A lot of people have asked why U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to Ogdensburg, N.Y. on Aug. 17th, 1940 and why we named a room at the Sherman Inn after our 32nd president to commemorate his visit to our community.
Most Ogdensburg citizens have either forgotten or never knew that our city hosted a major historic event 80 years ago.
In August, 1940, over a year before Pearl Harbor, the British Empire was locked in a death struggle with Germany. The U.S. was officially neutral with American public opinion firmly against entering what many saw as a European war.
President Roosevelt worried that if the United Kingdom was conquered by Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler might set his sights on Canada which had sided with the British Empire against the Axis Powers. If the Germans defeated Canada, they would be able to attack the U.S. anywhere and at any time along America’s longest undefended border, using its extensive cross continental rail system.
Roosevelt invited Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to meet him in Ogdensburg for discussions about plans for the mutual defense of North America. Roosevelt had announced he would be touring St. Lawrence County as part of a visit to the troops that were conducting the largest peacetime maneuvers in the nation’s history.
President Roosevelt arrived in Norwood by train and joined New York Governor Herbert Lehman for a tour of the troops. The president then traveled to Ogdensburg in a motorcade that drove through downtown and ended at the New York Central Depot at present day Lighthouse Point, across from the present day Freighthouse Restaurant where a special train car awaited him.
Canada’s Prime Minister crossed the river on the Prescott-Ogdensburg ferry. The two leaders began their talks about how the two nations could work together during the dangerous times they were facing. With Hitler’s Air Force launching the largest air assault in world history against the British isles with the “Battle of Britain” and German troops preparing for an invasion of England, the two leaders knew that the time had come for their two nations to build a new relationship to protect North America.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's Motorcade Passes Through Downtown Ogdensburg
Franklin Roosevelt's motorcade through downtown Ogdensburg to the New York Central railroad depot on Aug. 17, 1940.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Ogdensburg New York Central rail depot where he began historic talks on Aug. 17, 1940 about how the U.S. and Canada needed to work together if Germany attacked either nation.
The Ogdensburg Declaration
On Aug. 18th, 1940, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Canada’s Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King issued a joint declaration they called “The Ogdensburg Declaration.” That’s why the Sherman Inn named a presidential suite after President Roosevelt - to commemorate his historic visit to our community.
The two leaders met in Ogdensburg on Aug. 17th to discuss mutual defense issues. The train car with the two leaders was moved out of the city that night for security reasons, but it was moved back to Ogdensburg’s New York Central Depot during the night. A press release they issued on Aug. 18th, 1940 stated:
Declaration by the Prime Minister of Canada and the President of the United States of America regarding the establishing of a Permanent Joint Board on Defense made on August 18, 1940.
The Prime Minister and the President have discussed the mutual problems of defense in relation to the safety of Canada and the United States.
It has been agreed that a Permanent Joint Board on Defense shall be set up at once by the two countries.
This Permanent Joint Board on Defense shall commence immediate studies relating to sea, land, and air problems including personnel and material.
It will consider in the broad sense the defense of the north half of the Western Hemisphere.
The Permanent Joint Board on Defense will consist of four or five members from each country, most of them from the services. It will meet shortly.
The idea of the U.S. and Canada working together on mutual defense issues initially drew a sharp rebuke from England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill who saw the “Ogdensburg Agreement” as Canada’s first step away from its historic relationship that relied solely on Great Britain for its defense.
King was also criticized by Canada’s Conservative Party leadership which questioned the need to work with the U.S. on defense issues. King defended the Ogdensburg Agreement from his Canadian and British critics as a long overdue recognition that the U.S. and Canada shared mutual interests, a mutual border and a unique mutual relationship at a time when real dangers threatened both countries.
President Roosevelt, who had spoken publicly before about the U.S.’s commitment to mutual defense, dismissed criticisms in the U.S., arguing that the Ogdensburg Agreement was simply a long overdue extension of the Monroe Doctrine which established that the U.S. would not stand for interference from European or other powers in the affairs of the Americas.
Most importantly, the agreement established the Permanent Joint Board on Defense, a body composed of top military officials which meets twice a year to discuss issues concerning mutual defense. With the U.S. officially neutral, the agreement helped pave the way for the British to buy war supplies using Canada as a go between. The Permanent Joint Board on Defense has been a fixture in establishing U.S. - Canadian defense policies for the past 80 years.
Sadly, few Ogdensburg residents today remember that our community hosted two of North America’s great wartime leaders on the eve of World War II. The Sherman Inn is keeping the memory alive in its Franklin D. Roosevelt Suite as a testament to our community’s rich history and heritage.