Today, it is a quiet community nestled on the banks of the Oswego River. But, in the years following the completion of the Oswego Canal back in the 1800s, the village of Phoenix was one of Central New York's busiest transportation hubs. In this week's edition of Your Hometown, our Candace Hopkins takes a look back at the village's complex transformation.
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PHOENIX, N.Y. -- The village of Phoenix is most well known today for the devastating fire of 1916 that destroyed 80 buildings here in the downtown area. But, before that fire, Phoenix was a booming factory town, and today a common misconception is that the village's name is somehow related to that fire. It's not, and the name actually dates back to 1792 when a man named Daniel Phoenix purchased the land.
"The early history of Phoenix is totally reliant on the river. Phoenix had a unique geographical situation, all towns that became anything in the state, were on the water," said Kenneth Sweet, a life-long Pheonix resident.
And it was the water that moved the village forward. In 1848, the completion of a major project, the Oswego Canal, would forever change the life in Phoenix. The project cost $525,000, and spanned about 38 miles in length. This new mode of transportation and shipping brought hundreds of people and cargo through Phoenix each year, and ensured that the livelihood of nearly every person in the village relied on the canal.
"Well the canal traffic was big, they were hauling lumber to Syracuse, and hauling salt back through the canal to Oswego," noted Sweet.
A decade later the canal traffic had attracted many entrepreneurs that were looking to capitalize on Phoenix's booming population, which had soared to nearly 1,000 people. In order to support that growth, the village now had five paper mills, a silk mill, a blind factory, and a feed mill, in addition to numerous small businesses.
"We had everything going for us, more so than Syracuse," said Sweet. "Syracuse was kind of swampy, it had the salt industry, but we grew faster, industry wise."
That growth continued into the 1900s, and in just three generations had transformed itself from rural struggling community, into a prosperous village, and bustling downtown area. But, everything changed the evening of September 23, 1916 when an overheated generator started a small fire inside the Sinclair Chair Factory. Within minutes, the flames had spread to several other neighboring factories, overwhelming the village's small fire department.
"The fire department relied on the bucket brigade, and an old hand pump. They'd had like eight men on the pump and they'd have the rocker arms on each arm, you'd get four men on there, the other side would pump down, but on a big fire like on a building, that was more than the hand pumper could handle," explained Sweet.
In the end, 80 buildings were reduced to rubble, at a loss of nearly $800,000, and the cleanup would take years.
"That had instant work in the recovery, cleaning up the debris, getting rid of the junk, scrap dealers flourished," Sweet said.
Many industries struggled to rebuild and hang on,but World War II provided many manufacturing opportunities for the village. Although over time, those industries moved on, changing the identity of the community.
Sweet remembered, "The other areas, Syracuse grew tremendously, Fulton grea, and they didn't have the loss from fire, so a lot of the people from Phoenix gravitated to work in those areas."
Residents here, say that although Phoenix is no longer a busy manufacturing area, that's actually the exact reason why they like living here today. Many people move to Phoenix seeking a small town and quiet atmosphere. For those that have lived there for generations, they say it is the close knit community that keeps them from moving.