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Oswego rallying to make Fort Ontario, Safe Haven Museum part of National Park system

Payne Horning
Supporters at a rally to elevate Fort Ontario to national historic monument packed the conference room at the Lake Ontario Conference Center.

A group of volunteers in Oswego are working with state officials to elevate Fort Ontario and its Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Museum to a national, and even possibly global, status.

First constructed in 1759, Fort Ontario has undergone many changes in its history. It was defended and destroyed by both the British and the United States. Then during World War II, Fort Ontario became a refugee camp for European Jews and in 1953, it opened as a state historic site. Now, a grassroots campaign hopes to see the fort transform once again. 

Credit Payne Horning / WRVO News
Paul Lear, historic supervisor at Fort Ontario, speaks about the campaign to make the 250-year-old fort a national historic monument.

"I think that Fort Ontario is one of the greatest historic military sites in our nation,” said Paul Lear, the historic supervisor at Fort Ontario. “It needs to be recognized."

Lear said the effort to make the site a national historic monument started several years ago when representatives from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) showed interest in designating the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Museum a world heritage site. In order for that to happen, Lear said the fort must first become a national historic monument with the U.S. National Park Service.

At a rally to support the effort for both Fort Ontario and the Safe Haven Museum last week, Rep. John Katko said he plans to introduce a bill in Congress that would establish the fort as a national monument. 

"It’s a jewel for Oswego and upstate New York in general,” Katko said. “It will be a tourist Mecca and it’s a great story so we’ve got to make it happen."

Before Katko can draft that bill, the National Park Service must conduct a study on Fort Ontario to see if it is worthy of becoming an historic site.

Jim Brophy with New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation said elevating the site to national status could bring improvements and prominence to the fort.

"You will see well maintained grounds, an improved visitor center, increased visitation,” Brophy said. “People who are interested in historic sites as tourists are willing to drive much further to see a national historic site or a national historic monument."

Brohpy said his office fully supports the effort, but ultimately Gov. Andrew Cuomo would need to approve the transfer of ownership to the National Park Service. Assemblyman Will Barclay said he is talking with the governor about the campaign.

"I think it will bring in tourism,” Barclay said. “The more we can do to market this and make people aware of it, the more people are going to want to come. I think for our economy, which is slowly shifting, tourism is going to be a lot of our future and so we have to do everything we can to promote that."

The campaign marks a major comeback for Fort Ontario from 2010 when then-Gov. David Paterson closed the historic site due to financial constraints. But, officials with the national monument effort say the project, if successful, could take several years before a designation is made.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.