Street Cars, Songs, and Sailing: A look back at the Iron P…


Summer is in full swing and Central New Yorkers are out enjoying themselves.

Over the last several years, a site of much of this seasonal reverie has been the Amphitheater on the western shore of Onondaga Lake.

Since opening in 2015, the St. Joseph’s Amphitheater has hosted a menagerie of acts across a variety of genres.

Just last week, “The Amp” welcomed country music legend, Shania Twain, who played to a sold-out crowd.

This Sunday, Jamesville-Dewitt graduate, Jon Fishman, returns to his hometown with his band, Phish, one of the most successful touring acts in American history, and in the interest of full disclosure, this historian’s favorite band.

Iron Pier

– The Iron Pier on Onondaga Lake in Syracuse in 1890.   Onondaga Historical AssociationOnondaga Historical Association

No matter the performer, music’s almost magical ability to gather people together from disparate backgrounds to share in the groove is regularly on full display on the shores of Onondaga Lake.

Onondaga Lake has a long and storied history as a gathering place.

As the location where the Great Law of Peace was adopted by the Five Nations establishing the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the lake has long been a sacred site for the Indigenous people who have called this land home for millennia.

Beyond that incredibly significant cultural, spiritual, and political example, the lake has been the site of countless other more mundane gatherings. Hunting parties, fishing derbies, regattas, even ice boat racing are just a few of the many activities that have brought people to the shores of what several 18th century maps once identified as “Salt Lake.”

Locally, it is pretty much common knowledge that by the 1970s, decades of dumping both industrial and human waste directly into the water had transformed Onondaga into of the most polluted lakes in America.

As such, it was selected as an Environmental Protection Agency “Superfund” site in 1994 (coincidentally the 200th anniversary of the formation of Onondaga County). The ongoing remediation efforts have been the subject of gallons and gallons of spilled ink and controversy over the last three decades. Part of that remediation plan was the amphitheater, which had bandied about since the early 1990s, after the demolition of the former Allied Chemical Plant, formerly Solvay Process.

Now, what is not necessarily common knowledge locally is that a century before Onondaga Lake was declared a Superfund Site and the earliest rumblings about building a new music venue on the lake began, folks from all over were getting together to drink beer and listen to bands at a variety of lakeside resorts.

Among the most popular of these, the Iron Pier, opened to the public 123 years ago during the summer of 1890.

Located at the southern end of the lake (roughly where Destiny USA is today) near the mouth of Onondaga Creek, the Iron Pier was the brainchild of the People’s Railway Company of Utica.

Like many of their competitors during this era of vast population growth, rising wages and increased “leisure” time, the People’s Railway Company decided that they too needed an attraction to pull traffic on their trolley line to the docking station for the steamer transfer station at the southern end of the lake.

Construction began in the thaw of 1890. A team of nearly 150 men spent almost seven months building the massive pavilion and pier. Construction was beset by a myriad of issues including high-water levels and, in an almost unimaginable problem to modern readers, a recurring problem of large fishermen’s nets used in trolling for the “Onondaga Whitefish,” a highly desirable fish served in restaurants around the region.

According to contemporary newspaper reports, the fish disappeared in the first decade of the 20th century, a fate that would befall nearly every species in the lake by the time fishing was outlawed there in 1970.

Despite the setbacks, the Iron Pier opened to the public on June 30.

According to the report in The Syracuse Standard, a crowd of between 2,000 and 8,000 people came out to see a rousing concert given by Gaylord’s Orchestra. Not a bad crowd.

Music and lager beer were frequently mentioned in the almost daily advertisements for the Iron Pier. Billed “the Coney Island of Central New York,” the People’s Railway Company spared no expense when it came to selling their new resort and they did their best to give their visitors what they craved.

Concerts were held every Monday and Wednesday in the massive pavilion. In addition, patrons could bowl, play billiards, or utilize the ample harbor for water excursions of all sorts. Skiffs, canoes, sailboats, etc. were available for rent and they were very popular attractions.

Unlike its modern counterpart just up the west side of the lake, the Iron Pier’s owners eventually got themselves into some trouble with local law enforcement.

It seems people were having too good a time on Sunday’s and the hard drinking and gambling of the large number of young men who frequented the pier became a problem.

On July 25, 1890, the city was shocked by the discovery of the dead body of 18-year-old, Edward Ludwig. Ludwig’s lifeless body was found with a bullet hole just above his heart just a few blocks from the Iron Pier in the Oswego Canal, near the foot of Isabella Street. He was last seen alive at the Iron Pier. A suspect was never found.

Ludwig’s death was an outlier of course, but the growing temperance crowd in the city used the shocking event to its advantage.

Several newspaper stories relay Syracuse Police Chief, Charles Wright, having to issue several warnings to the proprietors to not hold concerts on Sunday’s or violate the very strict “Blue Laws” that prohibited the sale of intoxicating beverages on that day then devoted to more religious and “wholesome” pursuits.

Eventually, the Iron Pier stopped Sunday concerts. This did little to stymie the success of the resort, which put on races, boxing matches, and a host of other events to get people to come out. But, in an era before recorded music was pervasive, it was concerts that really brought in the big gates.

Thus, in 1899, the Iron Pier’s manager, Charles Demong, opened a new 2,500 seat venue called Iron Pier Park specifically designed to hold live shows.

In the end, the pier built by the trolley company was undone by trolley.

New lines to Baldwinsville and to competing resorts like Long Branch Park spelled the end of the Iron Pier.

The old steamers had fallen out of favor and the transfer line that ended at the Iron Pier was abandoned. By 1907, all that remained of the once thriving venue was timber and memories.

In 2019, the OHA partnered with COR Development to help brand their newest development project at the Inner Harbor, which they called the Iron Pier in an homage to the resort that once stood not far from the site.

Historic images of the once grand attraction help keep the memories alive for a new generation of locals and visitors alike.

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