Your Hometown: Washington Square
Before the Erie Canal was built, Syracuse was mostly swamp land. But to the northeast of what is now downtown, lay higher ground, the first land to be settled in the greater Syracuse area. It had many names including Salt Point, Center Square, and the Village of Salina. Now, smaller in size, today it’s simply known as the Washington Square Park Neighborhood. YNN’s Katie Gibas takes us there in this week’s edition of Your Hometown.
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Washington Square Park is located in Syracuse’s First Ward, just above what used to be the area’s salt beds. It was initially home to the Onondagas and its connection to the beginnings of the city dates back centuries, to 1654 when Father Simon Le Moyne and the French first came to the area.
"Washington Square is actually probably the most important place historically, because it was the beginning of this area. Syracuse didn't really grow, the core area of Syracuse, until after the Erie Canal was established,” said Richard Zalewski, Washington Square Historian.
It was the Onondagas who introduced early settlers to the salt beds, located near today’s Destiny USA. The natives used the salt mostly for medicinal purposes.
But the white settlers saw the economic potential in using it as a food preservative.
"It was like a wild west atmosphere almost. People fighting each other over parts of that area to develop the salt production," said Zalewski.
Washington Square's high ground made it a logical choice as the first settlement.
"The people who worked in the salt industry lived on the higher ground, away from the mosquito infested swampy area," said Zalewski.
In 1799, it was formally established as Center Square, then 25 years later it incorporated as the Village of Salina, a separate community from the town of Salina we know today. The settlement continued to grow, thanks to the salt industry and the Erie and Oswego canals.
"You had access to transportation services to transport the salt product to various parts of New York and other parts of the nation," said Zalewski.
The square itself became the social center of the new community, and in 1839 was named Washington Square Park. The business district was in the neighboring streets, the heart of which was Exchange Street. For years, the Village of Salina and the Village of Syracuse competed for leadership of Central New York. But in 1848, their interests seemed to align and the two joined forces, and Salina got a new name.
"They gave the area around Washington Square the name of ‘First Ward,’ as an honor to them for giving up their independent status as a village," said Zalewski.
By the 1860s, the salt industry was slowing, and the business center shifted toward today’s downtown Syracuse.
"1862 was the year that saw the highest revenue from the salt industry, and it gradually dissipated," said Zalewski.