A rundown of Oswego’s museums

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Take a walk downtown and you will see that Oswego has a rich and varied history. The city has multiple museums you can visit to learn about that history. The Safe Haven Museum, the H. Lee White Marine Museum, the Oswego Railroad Museum and Fort Ontario.

Both the Oswego Railroad Museum and the H. Lee White Marine Museum are located on West First Street in the Historic Maritime District. Safe Haven and Fort Ontario are on the east side of town, also very close to each other.

The Safe Haven Museum

With a visit to the Safe Haven museum,  Oswego State students can learn about the refugees and immigrants who fled Germany and came to Oswego in World War II.

The caretaker of the museum, Lois Areid, likes to tell the story of the refugees who came to Oswego to take shelter during World War II.

“One of them actually came to visit the other day,” Areid said.

During the war, the United States allowed 1,000 refugees into the country as a show of good will.  In total, 982 refugees came to Oswego to escape persecution in Germany and were told they had to leave the country when the war ended.

“Less than 100 left,” Areid said.

This is most noticeable when you walk through the museum. All 982 names are listed and are color-coded; green is for the refugees that left after the war and this color appears only sparingly on the wall.

The names of the refugees on the wall at the Safe Haven museum.
The names of the refugees on the wall at the Safe Haven museum.                                              Brooke Kruger | The Oswegonian

There is also another wall in the museum with names of the refugees, but over these are squares that people can buy to leave messages of support.

“Most often it’s family and relatives of the original immigrants that leave messages,” Areid said.

Areid also mentioned that the museum was open in 2002 and is in one of the original buildings used for the refugees.

“This was an administration building. Both Mr. Smart [who ran the camp] and Dr. Ruth Gruber had offices here,” Areid said, standing next Gruber’s former office.

Gruber was a special assistant to the secretary of the interior and worked as a liaison between the U.S. government and the administration at the camp. She also wrote a book about the story of the refugees.

“Ruth Gruber lives in Manhattan and is still alive and kicking at 102,” Areid said.

The museum shows the plight of these refugees and how the locals welcomed them into the community.

“After the original customs period of 11 days, the neighbors invited them over for Sunday dinner,” Areid said, adding that she personally knows people that used to do this.

The Safe Haven Museum is open Thursday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The H. Lee White Marine Museum

At the H. Lee White Marine Museum, one can learn about the area’s maritime history and Oswego’s famous lighthouse.

Proving that museums can be enjoyed by anyone, young or old, Oswego State student Matt Soffietti took a job at the H. Lee White Marine Museum, which is just down the end of the wharf on West First Street.

The museum is a non-profit organization that shows the history of the lake system.

“We’re always looking for donations and volunteers,” Soffietti said. The museum has been opened since 1982 through the Port of Oswego Authority.

The museum has treasures that can only be experienced through a visit. They have the U.S. Army Tug LT-5, as well as the NYS Derrick Boat 8, which was used for dredging, lock repair and lifting heavy boats.

Soffietti said the team enjoys taking care of these precious relics that are under their care.

“People who work here really love this place,” Sofeitti said. “We try to work with the other museums when we can.”

Rosemary Nesbitt started the museum while she was still working as a theatre director at Oswego State.

“She used to hold performances here at the museum,” Soffietti said. “We still do some but they don’t attract the crowd that she got.”

Some of these events include tails of the haunted harbor and different Christmas events, “like having Mr. and Mrs. Claus come in from the lake,” Sofietti said.

Mercedes Niess, the museum’s director, said that the current building has an interesting history in the historic maritime district.

“It served as the offices and repair shop for the large grain elevator,” Niess said.

The H. Lee White Marine Museum is open year-round, Monday-Sunday, from 1-5 p.m.

The Oswego Railroad Museum

At the Oswego Railroad Museum you can learn about how Oswego came to rely on trains for industry and how, with the collapse of industry, only one remains.

Since the 1980s, the Railroad Museum was an idea in the mind of Bill Niekolas, now a guide at the museum. Six years ago, the idea became a reality.

“I was interested in the way things used to be, in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Niekolas said.

Inside the museum is a scale replica model train set of what the tracks used to look like in the area, even complete with trains.

The interior of the Oswego Railroad Museum.
The interior of the Oswego Railroad Museum.                                 Brooke Kruger | The Oswegonian

“Railroads built this town before they taxed it out of existence,” Niekolas said.

The last train to cross the river was around 1982. Niekolas explains it was then that they pulled all the tracks up.

The Oswego Railroad Museum has the full history of trains in Oswego. It closed for the season after Labor Day, but it’s worth a visit once it reopens in May.

Fort Ontario

A short walk away from Safe Haven is the Fort Ontario Historic site.

A visit to Fort Ontario will show you how it was used as an army base until it was changed to the historic site it is today.

Fort Ontario has changed hands many times, and has a long and rich history.

Fort Ontario was built by the British in 1755 then destroyed by the French in August 1756. Then it was rebuilt by the British in 1759 and again destroyed, this time by Americans during the revolution in 1778. It was rebuilt when the British seized control in 1782.  After again being destroyed during the War of 1812, it was redesigned into what you see today. The development of the fort as a State Historic Site started in 1949.

This historic site now hosts several events throughout the year like an annual French and Indian war reenactment and occasional civil war reenactments.

“This depends on what’s going on and what anniversaries there are,” said Jennifer Emmons, office manager and curator of the site. “We also just did a walking tour of the Battle of 1814 in the spring.”

The grounds of Fort Ontario.
The grounds of Fort Ontario.                                             Brooke Kruger | The Oswegonain


She said that the fort is closed over the winter but the grounds are still open.

“As one of the staff who are here during the winter it makes you think about what life was like for the soldiers without heating,” Emmons said.

The fort is still open through mid-October, Wednesday through Sunday, and Monday holidays 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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