish returned to Syracuse to marry and settle there permanently. Work was plentiful, and hundreds found jobs in the 30 local breweries Syracuse once boasted. However, like other newly arrived immigrant groups, the Irish faced a certain degree of discrimination due to their foreign customs and odd-sounding speech. To combat this injustice and to find strength in numbers, most settled together on the west side of Syracuse now known as Tipperary Hill. According to prominent local publican Peter Coleman, many of the Irish hailed from Tipperary County in Ireland, and the neighborhood’s moniker was their way of paying homage to their homeland.
Over the ensuing decades, “Tipp Hill” has evolved into the locus of local Irish culture. The neighborhood teems with Irish pubs – Coleman’s being perhaps the most storied. More than 3,000 people run a 4-mile road race called the Shamrock Run in Tipp Hill every March.
There’s one more item that anchors the Irish culture and influence to Syracuse. It’s not a statue or monument, it’s a traffic light – the only one like it in the entire United States. A bit of local Irish lore goes along with it.
In 1925, the first traffic signal on Tipp Hill was installed at the intersection of Tompkins Street and Milton Avenue. It became the instant target of ethnic outrage as Irish lads grew incensed that the British red was mounted above the Irish green. Known as the “stonethrowers,” these boys smashed the red lens to bits. To stop the problem, Syracuse Alderman John “Huckle” Ryan requested that the city put the green aspect above the red, and quell this spontaneous outburst of Irish mayhem. Initially, the city refused. As a result, the boys continued to destroy every red lens, often the same day the city replaced it. Eventually, the city relented and switched the location of the two aspects. The stone throwing ceased. The signal remains a blatant violation of New York State traffic regulations ever since, but heaven save the man who tries to change it.
To commemorate the lads’ act of ethnic-inspired defiance, a quartet of bronze statues stands in Tipperary Hill’s tiny Memorial Park on the corner of Milton and Tompkins. The three Celtic words carved into the sign there, “Family – Pride – Heritage,” bespeak of the intense loyalty residents feel toward their neighborhood. Because you see bucko, when you’re standin’ on Tipp Hill don’tcha know, “The green’s on top!”
For a firsthand look at Onondaga Lake’s sole remaining boiling house, you might wish to tour the Salt Museum. Located in Liverpool, it’s maintained by the Onondaga County Parks Department. Admission is free. For hours of operation and driving directions, surf to onondaga
A visit makes a terrific day trip for both children and adults.
Salt Potatoes (1 pound)
• Add 1/2 cup salt to a stock pot of cold water.
• Add cut chunks of unpeeled white potatoes and bring to a boil.
• While the spuds cook, melt 1/4 pound (1 stick) of butter.
• When the potatoes are fork tender, place in a serving bowl and provide a monkey dish (small shallow bowl) of melted butter for each person.
• Stand back and watch them disappear (the potatoes, not your dinner guests).
• Repeat as often as you like, because take it from me, there won’t be any leftovers.
by Rich Finzer