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Santa, NORAD, and Ogdensburg

On Christmas eve in 2014, National Public Radio and North Country Public Radio reported how Ogdensburg and Heuvelton played an important role in the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, role in tracking Santa Claus's journey from the North Pole.

Ogdensburg's Sherman Inn recounts the story in its Franklin Roosevelt room.

Was the NORAD Santa Tracker born in Ogdensburg? Or Heuvelton?


Dec 24, 2014

Tonight is the night; the big, jolly guy dressed in red has made his list and checked it at least twice. Rudolph and the gang are harnessed and ready to go.

What may be overlooked during the last minute holiday hustle-bustle is Santa Claus and his entourage will in fact fly through United States military airspace.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, tracks Santa every year with state-of-the-art equipment. Believe it or not, the whole thing was born in New York’s North Country, in St. Lawrence County.

The question, though, is exactly where? Was it Ogdensburg? Or Heuvelton?

Our Christmas tale begins not on a white winter evening, but rather during the hot summer of 1940. Much of the world has already taken sides in the second Great War. Canada has joined the allied forces with the British. The United.States has remained neutral up until now, but President and Commander-in-Chief Franklin Delano Roosevelt, realizes it may not last long. American troops are using the North Country as a training ground.

The Ogdensburg Pubic Library’s genealogy and local history specialist Sandy Putney takes up the story.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was up here in the area inspecting the troops and must have had it in the back of his mind that something needed to be done between the United States and Canada. And history has it that he called Prime Minister McKenzie King in the evening and said “Can you meet me in Ogdensburg tomorrow?”

The prime minister agrees. On the morning of August 17, 1940, FDR is in nearby Norwood checking on his military’s readiness. It’s a steamy summer day. With the top down, the President’s elegant black vehicle leads his entourage south west down the roads of the North Country. You can picture it — a warm wind blowing back Roosevelt’s hair. His long cigarette holder clenched between his teeth, on his way to a historic meeting with Prime Minister of Canada, in Ogdensburg, or so history has it written.

Prime Minister William Lyon McKenzie King ferried across the St. Lawrence from Prescott. The two leaders met at the train station in Ogdensburg and quickly disappeared into FDR’s private railroad car. Persis Boyesen is the official historian for the city of Ogdensburg and the adjacent town of Heuvelton. As she and Sandy Putney explain, this is where the historical record gets a little complicated.

In a short time, the railway car was moved to Heuvelton, where both heads of state remained overnight.

There’s a little bit of controversy. Supposedly it was hot during the day, so they moved the railroad car out onto a spur closer to Heuvelton, so there’s been a little bit of discrepancy as to actually where the document was signed.

Politically and technically, it’s called the Ogdensburg agreement. But some of the local old timers, I know in 1948, a woman wrote and said “They were in Heuvelton, get it straight.”

Call it the Ogdensburg agreement. Call it the Heuvelton declaration. Regardless, when the president and the prime minister emerged from the private care the next morning, the document they produced is a landmark agreement between the United States and Canada. It voices the need for a permanent joint board of defense uniting both countries. Right here, on the St. Lawrence county railroad tracks. The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD is born. Which brings us back to our Christmas tale.

Based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, NORAD uses highly sensitive radar to identify anything that flies over the United States and Canada. In 1955, a misprinted phone number in a Colorado newspaper add added one more duty to NORAD’s list: tracking Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Again, Ogdensburg City Library’s Sandy Putney.

There was a local newspaper station that was inviting people to call and find out where Santa was, and the phone number that they printed, was one digit wrong. And it went to an unpublished phone at NORAD.

Major Jamie Robertson of NORAD in Colorado Springs has the rest of this Santa tracking history.

What happened was the phone started to ring, and usually when that phone rang, it usually caught people’s attention because it’s usually the Commander and Chief. The gentleman that answered the line, he says he got a call from a 6 year old girl wanted to speak to Santa Claus. He thought initially that someone on the staff was trying to play a game on him and yank his chain.

The NORAD official looked closely at his radar screen and told the girl that yes, indeed, he could discern Santa’s sleigh coming down from the North Pole. The tradition stuck.

Every year, on Christmas Eve, NORAD helps children around the world track Santa Claus as he travels on his annual journey.


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