New York 23rd District
Some early-19th-century visionaries believed that the North Country of upstate New York—a battleground in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812—was the land of the future. Financier Gouverneur Morris, French slave trader James Leray, and Dutch silver speculator David Parish bought up thousands of acres between the Adirondacks and the St. Lawrence River and tried to unload them on farmers unaware of the shortness of the growing season and the unnavigability of the river. These developers left behind grand mansions, but their hopes for huge profits were frustrated when the Erie Canal turned the stream of settlement westward, and Canadians built their new capital of Ottawa far north of the river. (Queen Victoria picked the site, and put it as far from the U.S. border as possible.) But northern New York was not without its business successes: It was in Watertown in 1878 that 26-year-old Frank Woolworth put a sign over a table of odds and ends that read “Any Article 5 Cents,” starting America’s first retail chain and inventing the concept of discount stores.
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More recently, the North Country has looked to government for help. The St. Lawrence Seaway proved too small for most oceangoing freighters and remains frozen three months of the year. The locks are slow, and icebreakers would wreck the shoreline. The state government has built prisons in Ogdensburg and Cape Vincent and Malone. North Country and Vermont members of Congress tried to get Lake Champlain declared one of the Great Lakes, to qualify for funding for various programs. The gambit failed as Michigan members howled in protest. A General Motors power-train factory in Massena closed in May 2009, wiping out 500 jobs. The biggest initiative has been the enlargement of Fort Drum, near Watertown and adjacent to Lake Bonaparte, where despite the Army’s preference for warm-weather training sites, a 10,000-person light infantry division, the 10th Mountain Division, has been stationed since 1985. (The 10th Mountain has performed valiantly in difficult environs in Afghanistan and Iraq.) Private developers have built big malls in Watertown and Massena, attracting Canadians, as even New York has lower taxes than Ontario. While the dollar was cheap, Canadian tourism and shopping here were strong, notably at the Adirondack State Park.
The 23rd Congressional District of New York covers most of the North Country, starting at Lake Champlain, running westward along the St. Lawrence Seaway and over the Adirondacks Forest Preserve to Lake Ontario. It includes Madison County to the south. The district has only a few population centers, including Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain and Watertown and Oswego on Lake Ontario. Oswego, which occasionally docks oceangoing bulk vessels, bills itself as the first U.S. port of call on the Great Lakes from the Seaway. Geographically it is the largest district in New York state, and one of the largest in the East. Politically, it is ancestrally Republican but more inclined toward moderates than conservatives and increasingly divided in its loyalties to the two parties. It gave Republican George W. Bush a small plurality in 2000 and a small majority in 2004. And it gave Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama 52% of the vote over Republican John McCain’s 47% in 2008.