Lessons in Syracuse History

Syracuse History

The middle of May brought me to Syracuse, New York. I traveled here for the North American Travel Journalist Association (NATJA) Conference. It took place May 15-18, 2019. While at this event I had a chance to learn some amazing history about the wonderful town of Syracuse, New York.

Salt History in Syracuse

Syracuse is known as Salt City. In an early morning breakfast session, Gregg Tripoli, Executive Director of the Onondaga Historical Association shared this fascinating history.

Syracuse history
Gregg Tripoli sharing history of Syracuse.

Salt from Onondaga Lake part of Syracuse history!

The Onondaga Lake contains saline water because it is an inland sea.  The Onondaga Indians, lived here and later were joined by French soldiers and Jesuit missionaries that came from Canada in 1654. Later that year Father Simon Le Moyne discovered salt springs in the area.

Salt works were set up as early as 1788, soon after the first permanent settlement was established.  The manufacturing of salt flourished until the 1860’s. This provided income to the area because of a tax on the salt.  The salt industry gave the name Salina to the original site of Syracuse.

One of the ways that the salt was produced was by boiling it down.  “Eventually they ran out of wood,” Gregg Tripoli said to the journalists, “then they went to the solar method. They used salt vats and the wind and sun dried it out.”

Salt was important for preserving food initially.

Transportation for the salt

Salt became such a huge industry that the Erie Canal was built because of it. A tariff on the salt transportation paid for this canal along with another that connected to Lake Ontario. Eventually other industries boomed and the railroad became a part of the story.

Renovated space

Natja Members enjoyed the opening night in this renovated space.

The Skye Armory part of Syracuse renovation

History remade is the story of the Sky Armory where we had a Culinary Experience: Syracuse Chef Challenge on Wednesday evening. While the Skye Armory is a newly renovated space, the building that it is located in is not.

On their webpage, Sky Armory shares, “Our commitment to downtown Syracuse centered our search for a building and found the former Wells & Coverly Department Store. We gutted the building, blew out the back wall to create a modern entry atrium that put us into the hub of Armory Square. It was a labor of love. – and in October of 2014 we opened our doors and have been wowing our clients and their guests since.”

The Wells & Coverly Department Store was a former high end gentleman’s clothing store started originally in 1890 by Frederick Wells and James Coverly. Called the Betts Building at some point in time, I’m not sure of the original build date, but I found a photo talking about it being around in 1920. Cudos for renovating this great space.

It was fun trying new food as well.

The Fitz renovation and revival

The Fitz
Posing at the Fitz in the 1920’s style Speak-easy.

What is better than a downtown building finding new life? That is what happened with The Fitz, a building where we had a cocktail reception and hors d’oeuvres. This speak-easy is located in a former shoe factory (if I got the information correct) was so cool. The Fitz is an entertainment venue as well.

The evening we were there, local TV celebrity chef Julie Taboulie was on hand sharing some of her finest dishes. We got a chance to sample some of her fine offerings before leaving this 1920’s vibe for our dine around.

The Mission Restaurant Syracuse history – the Underground Railroad!

Syracuse history
This restaurant is a former Wesleyan Methodist Church
that is a site of the Underground Railroad.

During the conference we had a choice of places to eat on Thursday night. I chose the Mission Restaurant, not only for its Mexican and Pan-American Food which was incredible, but also for its history. This restaurant is the former Syracuse Wesleyan Methodist Church. This church served as part of the Underground Railroad. The clay and dirt tunnel underneath the church served as a refuge for runaway slaves.

Mission interior
Beautiful interior with stained glass it has retained its historic look.

The Pastor of the church was Luther Lee and he was editor of the True Wesleyan. According to a placard outside the Mission Restaurant, he (and his congregation) assisted as many as 365 freedom seekers each year..

In his presentation Greg Tripoli shared that there are seven unique and striking faces that were carved on the wall of the tunnel. Those faces have been saved and are now preserved at the Onondaga Historical Association.

Although it is impossible to view the tunnel today, the church still stands and is a marker for visitors to see. I must say, the food was very good and I enjoyed speaking with a local father and daughter that informed me that the queso, “Is amazing!” And they were right.

They recommended the queso!

Lodging in Syracuse

While not a historic hotel, the Sheraton Syracuse University Hotel was a great lodging experience. I liked the modern aspect in the midst of a University setting. The view from my window showed lovely historic buildings.

The conference rooms were easy to locate and the parking garage is right next to the hotel.


I wish that I had more time during the conference to see other historic aspects of this beautiful town. There were so many other things to see, the Matilda Joslyn Gage Home and the Erie Canal Museum. There were art galleries, breweries and much more I wanted to learn about Syracuse history. But I think that is always the story, too much to see and too little time. I just wish…..

If you enjoyed this article you may also like a few other stories about New York like my article about Niagara Falls, or New York’s Central Park.