TOURS       GIVE  


  • Home
  • Learn
  • Blog
  • A Traverse Tompkins Rail Trail History Run with Rich John


The History Center blog shares research and findings about local history, excerpts from the History Center Archives, information about upcoming exhibits and other opportunities on how to get involved with The History Center in Tompkins County. To learn more or view the archival materials mentioned, visit us in downtown Ithaca, follow us on social media @TompkinsHistory, or subscribe to our monthly newsletter History Happenings

A Traverse Tompkins Rail Trail History Run with Rich John

Fri, September 22, 2023 12:00 PM | Anonymous

For Traverse Tompkins, I am proposing to do a history - run.  I plan to take some pictures along the route. Pictures will be added to this essay in October, and some of my pictures will be included in the mailed 'Building Bridges' booklet sent to all Traverse Tompkins donors.


Between sixteen and seventeen miles.  And a good time to recognize the political leadership in Cortland County, Tompkins County, and the Towns of Dryden and Ithaca that have pushed through the approximately 6.5 miles of restored trail at the beginning and end of this old railroad.  The work has been tedious, but also shown steady progress, because of that political vision.  Government can accomplish good things.  And what is old can be new again.  I hope that this run reminds people about some of our still visible railroad history, but also in a small way helps keep the boiler fires stoked to make the path of the Elmira Cortland Northern Railroad a functioning transportation corridor again, this time as a fully connected Rail Trail.

I worked for nine years in Cortland and commuted from Ithaca on a regular basis. Driving out along Route 366, I noticed that remnants of the old railroad between Ithaca and Cortland. The Elmira Cortland & Northern Railroad, originally the Ithaca & Cortland Railroad built in 1869, are still visible.The EC&N (later part of the Lehigh Valley Railroad) was an important part of the transportation system for Ithaca.  As a boy growing up in Belle Sherman, we saw the trains still operating from Cortland, so the history is relatively recent.  With my brother, we climbed around the coal cars, coal piles, and a large gray wood structure used to dump the coal out of the bottom of the rail cars into trucks (luckily, without serious injury).  At the time, Cornell heated its steam plant with coal, so there was a lot of it around.  The East Hill Depot (since moved) was located across from the present Coal Yard Café (then the business office for the sale of coal), but did not seem to be in real use anymore.  But earlier, it had been a major delivery point for the City of Ithaca.

If you drive to Cortland and go by the Gutchess Lumber Company on Route 366, you will cross a still existing spur of the rail line.  A short distance to the west, Cortland County has turned a 2.5 mile section of the abandoned line into a rail trail. The run will start on this Lehigh Valley Trail in neighboring Cortland County at its intersection with Gracie Road for approximately 1 mile.

Near the end of the Lehigh Valley Trail where it dead ends, there is a path leading to Route 366.  Running in the direction of McLean for about 1.8 miles, the old rail line is parallel to Route 366 downhill to the left.  After going through the hamlet of McLean, the railroad crossed the highway next to the Country Acres manufactured home park and proceeded down what is now a residential driveway on the north side of Route 366.  In the winter, a lengthy trestle can still be seen there crossing Fall Creek.  This stretch of the run, to Freeville is approximately 4.3 miles

Because Fall Creek meanders, the railroad had to build and maintain several creek crossings and raised causeways.  Several of these trestles are still there along the way.  The pathway of the line roughly parallels Route 366, but on the north side with Fall Creek in between.  Remnants of the rail crossings can be seen from West Malloryville Road and Red Mill Road.  On Google maps, the outline of the rail line can be picked out, even across the Cornell experimental farm fields along Ed Hill Road.  One of the farm roads appears to be built on the old tracks.  As the run gets close to Freeville, just before it crossed the highway, a creek bridge on the right has recently been in use by cattle.

At Freeville, the run takes a left turn onto Cook Street and then passes through the parking lot of the aptly named Lehigh Crossing Apartments at the site of an intersection with another Lehigh Valley rail line that ran between Groton through Dryden and beyond.  However, instead of going east to Dryden along the recent construction of this Trail starting at the Jim Schug Trailhead, the run will instead continue on a grassy path following the ECNR that connects to the Freeville Depot Road till it stops at Johnson Road.  Unfortunately, while the long level Freeville Depot Road still exists and runs almost 3 miles southwest to Kirk Road on the edge of Etna, it is gated and posted no trespass. Tempting to climb the gate, but instead the run goes down Johnson Road and back to Route 366.  

From Kirk Road the trail again goes wild for a bit curving to the right around the Hamlet.  Looking on Google maps, the line running to the south of Etna is clear and tantalizingly close to being a running path until it crosses Etna Lane and later Route 366 just past the Etna Nature Preserve, Etna Cemetery, and a bend in Fall Creek.

After crossing Route 366, the train would continue west on the south side of Fall Creek along the edge of existing farm fields and scrub forest, again along a stretch that looks close to being a trail (but is not) until it intersects with Pinckney Road.  The run will go back to Route 366 to the center of Etna, cross the newly rebuilt County bridge over Fall Creek and follow Lower Creek Road as it parallels the other side of Fall Creek from the Railroad for about 2 miles.  At Pinckney Road the run heads up hill, crossing the old rail line next to the Heidelberg concrete company.  While the run will proceed up to Route 13 and turn right for approximately 1 mile, the rail line runs on a gentle curve to the left above the concrete plant and underneath the new to Tompkins County Knickerbocker Bed Frame Company and meets State Highway 13 there.   

As a possible next step, are plans to construct a pedestrian/bike bridge right there for a new section of rail trail to connect back to Pinckney Road.  If interested in the progress, the Dryden Rail Trail Task Force will keep you up to date.  

For now, crossing Route 13 at ground level, the end of the run finishes as it began, on almost 4 miles of completed rail trail.  First, there is the Dryden portion that flows through mature forest to the east of Fall Creek near a section of the stream known as Monkey Run Natural Area all the way to Varna where it uses the iron bridge over Route 366 and continues past Mount Pleasant Road and the new solar farms to Game Farm Road.  A short section of the trail recently opened here connecting the Dryden and Ithaca paths with two newly rebuilt trestles over what becomes Cascadilla Creek.  

The Trail becomes the East Ithaca Recreation Way as the path crosses into the Town of Ithaca at Game Farm Road and continues for approximately another mile along the Upper Cascadilla Natural Area.  At Pine Tree Road (where, by the way, the East Hill Depot was moved and is still used as a restaurant up near the P&C), there is a left turn, short uphill, and down Maple Avenue to the finish at the Coal Yard Café.  There is a very large lump of coal standing near the door inscribed with the words “Coal Office” that has been there at least since I saw it as a child.  The Rail Trail continues about another mile and a half, ending at Honness Lane.  But the run plan is to enter the Cafe and have a cool restorative beverage.


Rich John is a general practice lawyer, consultant, and businessperson located in Ithaca, New York. He is a member of the Tompkins County Legislature, Chair of the Public Safety Committee, Chair of the T. C. Industrial Development Agency, and is an adjunct professor at the Cornell Law School. Rich John is also a member of the Board of Trustees for The History Center

Physical Address

Located inside the Tompkins Center for History & Culture

110 North Tioga Street

(On the Ithaca Commons) 

Ithaca NY, 14850 USA

Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫˀ Territory


Exhibit HallWednesday-Saturday 10am-5pm - CLOSED Sun-Tues

Cornell Local History Research Library & Archives - By appointment only. Please contact


Email: Refer to Contact page for individual emails, General inquiries to

Phone: 607-273-8284


Find us on social media @tompkinshistory

© Copyright 2020-2023 The History Center in Tompkins County

Web Design by Zoë Van Nostrand

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software
Visit Us