The City of Oswego is not often thought of as being part of the Finger Lakes region, but it is here that the waters from seven of the Finger Lakes flow swiftly through the Oswego River, and then empty into Lake Ontario. The Port of Oswego has been home to over three centuries of Great Lakes maritime history.
As it runs along the river’s west bank, West First Street takes you north from Oswego’s bustling downtown through the blue arch gateway of the Oswego Historic Maritime District. There you will find, hidden behind some of the port’s industrial sites, the simple blue-and-white, two-story building that is home to the H. Lee White Marine Museum. Founded in 1982, this small museum is jam-packed with sea-going treasures as well as some from dry land.
After paying a nominal admission fee at the museum’s attractive gift shop, you head upstairs past the replica of the jib from Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, which is touted as being America’s first sail. In the hallway at the top, a unique rope script sign spells out what some may say is the museum’s theme. It reads: “This museum is dedicated to the ordinary people of Oswego, who for 300 years have risen to extraordinary circumstances.”
Several feet away, a lengthy scroll lists the names of some of the not-so-ordinary people who have passed through Oswego’s port since the 1600s. Among these names are the Native American Chiefs Pontiac and Red Jacket; Presidents Taylor, Grant, and Franklin D. Roosevelt; and a certain actor who, as FDR might have put it, lives on in infamy: John Wilkes Booth.
In the hallway hangs a portrait of an ordinary Oswegan who went on to live an extraordinary life. Born in 1912, H. Lee White founded Marine Transport Lines, a merchant ship fleet. He went on to serve in the Eisenhower and Johnson administrations before his untimely death in 1969.
Pieces of maritime history
Just past this tribute to Mr. White are three rooms, which trace successive periods in Oswego’s maritime history. The first features displays from the late 1700s up to the Civil War. In one corner, there are shipbuilding and sail-making tools from that time, and along the walls are numerous prints depicting 18th-century port scenes. In the middle of the room, a large case shows off 31 authentic artifacts, including pipes, keys, utensils and musket balls.
A sizable ship propeller greets you in the next room, which has displays dating from the Civil War until the early 1900s. Here, large items grab your attention: the propeller, a ship’s rudder and a huge wrench once used for repairs. Another rope-script sign lets you know that these and other items in the room are from the Van Clewe Collection.
The third room highlights the port’s more recent history, including the role it played during World War II. From the window, you can gaze across the river to the hilltop site of Fort Ontario. This fort, which is open to the public, is preserved to its 1870 appearance.
A glimpse of daily life
On the second floor are four other exhibit rooms, including the Captain’s Quarters. It recreates the private room of a ship’s captain in the year 1817. In this tight space, you’ll find the captain’s bunk, desk, cast-iron stove, and personal navigation instruments.
The scene shifts to a much more primitive setting in the next room, which features two Native American canoes: one a dugout, the other made of birch bark. Pelts made of beaver, rabbit and raccoon adorn the room’s walls along with a display of letters written by women and children as they traveled at sea during the late 1800s.
The next room showcases an old canal-boat stove, a ship’s riggings, and displays having to do with Oswego’s granaries and fishing industry of times past. From here on the museum’s north side, you catch a glimpse of Oswego’s historic lighthouse, which stands as a sentinel overlooking the vast waters of Lake Ontario.
Around the corner in the last exhibit room sits the lens that lit up the lighthouse back in 1881. This room also displays the Albert Adams Collection of scale-model sailing vessels, yachts and battleships. A history of the Oswego Yacht Club is also found here along with an impressive, 36-drawer Coast Guard document desk.
Before you head downstairs to the first floor exhibits, you get to see how the average seaman slept aboard ship during the early 20th Century. A far cry from the Captain’s Quarters, this hallway display shows you the “comforts” of the seaman’s hammock, a line above it where he hung his clothes and shoes, and his nightly entertainment that consisted of a checkerboard and a deck of playing cards.
A stop on the Underground Railroad
As you proceed down the battleship-gray stairwell, you come upon the museum’s main dry-land exhibit. Here unfolds the compelling story of Oswego’s involvement in the Underground Railroad from 1835 to 1862. On the wall are two 1835 petitions, one signed by men and the other by women, calling for slavery’s abolition. There is also a photo display of 14 buildings still standing in Oswego County that were once used as Underground Railroad “stations.” Inside the wall under the stairwell, is a mock up of the ingenious “hidey-hole” where fugitive slaves were hidden behind trapdoor-style cupboards in the basement.
Pictures of history
The exhibits turn seaward once again as you enter the next room and view the prints by Eugenys Kasim. They depict scenes from along the Oswego Canal, the waterway that runs parallel to the river. More scale-model ships line the windows, including detailed models of the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria, as well as the Civil War ironclads: the Merrimack and the Monitor. Under the red, white, and blue banner of the American Steamship Company is a large photo of the freighter, the H. Lee White. This 704-foot cargo ship, first commissioned in 1974, is still in service today.
The final room on the tour is the museum’s largest. Oversize oil paintings of scenes from the American Revolution in New York State cover entire walls. One features General Benedict Arnold, prior to his turning traitor, leading the charge for the American side as they went on to victory at Saratoga. Representing the War of 1812 is a large-scale model of the warship Oneida.
In one corner of this spacious room you’ll find the Captain Carl Slocum Collection of early 20th-century nautical gear. At the center of this display is a huge diver’s helmet that weighs over 100 pounds. Also in this room is a weaponry cache from the Revolution and a special exhibit commemorating how Fort Ontario provided refuge for 1,000 Holocaust victims during World War II
Boats to explore
As you head outside, there are two boats docked in the harbor that can be toured during the summer months. These are part of the museum’s Exterior Exhibits. The Lance Knapp is a 1925 canal boat, such as the type that once cruised through the Oswego Canal. Then, the LT-5, a World War II tugboat, is a National Historic Landmark. Known also at times as the John F. Nash and the Elisha R. Henson, this gray vessel is the last operating tug that served in the Normandy Invasion in June 1944. There are even bullet holes in it from Nazi aerial assaults, but the LT-5’s valiant crew fought back; the small plane painted on the tug shows that they shot down one of Hitler’s luftwafts.
As this historic tugboat and all the indoor exhibits show, The H. Lee White Marine Museum is about more than just a local port’s colorful history. Its displays truly represent a maritime legacy that encompasses the Great Lakes region as a whole, as well as the inland waters that make their way into Oswego Harbor. How appropriate it is that where the waters converge, much of their naval history comes together as well.
The H. Lee White Marine Museum is open daily, except for Sundays during the winter months. Admission is $4.50 for adults and $2.50 for youth ages 5-12. The museum’s hours are 1 to 5 p.m. September through June, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during July and August. Group tours are available by appointment. For more information, call 315-342-0480.
by Reverend William F. Mugnolog
Reverend William F. Mugnolog is the pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Newark. He currently resides in Marion.