History of the Cayuga Waterfont Trail

The Cultural History of Ithaca's Waterfront - An Overview

For the purposes of this history, Ithaca's 'waterfront' includes both lakefront and shoreline deep along the Inlet. This waterfront has many aspects.  Over time, it has been a center for transportation, a shipping and manufacturing zone, a place for recreation and amusement, a residential area, a cause for concern, a place for celebrations. 


Up to the turn of the century (19th to 20th), one can look at the story of the waterfront as being primarily about transportation. For the Iroquois who first lived in this region, and for the early white settlers, the waterfront was too swampy to be a desirable place to live. However, proximity to the lake was desirable, as the lake was a vital means to travel, as well as to ship and receive trade goods. The advent of the Erie Canal and Steamboat travel in the 1820's meant that much of the waterfront bustled with travelers, shipping and boat building activity.  By the 1870's, the waterfront continued to be the center of transportation for the growing Ithaca community.  As trains became the dominant mode of transportation, much of the Inlet was transformed with track, rail yards and depots.

With the creation of Renwick Park in 1894 at the southeast corner of the lake, the waterfront also became an essential place for amusement, sport and relaxation. Great crowds were drawn to the waterfront for events there as well as for steamboat excursions, for pleasure boating and for watching rowing competitions.  In the 20th century, recreation continued to be, and remains, a dominant waterfront theme.  In 1921, Stewart Park became the first municipal park on the waterfront. In 1933, the Newman Municipal golf course was created on an old ash dump site. Further recreation areas were developed in the 1970's: Cass Park, Allan Treman State Marine Park and the Hangar Theater. At present, recreation projects are in the works such as this Waterfront Trail, the Black Diamond trail connecting state parks, and enhanced facilities on Inlet Island.


Recreation and transportation are only two of the many aspects of the waterfront. For a brief but exciting time (1915-1919) Wharton Brothers made silent movies at the Renwick Park site. A squatter community once existed on the west side of the Inlet. Known as the 'Rhine', or 'Silent City', it housed the poorest of Ithaca's citizens in shacks that were built from about Court Street north to Hog's Hole. A large variety of planes once filled the skies around the waterfront when the Thomas Brothers ran their aviation school and airplane-testing site. The shape of the waterfront itself was once quite different. Gradual realigning of waterways and filling in of land, and especially the creation of the Flood Control Channel, have meant that the waterfront we see today is quite a different landscape than the waterfront of the past.



The Cayuga Nation

The region around Cayuga Lake was once home to the Cayugas or "People of the Mucky Land".  Their initial presence here is estimated around the 13th century. The Cayugas were one of five, later six, nations in the Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the League of Six Nations.  Sometime between 1400 A.D. and 1600 A.D., the peacemakers Deganawida, a Huron mystic, and the Onondagan Hiawatha inspired five Iroquois tribes – the Seneca, Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga and Cayuga – to create a Peace council and end their intertribal warfare.  In the 1700's, the Tuscarora joined as the sixth nation.  The example of their organized confederacy undoubtedly influenced later colonial efforts to form a confederacy and draft the Constitution.


The influence was perhaps not wide enough. Iroquois women held substantial political power. The elder women chose the male delegates or 'chiefs' for the council, 50 in all. Delegates met on Onondaga land every 5 years, or more frequently if necessary.  The Iroquois were also a matrilinear culture; the clans followed the mother's line, not the father's.   Anthropologists consider the Iroquois as having one of the most egalitarian cultures known.

The Cayugas, like other Iroquois, possessed a highly developed agriculture. They grew three main crops: beans, corn, and squash, often referred to as the 'three sisters'.  Other crops included watermelons, cucumbers, and peaches. Agriculture was primarily the domain of the women, while the men were responsible for hunting, trade, and travel. They traveled by foot or horse on an extensive trail network, and by elm-bark canoe on water. Like the longhouses they lived in, the elm-bark canoe was an impressive technology made from local resources. It was the typical canoe type for the Iroquois (see photo) and could be quickly made. The explorer Des Groseilleurs once observed a Mohawk hunter strip the bark of an elm tree and make a canoe in under two hours.


Cayugas At the Waterfront

The closest major Iroquois village to the waterfront was Coreogonel, about three miles away from the head of the lake, at the foot of Buttermilk Falls.  This village consisted of 25 dwellings and was home to the Tutelo Indians, a small tribe related to the Iroquois.  The Tutelos were absorbed in Cayuga territory after they lost their land to white settlement in Virginia and were forced north in the early 1700's.  The main large Cayuga settlements were further north along the lake, closer to present day Cayuga, Union Springs and Aurora.


There may have been Cayuga settlements - certainly often-used camp sites - closer to the waterfront than Coreogonel.  Sources conflict on this.  A 1920 map concerning the archeological history of New York shows a village site at the south- west corner of Cayuga Lake and states " the Cayuga Indians had a village of adopted Tegarighroones settled at this place and the site has been described as Totieronno."  Notes from the Sullivan campaign indicate that a few Iroquois homes along the Inlet were destroyed.  We do know that Hog's Hole, at the south-western corner of Cayuga Lake, was an excellent eel-fishing site where Cayugas camped, and that land on the flats, later inhabited by white settlers, was first tilled by Cayugas.


Cammerhof and Zeisberger

In 1750, the United Brethren missionaries John Cammerhof and Zeisberger traveled through what is now Ithaca, led by the Cayuga guide Hahotchaunguas. They were by no means the first whites to have contact with the Cayugas. French Jesuit priests had visited the area in the 1600's. In addition, Cayugas had significant contact beyond this region with Dutch, British and French fur traders. Cammerhof and Zeisberger are important to local history because they left a good account of their visit.  They traveled on foot through the Inlet Valley, along a trail that is now Linn Street, and stayed the night at a campsite at the southeast shore.  (The historian W. Glenn Norris painted his interpretation of their campsite in the 1930's - see picture).  They observed their Cayuga guide walk along the sandbars to Hog's Hole, where he visited other Indians camped there at the popular eel-fi shing site.  They were struck by the natural beauty of Ithaca, noting that the water of the lake was "clear as crystal, and the Indians say deeper than they can tell".  They were also impressed with the knowledge of their guide, who was familiar with the geography of the continent from the Mississippi to Quebec, indicating the extent of travel by the Cayugas.


The Sullivan Expedition

The most notorious travelers here were the soldiers of the Sullivan expedition of 1779.  The division led by Colonel Henry Dearborn marched south along the west side of Cayuga Lake in late September and destroyed all the crops and set elements they found along the way, including the village of Coreogonel and "two huts and a cornfield" as they crossed the flats.


The Sullivan expedition was a military action of the American Revolutionary War.  Which side to support in the war was a divisive issue for the Iroquois con federacy; their Council originally advocated remaining neutral.  However, in the end, most Onondagas, Mohawks, Seneca and Cayugas sided with the British, whom they believed were stronger, while Oneidas and some Tuscarora sided with the Americans.  Over the course of the war, the British and Iroquois raided frontier settlements in Schoharie Valley and Cherry Valley in New York State, as well as in parts of Pennsylvania, killing many settlers and laying waste their homes. On the basis of strategy and retaliation, General George Washington ordered the destruction of Iroquoia.  He wrote to Sullivan on September 15 1779 to remind him of "the necessity of pushing the Indians to the greatest practicable distance from their own settlements and our frontiers, to throwing them wholly on British mercy ...", and of "... making the destruction of their settlements so final and complete as to put it out of their power to derive the smallest succor from them in case they should attempt to return this season".


Most historians report that almost all Iroquois abandoned their villages before the campaign reached them.  Despite some pleas for mercy for the Cayugas, some of whom claimed neutrality, Washington's orders were carried out to the greatest extent possible.  In the end, Sullivan reported forty villages and numerous isolated houses burned, 160,000 bushels of corn, and other vegetables and orchards destroyed.


Early White Settlement

The bountiful lands and desirable locations in Iroquois territory left an impression on the soldiers of the Sullivan expedition, and no doubt influenced some of them and others to venture here to settle.  Thomas Grant, a soldier who crossed Coreogonel with William Butler's troops, noted this description in his journal.

"The town was situated on a rising ground in a large beautiful valley.  The soil is equal to, or rather superior to any in the country.  Through which runs several fi ne streams of water, the first a creek about four poles wide which falls from the mountain on the east side of the valley about 120' perpendicular, into which creek three other fi ne streams empty.  The second creek is the principal supply of the Cayuga Lake, navigable for large canoes or boats to the town."


By 1789, the first white settlers had moved in.  Former soldiers Jonathan Woodworth and Robert McDowell built cabins near what is now DeWitt Park.  The Yaple, Hinepaugh and Dumond families settled at the foot of State Street and on Linn Street, taking advantage of land cleared by the Indians for agriculture, and the proximity of waterpower. Jacob Yaple built the first waterpower mill on Cascadilla Creek, and could grind 20 to 25 bushels of wheat to flour per day.


In 1790, Military Tract lands were awarded to soldiers as payment for their service in the Revolutionary war.  The Military Tract divided the former Iroquois territories into 28 townships, and subdivided them into 600 acre parcels. Many soldiers were established elsewhere by this time and were as likely to sell their parcels as move to them. State Surveyor General Simeon DeWitt acquired much of the land that is now down town Ithaca, buying some of it from Abraham Bloodgood.  Of interest to the history of the waterfront, soldier Andrew Moodie sold his land parcel at the southeastern shore of the lake to James Renwick.


Ithaca's First 'Store'

A man named Lightfoot traveled here by canoe in 1790; he used a waterway route from Albany that had only 23 miles of portage.  He set up a trade post at the junction of the Inlet and Cascadilla Creek.  In Horace King's Early History of Ithaca (1847), he described Lightfoot's enterprise:

He "came up the lake with a boat-load of goods; and entering the inlet, landed near the present steamboat landing. Here he put up a shanty, in which he dis played and disposed of his goods and wares.  His stock in trade consisted of a chest of tea, a sack of coffee, some crockery and earthen ware, a very small quantity of dry goods, a little hardware and cutlery, some gun-powder and lead, and a barrel or two of liquor.  These articles he exchanged principally for maple sugar and furs; the furs being, marten, otter, beaver, fox, bear, and deer skins.  He continued this species of traffic, for ten or twelve year; and his was the only trading house here within that period."



Simeon DeWitt predicted that '[Ithaca's] advantages and situation cannot fail of giving it a rapid growth and making it one of the first inland places of trade.'  His prediction rang true in Ithaca's early years, as the population grew from 250 in 1809, to about 850 in 1820, to over 3,900 by 1835.  Trade was strong during this period, and many people expected Ithaca to become a major regional or even national commercial hub.  As Ithaca's transportation center, the Inlet was an integral part of this early development.


Shipping at the Inlet

Ithaca's Inlet first saw a boom in 1812 when a large number of gypsum shipments were handled at the port.  The U.S. government had prohibited trade with Canada in 1808 due to the increased tension with Brita in that led to the War of 1812. Nova Scotia had been an important source for gypsum for this rapidly developing nation, and new sources were sought.  In Union Springs, Philip Yawger opened a mine and started sending shipments to Ithaca on rafts.  At Ithaca's port, the rafts were made into wagons and hauled overland to Owego and the Susquehanna River.  From there, they were floated south to parts of central Pennsylvania, where gypsum was used for fertilizer or on to Baltimore and Philadelphia, where gypsum was in demand as a key component in plaster for buildings.  As many as 800 wagons a day made the trip from Ithaca to Owego.


The Inlet 'boomed' again with barge boat building and transfer stations when Ithaca became a significant port on the Erie Canal. Building of the Erie Canal began in 1817; by 1823, the eastern portion was complete.  The entire canal opened in 1825.  It provided an all-water shipping route from Albany to Buffalo and the Great Lakes; feeder canals made it quite a comprehensive transportation network. Local products such as lumber, shingles, wheat, potash, flour, and whiskey were shipped out from Ithaca, and salt, plaster (gypsum) and limestone were brought in and handled at the port. The local newspaper published weekly and yearly accounts of the goods moving in and out of the port, giving evidence to the industriousness of the community.


Boatbuilding became established as an important local industry at this time.  By the late 1830's, there were up to ten boatyards manufacturing barges.  A con temporary report stated that: "these yards extended from above the west bend of the Inlet, just south of the extension of Seneca Street to and a little way close by the East side of Humboldt Street building yards, as well along the Inlet thickly to the D.L.& W. Railroad engine house; and a few beyond down to the Steam boat Landing." (note Humboldt Street is now Floral Avenue).


And by the 1860's, more than 150 men would be employed at boatyards, building 30 to 40 barges a year.  This was no small undertaking, as barges ranged in length from about 75 feet to over 95 feet.


In addition to the main shipping and boat building operations, the Inlet had a number of lumberyards, mechanics shops, and storehouses.  Simeon DeWitt understood this part of Ithaca as essential real estate.  In 1824, he said "I consider the store lots along the Inlet as the most valuable part of my property.  In twenty years time they will be like the wharves in front of Albany lined with canal boats".


Travelling in Style – The First Steamboats

One boat fondly associated with Ithaca's waterfront is the steamboat.  The Cayuga Lake Steamboat Company formed in 1819, seizing the opportunity to provide a passenger water link in a mostly overland stagecoach network.  Steamboats were also used for towing barges for the Erie Canal shipping traffic.  The 'Enterprise', Ithaca's first steamboat, was built at Inlet boatyards in 1820, and fitted with an engine made in Jersey City and hauled here by wagon.  On June 1st of that year, the Enterprise set out with 150 passengers, an even greater number of onlookers, and a great load of wood for fuel for its inaugural trip.  Unfortunately, the steamboat soon got stuck on the sandbar at the mouth of the Inlet.  Rowboats came out to temporarily hold passengers while workmen shoved the steamboat off the sandbar. Soon enough, the Enterprise was on its way to the north end of the lake, stopping at many communities along the way.


This humble moment did not dampen spirits.  Rather, it heralded the beginning of a great steamboat era for Cayuga Lake, which saw steamboats on its waters until after the turn of the century.  They kept a daily schedule, stopping at many landings on the route to Cayuga Bridge at the north end of the lake.  As well as serving the growing communities along the lake, the 'Enterprise' became the preferred choice for passengers travelling from New York City to Buffalo. The established route had been up the Hudson by steamboat to Albany, than overland to Buffalo by stagecoach.  By travelling instead by steamboat to Newburgh, stagecoach to Ithaca, steamboat to Cayuga Bridge and stagecoach to Buffalo, travelers made what was a four-day trip in three days.


To avoid the problem of the sandbar, a pier was built at the southeast corner of the lake at Port Renwick (now the eastern corner of Stewart Park). From 1821 until after 1827, when the Inlet was dredged and the sandbar cleared, the steam boats landed at Port Renwick and passengers took a stagecoach into town via Lake Avenue.  The steamboats returned to the Inlet after 1827.  A 1840 map is the fi rst to clearly mark Steamboat Landing at the junction of the Inlet and Cascadilla Creek.


The Enterprise remained in passenger service until 1827 then operated as a towboat for barges until 1831.  It was finally dismantled and used as an Inlet landing.   A second steamboat, the 'Telemachus' was built in 1825 at Goodwin's Point (now Taughannock State Park) with an Ithaca built engine. The DeWitt Clinton came into service in 1829 and continued until 1840.  Steamers remained a major feature of passenger travel through Ithaca until late in the 1870's, when trains took over as the preferred mode of travel. The last and most luxurious of the passenger steamboats was built in 1870. The Frontenac was150 feet in length, held 350 passengers and had a stately dining room.  Despite the competition from the railroads it remained in service on the lake until a fi re destroyed it in 1907.


Ithaca's First Train

In addition to the shipping commerce coming in from the Erie Canal, Ithaca tried to position itself to become the favored distribution center for Pennsylvania's coal transported from the south. It was not the only center vying for this commerce.  By 1828, the Chemung Canal connecting what is now Watkins Glen on Seneca Lake to the Chemung River (and thus the Susquehanna and Pennsylvania) was already underway.  The entrepreneurs of Ithaca chose to compete not with a canal but by trying an even newer technology – trains.  They believed a train would have the advantage as it could run all year long. In 1828, the Ithaca & Owego Railroad Company was chartered, the second chartered in the state. It opened in 1834, hauling four cars of passengers and 45 cars filled with salt and plaster from its terminal at the Inlet to Owego.  To deal with the steep terrain out of the Inlet valley, two inclined planes were built, on which the trains were drawn up by horses.  Ithaca then became a distribution center for Pennsylvania's coal, but was hampered by the inefficiency of the steep track and much financial difficulty.  With changes, however, this railroad did become profitable and busy with coal freight by the 1850's.


Greater Development Dreams

In this 1820's era of industry and possibility entrepreneurial Ithacans had visions of even greater commerce in Ithaca.  Along with the southern rail connection, they proposed a direct connection to the Great Lakes via a Sodus Bay canal linking Lake Ontario with the north end of Cayuga Lake.  As Jane Dieckmann explains in A Short History of Tompkins County, they envisioned that:

"deep-water ships would convey raw materials from the Middle West through the Great Lakes via this Sodus Bay Canal to Ithaca; here mills would convert these materials into finished goods, which would then be moved out to markets to the south, east and west.  Coal from the rich Pennsylvania fields and lumber, grain, shingles, and plaster would move in and through and out of the region."


The Sodus Canal Company was formed in 1828, but the canal was not realized. The depression of 1837 saw the dissolution of the company and the end of that particular dream.



In the 1870's, a flurry of railroad building in the county ushered in the next major development at the waterfront.  Previous to this time Ithaca's growth had slowed; the population weathered the 1837 depression, a major flood in 1857, and the Civil War (although the civil war brought increased traffic to the shipping and boat building concerns at the Inlet).  Cornell was inaugurated in 1868.  Many of the buildings of the central commercial blocks in downtown Ithaca were under construction.


Ithaca still had one train in 1870, the Ithaca and Owego Railroad that began in 1834. After the 1837 Depression, the Ithaca & Owego Railroad was sold, to become the Cayuga and Susquehanna in 1842.  The C & S extended the terminal to Steamboat Landing in 1849, and, in 1851, the company changed the track from the inclined planes to a south hill switchback.  At this time, a connection at the southern end with Pennsylvania allowed for a complete train link to Ithaca, carrying coal that was then shipped further north on barges. Thus began this railroad's most profitable period.  It became the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western in 1855.

At the beginning of the 1870's, many new railroads were built.  The Ithaca and Athens Railroad opened in 1871, its line competing with the D, L & W.  The Ithaca & Athens traveled along Inlet Creek, south via Newfield and provided faster service to Pennsylvania. On the east side of the Inlet heading north, the new Cayuga Lake Railroad provided a connection to Cayuga Village by 1872.  The Cayuga Lake Railroad created a complete rail connection via Ithaca from Philadelphia to Buffalo (as the New York Central line was met at Cayuga Village).  In 1873, the Geneva & Ithaca opened on the west side of the Inlet heading north. However, due to a financial crisis later that year, both the Geneva & Ithaca, and the Cayuga Lake Railroads were sold.  Eventually, all these railroads became part of the Lehigh Valley Railroad System by the end of the decade. (Lehigh Valley is how most people today would recognize these railways.)  Only the D, L, & W remained outside the Lehigh Valley system.

What did this all mean for the Inlet?

Train yards and depots altered the landscape, both on the east side with the D,L, & W, and on the west side with the Lehigh Valley yards. There were many spurs to the railroad tracks at the Inlet terminals.  A trestle was built along the west side of the Inlet to meet barges across from Steamboat Landing (see photo).  The Inlet was very busy with the railroad operations.  In addition, in 1873, nine boatyards, three coal yards, two planning mills, a lumber yard, a hotel, a brewer, a dealer in lime and plaster, a shoemaker and a tinner were in business there.  New services for workers and passengers were built.  The Lehigh Valley House, which remains today as the best representation of a railroad hotel in Ithaca, was built in 1878.



The 1890's witnessed a surge of recreational activity on and around the water front.  On the lake, people were out rowing rowboats and paddling canoes, steamboats were taking people for pleasant excursions up the lake, rowing crews were competing. It was a grand era for enjoying the lake.


Renwick Park

The Ithaca Street Railway Co. (ISR), chartered in 1884, started running trolleys throughout Ithaca in 1893.  At this time, trolley companies in many U.S. cities had developed a comp le men ta ry business scheme – build a park slightly out of town and offer trolley rides to it, thereby reaping the trolley fares as well as revenue at the park. With this is mind, the ISR bought land at the head of the lake from the descendants of James Renwick.  The ISR extended a seasonal trolley line - the Cayuga Lake Railway - to the Renwick site by 1894.  There, they developed 40 acres as a trolley destination park, complete with bandstand, two pavilions, a water tower, a zoo and vaudeville acts.  They offered many attractions. The company advertised that "during the coming season, two nights of the week will be given up to fi reworks ... and on alternating nights concerts by the Ithaca band [led by Patsy Conway]...   In addition to these regular features, there will be boat races, bicycle races, balloon ascensions and such other attractions as will make Renwick the most popular resort of its kind in the State."

Renwick Park opened in June of 1894.  On July 4th of that year, 12,000 people gathered at the park to celebrate Independence Day.  Many more people enjoyed it over the next several years.  In her memoirs, a Child of the Nineties, Edith Horton remembered excursions to the park as the best amusement in town.


"With your family you walked up to Tioga Street and stood waiting importantly for the street-car.  Once aboard you went bumping along happily, past the houses, past Percy Field, the smell of the lake growing stronger, around the curve, and there it was, Renwick!  You climbed down and ran to find the best table for the picnic.  There you put the basket and unpacked it.  There were bears to feed, and deer, slender and startled, and a chattering monkey who was always eating peanuts.  After you had eaten twilight fell, the sunset turned the lake to rose, then came night, the sound of lapping water, and the twinkling of many lights.  The Band climbed into the round stand, Mr. Conway raised his baton, and unforgettable music floated out across the darkness.  Row-boats and canoes glided in and out of the shadows near the shore."


Part of the impetus to build the park at the Renwick site was the simultaneous rebuilding of the Renwick pier.  From there, the steamboats 'Frontenac', 'Iroquois' and 'Mohawk' offered excursions up the lake.  Rowboats and canoes could be-rented.  Tourists at grand hotels and summer resorts along the lake, like Sheldrake House and Frontenac Beach Hotel, came to Renwick Park by steamboat for a day's outing.  These tourists were an large part of the park's clientele.  The pier was also an important site for cottagers, who traveled back and forth to their cottages from there on the steamboats 'Horton' and 'Kellogg'.  These steamboats also provided cottagers with services such as mail, ice and grocery delivery.


As with most development at the waterfront, the building of Renwick Park required fill for the swampy land. James Jeffrey Renwick, great grandson of James Renwick and the park's first caretaker, remembered teams of horse drawn wagons hauling fi l from the gravel bank at Old Percy Field and Lake View Cemetery. These teams of horses and wagons were paid $2.50 a day for ten hours work, he recalled.

At the same time as the Renwick Park development, Cascadilla Preparatory School hired architects Vivian and Gibb (architects for Renwick Park) to design a boathouse for their rowing crew.  Work began in 1894 and was completed in 1896 under the direction of Stephen Otiz (also the same contractor who built the Renwick Park pavilions).  Though reduced and deteriorated somewhat, the Cascadilla Boathouse stands today as a prime example of a Shingle Style building of that era, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.  The city recently completed a Historic Structure Report for this building, and proposes to restore it and develop the first floor as a museum.


The Cascadilla Boathouse construction was underway at a time of rapidly growing interest in the sport of rowing.  Cornell began rowing in the early 1870's.  By the 1890's the newspapers devoted plenty of coverage to the competitions and rivalries between schools.  Many Ithacans followed the fates of the Cornell rowing crew, a highly competitive and successful crew, coached by Charles Courtney from 1885 to 1920. The Cascadilla crew, many of whom moved on to Cornell, was also very successful. Cornell occupied a small boathouse further along the Inlet, which was rebuilt in 1890 and again in 1957- 1958 (the Collyer boathouse.

Rowing drew thousands of spectators.  Observation trains were organized on the Cayuga Lake Railroad (by then part of Lehigh Valley) along the east shore of the lake.  These trains ran from 1899 to 1936.  Spectators boarded at the Fulton Street rail yards (see photo).  An engine was hitched at either end of a long series of open cars.  For a 1904 Memorial Day race pitting Cornell against Harvard, the crowd was so large they needed 32 train cars. The course had to be lengthened from 2 miles to 5 miles.  Of that race, Coach Courtney noted:

"The water would have been in fine condition if the steamboats had not run ahead of the  crews and made the water very rough.  The observation train of 32 cars and two engines made a beautiful sight. Then added to that all of the large steamers and yachts of all kinds and the hundreds of row boats made one of the grandest sights I ever saw.  The race itself did not amount to much as Harvard was no match for Cornell."


Activity along the Inlet at the Turn of the Century

Steamboat Landing experienced a final decline in steamboat traffic after the pier at Renwick resumed.  On maps after 1899 the site is no longer identified as "Steamboat Landing".  Boat liveries and small private boathouses continued there for another few decades.  Today the Johnson Boatyard, established in 1908, remains on the north shore of Cascadilla Cove to remind us of its busy boating past.


With the greater use of trains for freight and passenger transport, the Inlet barge builders and boatyards also declined, despite the resurrection of the Barge Canal system at the turn of the century.  However, there was a growth in boat liveries and builders of smaller boats made of oak and cedar such as rowboats and canoes.  Ithacans and Cornellians would come to the Inlet to rent a rowboat or canoe for a pleasant outing on the lake.  Cornell paleontological professor Gilbert Harris, founder of the Paleontological Research Institute, took his students to the Inlet to board some renowned boats the Ianthina, the Orthoceras, and the Ecphora for field trips on the Lake and as far away as North Carolina.


The Black Diamond

The Lehigh Valley Black Diamond train made its debut in 1896.  A luxurious train, the company billed it as "The Handsomest Train in the World" and advertised its attributes:

"Each car on the train is finished in polished Mexican mahogany, with figured mahogany panels and inlaid beveled French plate mirrors.  The ceilings are of the new style Empire dome pattern, finished in white and gold."

It was also dubbed the Honeymoon Express as it was a favorite of newlyweds on their way to Niagara Falls.  As the Lehigh Valley – Ithaca branch was on the direct route from NYC to Buffalo and Niagara Falls, the Black Diamond train was a familiar sight at the Inlet


The Rhine

By the 1890's at least two neighborhoods had developed on the west side of the Inlet. Immigrant workers lived in simple 2 story wood-framed houses to the south along Floral Avenue. In a section known as the Rhine or Silent City, people lived in squatter shacks to the north west as far up as where the Hangar Theater stands now, perhaps up as far as Hog's Hole.  Carol Sisler described the squatters as the "poor and uneducated and often the victims of industrial expansion, hired or fi red seasonally, perhaps injured by factory work, unable to work, or too sick to work." Albert Curry Sr., once a resident there, remembered it as a very close knit community; he recalled that it was like the bayou of Louisiana, with trees hanging down around a me an der ing waterway.  The residents laid planks over the usually wet ground for walkways. In the squatter community, people got by fishing, making moonshine, and doing seasonal work.  Life was hard and precarious; the water flooded often, and it carried the effluence of tanneries and other industries, as well as that of the human population who had other sanitation systems.  Over 40 % of the typhoid cases in the 1903 epidemic were among 'Rhiners', as were a quarter of all of Ithaca's tuberculosis cases around the same time.


Most other Ithacans scorned and avoided this community; a few, however, were sympathetic and worked to aid its residents.  Elizabeth Beebe spearheaded an effort to provide Christian works and services to the Inlet residents through the creation of the Inlet Mission.  In 1882, the Inlet Chapel was built on the corner of State Street and Buffalo Street. Elizabeth Beebe provided nondenominational services there, in addition to personally visiting and caring for those sick and in need.  When Beebe died in 1905 of pneumonia at the age of 62, the Chapel was re named in her honor.  In 1916, it was rebuilt on Cliff Street, close to its old location. (see report of Inlet Committee's maps).


The Williams family, a wealthy family who lived at Cliff Park on West Hill, donated the land for significant west end community projects like the Inlet Chapel, the Williams Playgrounds, Brindley Park, and the Westside House (built in 1918). Three sisters-Augusta, Charlotte and Ella-were instrumental in these developments. Although most of the Williams donated land is now under the flood control channel, the

Williams Playgrounds, Brindley Park, and the Westside House (built in 1918). Three sisters – Augusta, Charlotte and Ella - were instrumental in these developments.  Although most of the Williams donated land is now under the flood control channel, the drinking fountain of Brindley Park next to the playground still remains and could become a focal point for remembering this community.

Also of note, writer Grace Miller White was sympathetic to and immortalized the Rhine in her series of Storm Country novels.  'Tess of the Storm Country' was made into a silent movie by Wharton Studios (although it was not fi lmed here in Ithaca).



Flying at the Waterfront

In the early decades of the 20th century, the west side of the Inlet witnessed a huge variety of planes in the sky and on the water as the municipal airport developed there.  In 1914, invited by the Ithaca Board of Trade, the Thomas Brothers moved to Ithaca from Bath and set up the Thomas Bros. Aeroplane Co. and Aviation School in the former factory of E.G. Wyckhoff Incubator Co. on Brindley Street. Land by what is now Cass Park and the Hangar Theater was used for their flying field, both for training pilots and for testing airplanes.  This airport was one of the first in the state and was well suited for the Thomas Bros., as they could land on both land or water, as well as on the frozen lake surface in winter.  Their school was well regarded. They trained, among others, many Canadians seeking to join the prestigious British airforce in WWI.  The company experimented with a series of different types of planes – seaplanes, racers, fighters and observation craft.  They were best known for the 'Tommy', a 'snappy little single seat advance trainer call the S-4 scout.'  About 600 Tommy Scouts were built under war contracts.


By 1917, when the U.S. entered WWI, Thomas Bros. had merged with Morse Corporation, bec om ing Th o mas-Morse.  They opened a new factory on south hill and with war contracts employment jumped from 100 to 1,200.  Although the school closed for a time due to lack of instructors (most had left to join the war effort) the airport was busy with the test flights of airplanes during the war. Thomas-Morse de signed the MB-3, the first postwar fighter ordered in quantity by the military and was very busy in the immediate postwar years.  However, by 1929, Thomas- Morse was absorbed by Consolidated Aircraft Co. and moved to Buffalo.  The airplane factory on south hill was converted to the manufacture of adding machines.

During the Depression, there was expansion at the airport.  A Works Program was responsible for building a 2750' long paved runway, the first in Central New York, over a swampy area that was filled in by Inlet dredging.  A modern two-story glass, steel and stone hangar was also built and opened in 1932.  Huge crowds at the official opening were treated to parachute jumping, guest aircraft and quick trips aboard a giant Ford trimotor. During WWII, over 4,000 pilots were trained at the airport, making it the airport's busiest years.  Although there was no airline as yet, the airport was home to private aircraft and occasional charter flying.  In 1945, Robinson Air lines became Ithaca's first airline, offering about 5 flights daily to Albany, NYC, Binghamton, and Buf fa lo.  In 1948, Robinson moved to the newly opened county airport on east hill and activity at the municipal airport gradually decreased.  Private planes flew out of there until it closed in July of 1966.


Wharton Studios and Stewart Park

After the turn of the century, Renwick Park experienced a rather quick decline in popularity as cars provided people with a greater variety of leisure opportunities.  Renwick became increasingly unprofitable and by 1915 was shut down.  The land was leased to the Wharton Brothers, who used it as a studio site for movie productions.  The Whartons had come to Ithaca the year before to fi lm 'Dear Old Girl of Mine', a college romance set at Cornell.  Recognizing the scenic potential of Ithaca's gorges, lake, trolleys and buildings, they decided to stay.  Their movie making, with movie stars such as Irene Castle and Pearl White, and stunts such as trolleys falling into gorges, drew many fascinated onlookers, tourists and Ithacans alike. Wharton Bros. allowed people to continue to visit the Renwick Park site, provided they did not interfere with their work.  The Whartons left by 1919, however, finding the climate of California more conducive to year round movie production.


Renwick Park buildings remained largely intact at this time, although the grounds and lands cap ing had been poorly maintained.  Soon there were plans to make the park into a publicly owned municipal park.  In Mayor Edwin C. Stewart's' inauguration speech in January of 1920, he declared that " it is a disgrace to our city that there is not a place where Ithacans and their guests may go to enjoy our lake without trespassing on private property".  He acted quickly on his commitment to provide access to the lake, and by 1921 the land had been purchased, the grounds spruced up, debris from the waterfront cleared and the park made ready for public enjoyment. The intended opening had to be postponed due to flooding, and, unfortunately, Mayor Stewart died in the interim before the official opening of the park on the fourth of July. His vision held true, and many Ithacans and visitors enjoyed the park as they continue to do today.  In his will Mayor Stewart left $150,000 to the city for the improvement and maintenance of the park, and it was renamed Stewart Park in his honor.  In 1923 the City acquired the Cascadilla School property which was added to the park.   The park shoreline was expanded offering more bathing fishing and boating opportunities.  Yet the lands were still flood prone – Jane Dieckmann recounted that ballplayers would have to retrieve balls hit too far into the swampy end.  A comprehensive plan was put together for Stewart Park in 1934, at which time the level of the park was raised by two to three feet by dredging and infill operations.


Land directly to the south of Stewart Park became a bird refuge when the descendants of Renwick deeded their remaining property to the City in 1913.  The Cayuga Bird Club maintained the bird refuge, renaming it the Louis Agassiz Fuertes Bird Sanctuary after their's presidents death in 1927.  It was to be left entirely undisturbed except for paths.  Now under the auspices of the City, it has remained largely untouched, providing shelter for many species of birds and  animals, and providing our community with a wonderful natural resource, Ithaca's only example of an old growth flood plain forest.



The Flood Control Channel

Today, it is hard to imagine the west end without the flood control waterway.  Although it is was created as recently as the 1960's, it is a major component of the waterfront's history.  The catalyst for Ithaca's Flood Control Channel was the great flood of 1935 that inundated most at areas of the City of Ithaca, hitting the Inlet area particularly hard.  After that, resolve intensified to provide truly comprehensive flood control. In 1950, Common Council voted unanimously for the creation of the flood control channel, despite the severity of its impact. After many years of discussion and lobbying at a higher political level, it was included in the Federal Flood Control Act of 1960.  Work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began in 1964 as funding was app roved.

Work on the channel occurred in three phases.  The first phase deepened and widened the mouth of the Inlet north of Cascadilla Creek.  The second phase involved projects at the south end of the city, including a new bridge for the Lehigh Valley railroad. The third phase saw the digging of the channel all the way from the southwest corner of today's Southwest Park north to Cascadilla Creek. The channel went through the heart of the Inlet Neighborhood, and required the demolition of the West Side House, Beebe Community Chapel (formerly the Inlet Beebe Mission), and 55 out of 65 homes in the area.  Over 30 of these homes were set on fi re for fi re department training exercises.


The creation of the flood control channel was an angry, painful process for Inlet neighborhood residents and Ithacans alike.  In a letter to the newspaper, one resident suggested it was "a conspiracy to rid Ithaca of Floral Avenue's dilapidated houses".  Another resident remembers it as "the night they burned the west end".  A Fall Creek neighborhood resident remembered thinking, " I wonder if they'll ever do that to my neighborhood".

After its completion, Ithaca had an Inlet with substantially improved flood control.  Cornell University had the use of a three-lane, 2000 meter, Olympic eligible rowing course. The Ithaca Garden Club planted crab apple trees along its banks. The City was also left with Inlet Island, and with the 'Octopus' intersection, which Ithacans endured for more than twenty years, until it too was rectified with the building of route 96 and route 89 bridges in 1997.


Cass Park

Cass Park exists on an amalgamation of several different parcels of land the city acquired over the years.  These include the area of the former municipal airport, land acquired in 1929 between the railroad tracks and the Inlet where the shacks of "Silent City" used to be, and Lehigh Valley Railroad land, including the 'loop', appropriated in 1966 at the time of the Flood Control Channel project.  Earth dredged from that project could be said to have created land as it was used to fi ll in the southern portion of the park.  The Cass Park ice rink opened in November of 1972, and the swimming pool and ball fields opened in the summer of 1973. More ball fields and a minipool were added later.  Cass Park was named after Leon Cass (Cornell '29), who became city engineer in 1933 and was responsible.

At the north end of Cass Park, the Hangar Theater occupies what was the old airport hangar, built in 1932. The hangar was converted into a theater with Rockefeller funding, and the theater opened in 1975 under the artistic directorship of Robert Moss.  Around that time, there were also attempts to secure Rockefeller funds for the creation of a National Arts and Recreation Center.  According to its master plan, it called for a museum, concert hall, planetarium, children's center and theater.  There were also plans for a national level theater center and school devoted to Ancient Greek plays, on something of the scale of the Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake.

Just to the north of Cass Park, Allan H. Treman State Marine Park is the largest inland marina in New York State, with 399 berths.  A city marina was first constructed at this site in the 1960's.  The state took it over and further developed it at the time of the Cass Park construction.


The following were used as sources and are recommended for further reading.


Abt, Henry Edward.  Ithaca.  Ithaca: Ross W. Kellogg, 1926.

Dieckmann, Jane Marsh.   A Short History of Tompkins County.  Ithaca, N.Y.: DHS, 1986.

Dieckmann, Jane Marsh, Margaret Hobbie and Carol U. Sisler, eds. Ithaca's Neighborhoods: The Rhine, The Hill, and The Goose Pasture.  Ithaca, N.Y.: DHS, 1988.

Kammen, Carol.  The Peopling of Tompkins County.  Interlaken, N.Y.: Heart of the Lakes Pub., 1985.

Kammen, Carol, ed.  What They Wrote: 19th Century Documents from Tompkins County, New York.  Ithaca, N.Y.: CA, 1978.

Lee, Hardy Campbell.  A History of Railroads in Tompkins County.  Rev. and enlarged by Winton Rossiter.  Ithaca, N.Y.: DHS, 1977.

Norris, W. Glenn. Old Indian Trails in Tompkins County.  Ithaca, N.Y.: DHS, 1988.  (note: 1st ed. printed in 1944).

Norris, W. Glenn.  Early Explorers and Travelers in Tompkins County.  Ithaca, N.Y.: DHS, 1961.

Roberts, Kenneth G. and Philip Shackleton.  The Canoe: A History of the Craft


Cayuga Nation  (pre 1790's )

Early White Settlement (1750 – 1809)

1750    Missionaries Cammerhof and Zeisberger pass through the Inlet Valley and camp near what is now Stewart Park.

1753    Tutelo Indians travel north from Virginia and est ab lish village of Coreogonel on Inlet Creek near Butt er milk Falls.

1779   Sullivan campaign destroys Iroquois crops and settlements.

1789      The first white settlers stay through the winter in what is now Ithaca.

Cayugas sign an agreement to sell land.

1790      Military Tract lands are awarded as payment to soldiers for their military service in the Revolutionary War.  Andrew Moodie sells lot #88 to James Renwick. Lightfoot sells trade goods at a site near present day Steamboat Landing (Ithaca's fi rst store).

1800    State Surveyor General Simeon DeWitt owns most of land at heart of village.

1804    DeWitt names this settlement 'Ithaca' which replaces the various names 'the Flats, the City, Sodom'.

1809   The population is 250.

Early Development – The Canal and Steamboat Era (1812 to 1840)

1812    Activity increases at the port of Ithaca on the Inlet as it bec omes an important port for the transport of gypsum during the war years.

1817  Ithaca becomes the county seat, and a courthouse is built.

1820      Steamship 'Enterprise' is built in Inlet and makes fi rst trip.

1821      Steamboat 'Enterprise' makes its trips from Port Renwick.

1823   Eastern portion of Erie Canal opens.

1825    Erie Canal is completed. The second steamboat 'Telemachus' is put into service.

1827      Steamboats resume trips from Inlet.

1828      The Ithaca and Owego Railroad company is chartered, the second railroad company to be chartered in New York State. Port of Ithaca at the Inlet handles 10078 tons of exports and 7727 tons of imports.

1829      The population of Ithaca is now 3,592, which is triple that of 1825.

Steamboat 'DeWitt Clinton' is launched.

1834   The Ithaca and Owego Railroad opens.

1837      Depression.

1838      The pier at the mouth of the inlet is built.

Railroad Era (1870's and 1880's)

1842    Ithaca and Owego Railroad Company fails and is sold to become. Cayuga and Susquehanna Railroad. T.D. Wilcox purc has es the Cayuga Lake Steamboat Company.

1849    Cayuga & Susquehanna constructs a new route from steamboat landing with a switchback and trestle to Owego.

1855    Population 7,000.  The Cayuga and Susquehanna becomes in effect a division of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Co.

1857    Major fl ood.

1860-65          Civil War. Shipping at Inlet increases.

1868    Cornell University inaugurated.

1870      The 'Frontenac' steamboat is built.

1870-80          Population grows to 11,190.

1871      Ithaca and Athens Railroad opens on east side of Inlet heading south.

1872      Cayuga Lake Railroad opens on east side of Inlet heading north.

1873      Geneva & Ithaca opens on west side of Inlet.

1873    A year of fi nancial crisis.  The three new Inlet railroads und er go sales and eventually become part of the Lehigh Valley Railroad system by 1890.

1878    Lehigh Valley House is constructed.

1882    Inlet Mission wooden chapel built.  Ithaca Street Railway system char tered.

1888   The village of Ithaca becomes a city.

1893  The ISR trolley begins operating, and links the hills to fl ats.

Recreation Era  (1894 - 1915)

1894      The Cayuga Lake Electric Railway Company runs a trolley to Cayuga

Lake.  In June, Renwick Park opens. On July 4th, 12,000 people celebrate Independence Day at the park.  On August 2, the restaurant pavillion is complete.  Renwick pier is built for steamboat exc ur sions.

1895      The Renwick Park dancing pavillion, bandstand, water tower and other structures, all designed by architects Vivian and Gibb, are complete.

1896      The Black Diamond Express begins its daily travel through Ithaca. At

Renwick Park, a stage is added to the dancing pavillion, making it

Ithaca's fi rst vaudeville theater.  The Cascadilla boathouse, begun in 1894, is com plete d.  In Ithaca, the city's fi rst sewer system is open for public use.

1898    Renwick Park adds a projection booth to the dancing pavillion and becomes site of Ithaca's fi rst motion picture theater.  A new passenger terminal for the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company is built on the site of their previous depot.

1898      Observation trains carry several thousand visitors along the east shore to view a Memorial Day race between Cornell's crew and Pennsylvania.  Edward G. Wyckhoff buys Ithaca Street Railway and takes over man agement of Renwick Park.

1899      First car in Ithaca.

1901-02          Severe fl oods.

1903      Typhoid epidemic.  The steamer 'Horton' provides services to cottagers from Renwick Pier until 1925, and also serves as the offi cial fi nish boat for Cornell crew races.

1904      The rowing race between Cornell and Harvard draws the largest crowd

in Cornell rowing history.  32 fl at cars are used for the obs er va tion train, and the course has to be expanded from 2 miles to 5 miles.

1905      Another serious fl ood.

1906      City acquires some of the land at present day Cass Park.  The Inlet isdredged and straightened for the Barge Canal.

1908    ISR sold to Albert Flint, who then sells Renwick Park to a group of local men who form the Renwick Park and Traffi c As so ci a tion.  Despite their efforts, Renwick Park experiences a decline and is closed in 1915.

1913    The Renwick family present 55 acres south of Renwick Park for a bird sanctuary to the City of Ithaca.  The site, initially named Renwick Wildwood, is maintained by the Cayuga Bird Club.

Flight, Film and Public Works (1920's through the 1940's)

1914      Thomas Bros. Aeroplane Co. and Aviation School moves to Ithaca from Bath. 122 acres of now Cass Park land is dev el oped as a municipal airport with a large hangar and a seap lane landing site on the Inlet.  The school fl ourishes.

1915      Wharton Studios lease Renwick Park site until 1919.

1916      Polio epidemic. Williams family donates Williams playground to the City.

1917      Thomas Bros. amalgamate with Morse Chain Works to become theThomas-Morse Aircraft Corp.  Staff in airplane production increases from 100 to 1200.

1918      Westside House community center built.

1920      Population 17004.

1921      Stewart Park opens on July 4th.

1925    Inlet "beautifi cation" – 8 remaining squatters, including 2 families and an aged couple moved to houses on Floral Avenue.

1927 At Stewart Park, a fl agpole monument set in a formal garden des igned by

Arthur Gibb is erected to the memory of Mayor Stewart.  Cayuga Bird Club president Louis Agassiz Fuertes dies and the bird sanctuary is named in his honor.

1927   Augusta Williams deeds Brindley Park to the City.

1932      A new brick chapel is built for the Inlet Beebe Mission.  A paved 2750' runaway at Ithaca Municipal Airport (the fi rst in central New York State) is opened, along with a modern hangar.

1933      A Work Relief project begins creating Newman Municipal golf course on an old ash dump site.

1934      Full plan for Stewart Park fi nished.  Dredging and infi ll op er a tions raise the level of the park by 2-4 feet.

1935      The west end and the Inlet neighborhood are hit particularly hard by a severe flood July 7th.  City trolleys make their fi nal runs.

1945  Robinson Aviation Corp starts daily Ithaca – NYC air service.

The 'Modern Era (1950's to Present)

1947    County airport on the Hill opens, taking away much of the Inlet Airport activity.

1950   City approves Route 13.

1958      The present day Collyer Cornell boathouse opens.

1959      Black Diamond line ends.

1960      Inlet fl ood control project is part of Federal Flood Control Act.

1961      All passenger rail service to Ithaca ends.  Swimming is disc on tin ued at Stewart Park due to pollution and turbidity of water.

1964   Funding approved and work by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers begins.

1966   Municipal Airport on the Inlet closes.

1970      Flood control channel completed.  55 private homes are demolished for the channel, as are the Westside House, the Beebe Community Chapel and Williams Playground.  Part of Brindley park remains inc lud ing the water fountain.  Park Road is built.  The infamous Octopus is formed.

1971      Cass Park is developed.  Ice Rink opens in November 1972, the pool and ball fi elds in the summer of 1973.  Southern portion of Cass Park is on land filled in by flood control channel project.  The state takes over and develops the marina.

1975    Hangar theater opens, although efforts to create a Center for Performing Arts on the site fail.

1982    Part of Ithaca festival festivities take place at Stewart Park.  This annual festival draws a few thousand people to the park each summer.

1988    Ithaca's Farmer's market moves from Inlet Island space to a new home at Steamboat Landing.  Also, new Ithaca Area Waste Water Treatment Plant opens.

1992      Inlet Island Study published.  Black Diamond trail agreement.

1993      ISTEA grant for Black Diamond trail.

1994      Work begins to 'unravel' the Octopus.  Completed in 1997.

from Panama to the Arctic.  Toronto: MacMillan of Canada, 1983.


??  Robinson, Bob.  Cayuga Lake Boating.  Ithaca:  Cayuga Press, Inc.  1965. Sisler, Carol U.  Cayuga Lake: Past, Present, and Future.

Reports, Articles, etc.

Bacon, John  M.  Stewart Park: Its History, Buildings and Plantings. (from Historic Ithaca)

Bero Associates Architects. Historic Structure Report: Cascadilla Boathouse. Ithaca, N.Y. 2000

City of  Ithaca Reconnaissance Survey.  Part I:  History.

Gossavision (Video).  Dividing Line – The West End Story.

Hobbie, Margaret.  Steamboat Landing slide show script.  DHS.

McGuire, Ross and John Dember.  Cultural Resource Management Survey 1980 Highway Pro gram.  PIN 3047.04.124 Tompkins County.  (Submitted to the New York State Museum and Science Service State Edu  ca tion Dept. by the Public Archaeology Facility SUNY Binghamton.)

Report of the Inlet Island Land Use Committee, Ithaca, N.Y.: City of Ithaca Common Council, 1992.


Overview and Acknowledgements



This report presents an overview of the cultural history of Ithaca's wa ter front, the pro posed site for the Cayuga Waterfront Trail.  It will be inc or po rat ed into the Cayuga Wa ter front Trail Master Plan which will present the natural and cultural history of the prop osed trail corridor and a detailed design for the trail.



Many people helped with the gathering of this material.  Jane Dieckmann, Mar g a ret Hobbie, Leslie Chatterton, Casey Westerman, Rick Manning and Judith Valentine all came to CWT History Working Group meetings, and gave essential direction and ideas regarding where to look for information and what to look for.  Everyone (director Matt Braun, staff, and volunteers) at the DeWitt Historical Society archives were wonderfully generous with their knowle dge and re sourc es.  Historic Ithaca provided essential material on Stewart Park. Thanks to Scott Whitham and George Lyons.  Dennis Mont gom ery of Cayuga Wood en Boat Works gave added insight into canal boats and boat building history in general. Della Herden prov id ed editorial guidance.  Rick Manning helped in or ganizing, editing, researching and providing overall direction to the project.  Thank you to all.

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