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Long before its discovery by French explorers, Onondaga Lake was the location of the Iroquois Confederacy of tribes agreement. The 'Great Peacemaker' brought together the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk Nations on the shores of Onondaga Lake. These warring nations accepted the legendary Peacemaker's message of peace, laid down their weapons, and formed the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Since then, the lake has been a sacred place to Native Americans.
The discovery of brine seeps at the lake in 1654 by Jesuit missionaries quickly led to the land around Onondaga Lake becoming an industrial site and led to the founding of Syracuse near its southern shore. Salt production in the late 1700s led to the transfer of the land from the Onondaga Nation to salt producers. Waves of settlers quickly followed, with resorts and hotels being built along the lakeshore. Onondaga Lake was so popular that visitors traveled there from as far as New York City, and fish from the lake were served in restaurants all over New York. The threat of malaria in 1822 led to the lake level being lowered by dredging the outlet to the Seneca River, which drained the low-lying wetlands at the south end of the lake. That land is now a part of the City of Syracuse.
Former resorts, hotels and amusement parks along the shoreline have given way to development and large lakefront parks. A yacht club was first chartered on Onondaga Lake in 1886 and despite periods of dormancy over the years, still exists. A marina was created by the Onondaga County Planning Board in 1937, and the yacht club promptly rented space. Their clubhouse is nearby. The marina is now a part of the Onondaga Lake County Park which spans a large portion of the eastern shoreline. The yacht club is still in operation, sponsoring races, teaching youngsters to sail, and now providing manpower for lake clean-up efforts after 125 years.
The majority of the 12-miles of shoreline is publicly-owned and well-supplied with walking, hiking and biking trails, picnic areas and wildlife viewing. Power boating is popular. A diversity of bird species has been noted in recent years with sightings of bald eagles, great egrets, osprey, kingfishers, and numerous species of waterfowl. Some areas around the lake have become an overwintering spot for bald eagles. The county-owned marina rents rowboats and kayaks to visitors and is the natural location of festivals and outdoor events open to the public. One of the most spectacular events is the Lights on The Lake holiday season lighting tours along the eastern shoreline.
Onondaga Lake is a highly-productive fishery, with anglers catching bluegill, carp, channel catfish, gizzard shad, largemouth bass, pumpkinseed, smallmouth bass, white perch, yellow perch, black crappie, freshwater drum, long-nose gar, northern pike, rock bass, tiger musky, walleye, brown trout, green sunfish, lake sturgeon, rainbow trout, trout perch, white bass and a number of species of rough fish. Not all are legal to catch, and all specific fishing rules must be followed. Some fish such as the lake sturgeon, identified by tagging, have migrated upriver from Oneida Lake where they had been stocked as part of an effort to re-establish this endangered species. The variety and number of fish are surprising because as early as 1920, surveys showed only 12 species of fish remaining in Onondaga Lake. There are still fish advisories on consumption of fish taken from Onondaga Lake due to mercury pollution.
It isn't apparent to the casual visitor that beautiful Onondaga Lake was previously considered the most polluted lake in the United States and was named a Superfund Site in 1994. Much of the pollution preceded the modern era and is not all due to the irresponsible actions of modern local businesses. Knowledge of how to maintain a clean watershed is a relatively new science, but most businesses and individuals have learned they must follow best practices to maintain a quality environment. Once clean-up efforts are complete, water quality is likely to remain good in the future.
Onondaga Lake received the waste products of most local industry in the 1800s, including a soda-ash plant which dumped huge amounts of waste directly into the lake. Other business interests also used the lake as a convenient disposal system, and the City of Syracuse added to the mix. The new Erie Canal, which ran through the heart of Syracuse, carried so much salt from the salt works that it was called the 'salt canal'. The canal also encouraged new settlers to the area with the ease of transportation, leading to more industry and more municipal waste. Building the Erie Canal disrupted natural drainage along many tributaries, adding sediments and silt to the inflows. A group of natural 'mud-boils' a few miles away from Onondaga Lake also added to sedimentation of incoming streams.
By 1901, commercial ice cutting from Onondaga Lake ice was forbidden due to severe pollution. By 1940, swimming was banned, and in 1970 fishing was prohibited. The mercury byproducts of chloride production were dumped directly into the lake until 1986 when the production was stopped. The City of Syracuse was a major source of phosphorus as municipal sewage was dumped directly into the lake for many years with little or no treatment. An improved, sanitary sewer and storm water overflow system, although considered state-of-the-art and good practice when built, allowed untreated water to enter the lake as overflow during heavy rains. Although the sewage system has been upgraded, the treatment plant still supplies over 20% of the daily inflow to the lake, although it is now treated wastewater.
Surprisingly, through all of this, Onondaga Lake is rapidly getting cleaner. Water quality has improved considerably since the turn of the last century. The final leg of the clean-up is now underway; a massive dredging effort has begun to suction polluted sediments from the lakebed which is piped overland four miles to a holding facility where water is drained out of the sludge and returned to the local water table. A sealing layer of clay and clean sand is being laid down on the remaining sediments to seal them from the water. Changes to disposal and waste treatment have improved the condition of treated water returning to the lake. Industry near the shoreline helps with clean-up and works with officials and the interested lake association to mitigate damage.
It is expected that within a few years, Onondaga Lake will be cleaner than it has been for generations and fully clean enough to encourage swimming and other water contact sports. This is proof positive that modern practices can do wonders with polluted watersheds, regardless of the length of time the waterway has been abused. Meanwhile, the park system is pleased to welcome over a million visitors each year to enjoy cooling lake breezes, hike the trails and visit historical sites in the area. While at the park, visitors can take the self-guided tour of the Salt Museum, enjoy the butterfly garden, archery range, skate park, dog park, picnic areas and playgrounds. There is no camping at the park, but camping is available not far away at the Oneida Lake County Park.
The City of Liverpool on the eastern shoreline offers most services visitors would want, and the City of Syracuse to the south has plenty of entertaining historical and cultural locations to visit, plus great dining and nightlife. One not-to-be-missed stop in Syracuse is the Erie Canal Museum in the only remaining Erie Canal weigh-lock building. The building once stood alongside the canal. Although much of the canal is now filled in locally, the museum holds plenty of pictures and the history of the area and the Erie Canal's importance in Syracuse's growth. visitors can also arrange for authentic canal boat tours of various lengths in the area.
All sorts of lodgings are available near Syracuse; hotels and motels are convenient and offer all services, while a number of local bed-and-breakfasts and quaint inns offer a historical perspective within period settings. Although there are almost no lakefront properties on the lake, a few properties exist looking across a narrow strip of public frontage. These include new townhomes and luxury homes with beautiful lake views. Now is the time to visit Onondaga Lake and enjoy its beauty and amenities. Lake clean-up is almost complete; come celebrate its rebirth.
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