Our History

Massena Center is a hamlet located in the State of New York made up of roughly 80 homes and over one hundred people.  The hamlet is located within the Town of Massena (St. Lawrence County) between the northern banks of the Grasse River and the Wiley Dondero Canal.  It is home to the US Section of the Saint Lawrence Seaway and the New York Power Authority’s Moses-Saunders Power Dam.

Definition of Hamlet & Center

A hamlet in NYS refers to a community within a town that is not incorporated as a village but is identified by a name.  While not defined by NYS Law, hamlets in the early days stood as their own miniature municipalities with Mayors that represented the local people and petitioned the Town government for the needs of their area.  The Town of Massena was home to several Hamlets including Massena Center, Raquette River, Massena Springs and Rooseveltown (once known as Nyando).

A center in NYS refers to a neighborhood typically found at the center of a township.  During the establishment of towns in New York State in the early 1800s it was common practice that once a township was incorporated into the county and state that a new settlement would be established at the center of the town.  Ideally these locations would become the new heart of the town but more often than not they would just become a neighborhood outside of the main populous.

About The Hamlet

Massena Center is located 3.25 miles east of the Village of Massena in an area once known as the Indian Meadows or Grasslands on the northern banks of the Grasse River, at the head of its still waters where in the early days Durham boats would bring in goods and carried away the crops.  The area is relatively flat meadowlands with sparse forests and fertile soil thanks to a glacier and the Champlain Sea that once covered the area at the end of the last ice age.

The Center was roughly established in 1823 when the Town of Massena was reduced to its present size.  It is home to some of the earliest settlers of the area and became a central point for areas north of the Grasse River such as Barnhart Island, Robinson’s Bay, and the original International Park located at Massena Point.

Early Settling  in the area included:

George Barnhart Daniel Robinson Nathaniel Kezar
Arad Smith P. Smith Ephraim Hyde
Samuel Dana Thomas Dodge Israel Rickard
Ira Goodrich Peabody Kinney Willard Seaton
Hiram Anderson Hiram Fish Moses Russell
Daniel E. Stearns Hezakiah Horton Andrew Kellison

At its peak in the early 20th century the hamlet was home to several businesses, two churches, a one room brick schoolhouse, two community halls, a cheese factory, its own Post Office and in a few history books, a Town Hall.

During the 20th Century the hamlet began to dwindle little by little.  The farms located between the hamlet and the Village of Massena were slowly purchased by Alcoa.  Many remained operating as tenant farms but most were emptied and razed by the 1950s.

Barnhart Island which at its own peak featured multiples farms, churches and school houses had slowly become a abandoned by the early 1900s.  Talks of damming the mighty Long Sault Rapids for hydroelectric power and the difficulties crossing between the island and the mainland had slowly drawn people off the island.

The camps and hotel of Massena Point and the original International Campground fell on hard times once the Spa Era of Massena was over.  With the dawning of the 20th century the town had quickly turned from tourist retreat to an industrial complex thanks to the creation of the Massena Power Canal in 1898 and the founding of Alcoa’s aluminum smelter in 1903.

The biggest blow to Massena Center came with the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway starting in 1954.  The St. Lawrence River was heavily travelled as ships could sail from the Atlantic Ocean and reach the very interior of the United States and Canada via the river and the Great Lakes.  A series of rapids in Massena and Montreal prevented easy travel and by the early 1800s Canada had constructed several canals and lock systems to bypass them.  With the industrial and agricultural boom taking place in the Mid-West ships sailing the St. Lawrence became bigger and heavier.  The need to enlarge these canals and improve shipping condition on the river came came to a climax in the post World War 2 economy.

Discussions of the project came to a head in the early 1950s when after resistance from the United States to join the project, Canada began moving forward with its own design that would not involve the US.  This nudged the United State Congress to act and propose the US Seaway Power Project that would be located in Massena, New York.  This would involve the construction of two dams, two locks and a nearly 10 mile canal in the United States.  At the zero hour the United State Congress signed the Wiley-Dander Seaway Act in 1954.

While this was a major economical boom to the Town of Massena, it was the lands surrounding Massena Center that were sacrificed to make this project a reality.  Now out scaled by more modern projects, the St. Lawrence Seaway Project was boasted as one of the largest of its kind and dubbed the 8th Wonder of the World.

Barnhart Island which had become all but abandoned was taken over by the Federal Government, and the lands south of it such as Robinson’s Bay were bought out.  In leu of many other areas in the region, Massena Center’s sacrifice was minor.  Ten Towns on the Canada side were sent to the bottom of what would become Lake St. Lawrence.

Eisenhower Lock was constructed near Robinson’s Bay near the western end of the hamlet and Snell Lock was built south of Massena Point at the hamlet’s eastern end, with 4 miles of the Wiley Dondero Canal dug between them.  The Moses – Saunders Power Dam was built from Barnhart Island to mainland Canada at Cornwall, and the Long Sault Control Dam was built at the other end of Barnhart to the US mainland.  Together this system controls all of the water flowing from Lake Ontario and the rest of the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean while also allowing “Seaway Max” cargo ships to traverse the river safely.

With the Seaway came several large employers to the Town, such as the New York Power Authority, the Seaway Corporation, and two industrial plants to join Alcoa, a Reynolds Metals aluminum smelter, and a General Motors fabrication plant that forged aluminum engine blocks for the Chevy Corvair.  Together these businesses brought 5000+ well paying career level jobs to the region.

For Massena Center it was the final nail in the coffin of progression.  With its crossroads now dead ends and nothing but Federal lands and shoreline beyond it the hamlet settled into retirement as a quaint and quiet neighborhood.  The few farms left operating continued to do so into the 1980s, while the Churches and School House were replaced with new accommodations outside of the hamlet, and the general store and post office closed by the 1960s.

While our past history has not exactly been kind to us, Massena Center has settled into the life as a quiet and safe hamlet outside of the noise of the Village of Massena.  Since the construction of the Seaway, while our farms became vacant, those empty fields have grown with the construction of new houses along with the restoration and preservation of our historical homes.  And as we settle into the 21st century we are always working towards a brighter future for our beloved hamlet.

Last Updated: 02/06/2021