Syracuse, Historical Sketch of the Central City

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Historical Sketch of the “Central City,” and the Importance of the Bell System in Its Business and Social Life

By L. L. Cleaves, Division Advertising Manager

June 1912

Source:  The Telephone Review, June 1912, pp. 135-139.  Pamphlet located at the New York State Library.

THE Circus came to Syracuse the other day. It held its show at 2000 S. Salina Street, as being the nearest available place to the city’s center. This location for the tents was near the two and one-half mile circle from the City Hall. In 1825 Syracuse had its first circus. This early circus probably did not require quite so much space as the present one, and it was held near the Site of the present City Hall. Syracuse has not grown large so fast as many other cities. But it is a comparatively short span of time since downtown blocks were covered with trees, and the Indians were roaming over these hills in search of game, for food and the pelts which they exchanged with traders.


ON ONONDAGA LAKE - Original in the State Library.


There was some trading with Indians in the territory as far back as 1780. The white traders came across from Albany, on the trail which followed the Valley of the Mohawk and which later became the Genesee Turnpike. It was not until 1788 that Asa Danforth and a few others settled at Onondaga Valley. We now know the “Valley” chiefly as a switching station for the American Telephone & Telegraph Company. That Company has erected a substantial building for its switching service in order to avoid the bringing of its conductors through the city’s subways. The “Valley” although three miles from the New York Telephone Company’s building is well surrounded with the city’s homes and it is not out of the range of possibility that even this location will, within a few years, be too urban to allow the bringing of Long Distance conductors aerially to it.

In 1803 there were eight frame houses and several log cabins at Salina, now the city’s first ward. Salina and Onondaga Valley, where Danforth’s settlement was, were some five miles apart and those five miles were a continuous forest and swamp. But it was these two beginnings of villages that ultimately, though not until after years of rivalry and feud, combined to form the village of Syracuse.

It is surprising that the two agencies responsible for the settling and the early prosperity of Syracuse should now be the least of the important industrial characteristics of the city. These two agencies were the Salt Springs and the Erie Canal.


The digging of the Erie Canal was started for a lap to the westward in 1817 and the first boat arrived in 1820. You can easily picture the excitement and anticipation of the settlers when rumor arrived that the first boat was on its way from Camillus. The entire populace was gathered on the canal bank at the appointed hour; but the boat, like many a canal boat in later times, did not arrive on time, and the expectant people stood many hours impatiently waiting. Finally they decided they had been hoaxed, and showed their scepticism by ridicule and anathema at DeWitt Clinton, the father of the canal project. Just as they were turning sadly to their homes, the boat arrived, drawn not by the conventional mules but by a pair of spirited horses. The boat arrived with a flourish like a stage coach, the horses on the run and swale flowing over the banks of the canal. It was a nine days’ wonder. From that time the settlement had two magnets for immigrants, the station on the canal and the salt beds from the latter, early, the Indians, and later the white people had been extracting wealth. Furthermore, the locality which had been a miasmic swamp was now a healthful spot, through the lowering of Onondaga Lake by deepening its outlet. This automatically drained the land and allowed it to dry. The Syracuse Company, which owned the tract, went so far as to cut it up into village lots in preparation for the boom which was to follow.





In the year 1797 the salt beds yielded 25,500 bushels of salt to the efforts of the Indians.  In 1808 the work of the white people had brought the yield to 320,000 bushels. Salt was the leading industry up to and including 1860.  In that year the value of the product was $1,300,000.00. From the crest of that year the salt business has been gradually declining. It is now something like the 24th industry in point of value of product, with one-tenth as much production as there was 50 years ago.  It was in 1804 that the State sold to one Walton a tract of 250 acres, now the heart of the city, and used the money to improve the Genesee Turnpike, that State wide boulevard carrying the same name throughout all municipalities from Albany to Buffalo. This was the tract that was later cut up into village lots by the Syracuse Company which purchased it from Walton.



When Walton bought the tract from the State, it was included in the deed that he should build a mill upon it. This he did in 1805. This was the first “factory, and turned out grist to the settlers, made from the grains they brought.  Two years afterwards, in 1806, the Mansion House was built. This hotel stood for 40 years and was replaced by the Empire House, just north of the canal at Salina Street, which is still a popular hotel. The Mansion House was not much of a hotel, but from its proprietor the settlement carried the name of “Cosett’s Corners” for a number of years.  "In 1814," says an old book, “the forest was clear as far as Montgomery Street.” Montgomery Street now is as near the center of the city as any thing can be. It is the street on which our engineers selected the site for our Central Office and where, at number 321, the handsome building of this Company now stands.


The settlement did not get recognition from the United States Government until 1820, when, on petition of John Wilkinson, a Post Office was established and Mr. Wilkinson made Postmaster. There was some delay in establishing the Post Office because the settlement had no satisfactory name. Judge Forman, a student, had read much of Grecian History and was attracted by the descriptions of the beauty of Corinth. In a speech before his fellow townsmen he advocated this name for the village and the name was accepted, although most of his fellow townsmen were not sufficiently literary to know anything about its fitness, except from his description. But the name did not last, and when it was proposed as the name of the Post Office the United States Government refused it on the ground that there was already a municipality Corinth in the State. Postmaster Wilkinson had read a prize poetical description of Syracuse, Sicily, which described that celebrated city and told of its place in ancient history. Mr. Wilkinson discovered a similarity between the location of the ancient city and his present home. There were the hills sloping to the beautiful lake, the lake itself, of similar size and form to Onondaga Lake, and salt springs even a city called Salina near at hand. He proposed the name Syracuse to his fellow townsmen, and it was accepted as the name of the village and its Post Office. Modern times have brought even a closer similarity between the ancient and present cities in that the old Syracuse has the ruins of the finest Greek Colosseum in the world, while modern Syracuse has in connection with its University one of the largest and most famous modern stadia. At this time the village boasted 250 people. It got its village charter in 1825 with a population of 600. This village was the union of Salina, Ononlaga Valley and another small settlement called Geddes.



Syracuse is known by the travelers on the railroad as the city which brings its railroad trains down its principal streets. When we think of how little importance these streets were when the railroad obtained its original franchise, it is not exactly surprising that the tracks are where they are today. In 1838 the Syracuse and Utica Railroad Company applied for permission to construct a railroad to the settlement and erect a station between Salina and Warren streets. The ordinance carried a stipulation that the railroad should build a sewer through the streets it occupies, lay flagstone walks, plant trees, keep the Street in repair and purchase enough land for an alley on each side of the station. Permission was granted, and the station, or train shed, of wood, was built two blocks farther east than the present station of the N. Y. Central Railroad. This shed covered two tracks and was 210 feet long; it looked like a boat house. It was as unsuited for use as a railroad station as it could well be, with the waiting rooms on the second floor and platforms raised from the tracks. to which passengers alighted. Passengers traveling from Syracuse were warned of the approach of the train by a bell, as there was nothing more uncertain than the time of arrival,— except possibly the time of departure; for the eastward train waited at Syracuse for the westward train; and in the absence of telegraph and telephone there was no means of knowing within two days the time of arrival of the train going in the opposite direction. Passengers were summoned to the station, however, to cool their heels and to wait indefinitely for the train to start.



It was in this ancient station that the greatest noise ever heard in the city was made. Strangely enough this uproar was in celebration of the laying of the first Atlantic telegraph cable. In the absence of data it does not seem probable that inland towns generally had elaborate celebrations of this event; and it seems strange that Syracuse should have gone to such pains to deafen the ears of its people. This celebration did not occur until 1858, and the city had received its first telegraph message as early as 1846. The hubbub was made by thirteen locomotives blowing their whistles within the station shed at the same time, accompanied by cannon and church bells without. It is said that nobody noticed the noise of the cannon and church bells; but the noise of the thirteen locomotive whistles within this tunnel was so startling as to cause a panic, and the fainting and trampling of women.


By this time Syracuse was a considerable place, for in 1848 when its city charter was obtained it contained 15,000 people, and by 1858 had grown to more than 25,000.


The County of Onondaga was originally assigned by the parent telephone company to H. C. Brower and Son, on a short term license. The Browers operated in the county except for Syracuse, and Syracuse was sublet to M. J. Myers and Son who were already the managers for the American District Telegraph. They operated the Exchange under the name American District Telegraph Company. In 1879 they issued a directory which contained 208 listings, many of them included more than once.

Syracuse at that time was the only point in Central New York which was not operated by a regularly incorporated Associate Company. The Empire State Company was to the Westward, the Central New York Telephone & Telegraph Company to the Eastward and the New York and Pennsylvania Company to the Southward. Both the Empire State and the Central New York Companies were eager to add Onondaga County to their territories and Brower received a liberal offer from the Empire State Company for his license when the license had only one year to run.  The offer was not accepted. The Central New York Company was successful in obtaining the Syracuse territory in 1886. The stipulation of the parent Company in adding Syracuse to the Central New York’s territory was that $100,000.00 additional capital be furnished without any increase in the stock issue of the Company. This money was produced by the stockholders of the Central New York Company by turning 20 per cent, of their holdings into the Company’s Treasury and buying them back at par.



When the Central New York Company entered Syracuse there were about 300 subscribers in the city. An active sales campaign was begun and within a very short time the number of subscribers was doubled. The Central Office was located in the Wieting Theater Block. What was considered a substantial plant, all aerial, was put up. This included the famous 90-foot pole line through Salina Street. It was not long, however, before public sentiment arose on the pole question and a demand for underground was felt. An underground franchise was obtained in 1897, and land in Montgomery Street was purchased for the erection of a building. There were then about 2,000 stations in the city, in those days considered a large Exchange. A building was erected in Montgomery Street, later sold to the Historical Association, which was designed to care for a business of 8,000 stations, a development which was the wildest prediction of the engineers. This building was occupied only about eight years when it was discovered that larger quarters would soon be needed. The result was the large building just South of the first structure, now occupied by our Company.



Syracuse is called the “Central City” from the fact that it is as near the geographical center of the State as it could be, in the irregular form of the State’s territory. It is exactly in the center from East to West, and nearly central from North to South. It might be called the “Central City” for another reason: because its Bell Central Office is so important a characteristic of the city. High Per Capita and P. B. X. Development Syracuse shows Bell development, within the free mileage area, of 11.4 per cent. It stands third in percentage of development in cities with a population of 125.000 to 200,000, as recorded in the A. T. & T. Company’s bulletin of January 1, 1912. Its development is 1.37 per cent, better than the average in this class of cities. Syracuse stands 28th as to percentage of development, among the 108 cities of 50,000 population or over, in the United States and Canada.

Syracuse has a higher percentage of development in Private Branch Exchanges than any other city in its class.

The city has about 27,450 families and 8,483 Bell telephones other than business. This shows a residence telephone for every sixth family.

Syracuse is a most important toll and Long Distance center. The A. T. & T. Company has a two-story building containing its switching station in the outskirts of the town. The percentage of toll and Long Distance calls to locals is 1.18, which is a high percentage, considering that the local calling rate is 8.4 per station per day.


Window Display

THE New York Telephone Company had a novel and effective telephone window display in the store of H. Batterman Company, Dry Goods, at Broadway, Graham and Flushing Avenues, Brooklyn, in conjunction with this firm’s semi-annual food show, held the week of April 13.

The window, 45 feet long and 9 1/2 feet deep, was tastefully dressed and many varieties of foods were displayed with signs calling attention to the ease and quickness with which any article in the store may be ordered by telephone.

One of the most attractive features of the window was “The Traveling Salesman” machine. This machine displayed a series of four photographs showing the evolution of a telephone order, and several placards reading “If you can't come to us, the Telephone brings us to you,’ “Shopping by Telephone is so Convenient,” “By the Way, have you a Telephone,” etc., all calling attention to the modern business methods employed in Batterman’s store, and the wonderful advantages of the telephone. The evolution of a telephone order as shown in the four photographs, was as follows: 1. Woman Woman reading Batterrnan’s advertisement in the newspaper. 2. Telephoning her order, which resulted from reading the advertisement. 3. Clerk in Batterman’s store receiving the telephone order. 4. Goods being delivered by Batterman’s wagon.  A 40-line switchboard was placed in the right-hand corner of the window, from which connections were made to 20 extension stations, 10 of these being reconstructed telephone instruments with frosted electric light bulbs in place of mouthpieces. Names of suburban towns were painted on the bulbs, which flashed intermittently, indicating orders being received from nearby towns as well as local orders.

The crowd in front of the window was so large that it was necessary to rope off the sidewalk in order that a picture of the display might be taken.

One of the leading Brooklyn news-papers reproduced a photograph of the display in connection with a 3-column article concerning it.

The following letter was received from the general manager of the store:

“I wish to congratulate you on the telephone display you had in our window in connection with our groceries. The features that you had there, such as the girl at the switchboard, moving signs and flashing bulbs on the transmitter, attracted thousands of people throughout the week, and we have received a great many compliments on it. I might also add that during that week, and since, our telephone orders have increased considerably.

“Thanking you for the interest you took in this and the fine display you gave us, I am, Very truly yours,

Since the above letter was written, Batterman’s report that their telephone order business has increased about 20 per cent.
District Agent. Williamsburg.

Submitted 9 August 1998