Welcome! The History Center is requesting that all visitors continue to wear masks inside the Tompkins Center for History & Culture. Our visitors include young audiences and others who are unable to be vaccinated. We appreciate your respect and awareness in following our Health & Safety Protocols to keep all our visitors safe. 


  • Thu, December 17, 2020 4:25 PM | Anonymous

    The Erie Canal officially opened in 1825, and was formally connected to Ithaca via Cayuga Lake in 1828. The local boating industry boomed in anticipation of becoming a popular inland port. 

    Throughout the nineteenth century boat yards operated at many points along Cayuga Lake. In some instances they were near a sawmill to provide easy access to timber supplies. Oak trees abounded in the woods around the lake. They could be felled, hauled to the boat yard, sawn into appropriate sizes and lengths and built into canal boats, steamboats and recreational boats.

    In the October 9, 1852 Ithaca Journal and Advertiser, there was an advertisement for the boat leaving Ithaca for the two-day trip to Buffalo every Tuesday, towed ‘down the lake by steam [to the Erie Canal], stopping for freight and passengers’ (Return boat leaving Buffalo every Monday).

    One of the earliest boat builders in Tompkins County was the Cayuga Steamboat Company, established in 1819. The Enterprise, Cayuga Lake’s first steamboat, was built here and made its first journey in 1821. Its 24 hp engine came by wagon from the shops of Robert Fulton in New Jersey. The company grew and prospered over the next several decades, changing hands (and names) several times, and producing such notable steamships as the DeWitt Clinton, the T.D. Wilcox, and the renowned Frontenac.

    By 1866 Ithaca had 11 boatyards, each producing between 30 and 40 canal and lake boats each year. The focal point of most of this activity was the Cayuga Inlet where an Ithaca Journal article dated Oct. 23, 1880, exclaimed, “The music of the saw and hammer means bread for many a family, shoes and schooling for many little ones.” About 150 men were given steady employment at several boat yards, producing canal boats with an average value of $3,500. The article further stated “paint and putty cover fewer deficiencies in an Ithaca canal boat than any other that “crawls the water.” About 450 pounds of white lead and 40 gallons of oil were required to paint each boat.

    One especially productive boat yard was that of Benjamin F. Taber. Taber’s produced the private steam yacht, the Clara, which was sleek and fast, and the winner of the only official steamboat race on Cayuga Lake. Both horse- (and mule-) drawn, as well as steam-powered barges came from there, also. Benjamin, William and later Henry Taber built boats in Ithaca from the 1850s until the early 20th century.

    Ferry boats provided transportation for goods and people from 1808 to 1913, including the Busy Bee and the Polly Ann. Imported goods from all over the world appeared in local stores for the first time, traveling through the canal system from New York City and the major cargo ports there. An Ithaca grocer was able to advertise oranges and lemons for sale in 1852. India rubber overshoes, Brazil nuts and ocean fish became available.

    With the rise of the railroads in the mid and late 19th century the usage of the Erie Canal declined, and so did the boat yards on Cayuga Lake. The Cayuga Inlet remained an important shipping point into the twentieth century and was widened and deepened in 1905 and 1913 to accommodate the deeper barge ships. There is little physical evidence left of Ithaca’s days as a canal port, although visitors can enjoy the Waterfront Trail, sit on the docks at the Ithaca Farmers Market, and enjoy a sunset at Stewart Park (known as Renwick Park in the heyday of the Erie Canal) and see the same view of water, hills, and sky enjoyed by the many passengers and workers of the Erie Canal. 

    Modified from an article written by Carol Sisler and Donna Eschenbrenner, originally published on January 2nd 2015 in the Ithaca Journal as ‘Erie Canal Launched Boating Boom on Cayuga Lake’. 


    Visitors interested in the history of the Erie Canal are invited to visit The History Center in Tompkins County ( to review our Erie Canal Collection in the Research Library & Archives.

  • Sun, November 29, 2020 3:14 PM | Anonymous

    Many of you will see (or may have already received!) The History Center’s annual appeal letter in your mailbox in the coming weeks. We need you now more than ever to join us as we prepare for the coming year. A donation at the end of this year has outsized impact on our ability to recover from what has been a tumultuous 2020. Although 2021 brings its own uncertainty, the continued outpouring of support fills me with optimism for a brighter future.

    I am in the enviable position of hearing everyone’s reasons for their generous support of The History Center. The personal stories of connection and meaning are each powerful examples of the impact of our local history museum. I don’t often get to share why I donate to The History Center, a gift that does not come from a sense of obligation or is written into my job requirement. Instead, I give because I see every day the importance of local history in our community.

    We had the wonderful opportunity to collaborate with the Dorothy Cotton Institute on an exhibit and collection of programs titled Sisters of Change: Unsung Sheroes for Racial Justice this past year. The partnership was a powerful celebration of major contributions of women of color in Tompkins County, and across the country. Although I was familiar with some of the people and places, I relished the opportunity to explore many I did not. I gained a deep appreciation of the sacrifices needed to create our world. History matters because it allows us to acknowledge and celebrate our progress towards a more just and equitable society.

    The initiative stood in stark contrast to the national reckoning driven by the murder of George Floyd. Our current moment drew the nation’s attention to the vast inequities that continue to exist. It brought another part of our history into the spotlight – one that is often easier to overlook, and harder to confront. The History Center responded by creating a Black Lives Matter collection to try and document the ongoing racial justice struggle locally, and we continue to grow the collection in real time. This collection will be an asset for future generations of Tompkins County so that they can also celebrate and acknowledge the progress of their community.

    This is why I donate to The History Center. History – and specifically local history – is a critical tool for celebrating and understanding how much we’ve grown and achieved. It is also the tool for understanding how much work is left for us to accomplish today so that the next generation inherits a better world.

    This year, I’m doubling my donation to The History Center because I know how significantly COVID-19 has impacted our finances, and I can’t imagine Tompkins County without the museum. I’m asking you to please make a gift to The History Center as we close out 2020. However we have impacted your life, it's only possible because you are part of our generous local history community. From everyone at The History Center, thank you for your past generosity. We’re looking forward to our future explorations of Tompkins County with you.

    Ben Sandberg

    Executive Director at The History Center in Tompkins County

  • Sat, November 21, 2020 4:32 PM | Anonymous

    Inclined Planes of the Ithaca & Owego Railroad

        The steep rolling hills surrounding Ithaca, New York offered great  challenge to early-day railroad builders. Prior to its abandonment in 1956, the Ithaca Branch of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad entered the city by way of switchbacks. After the D.L. & W. was abandoned a segment of this was later used by the Lehigh Valley Railroad to serve Morse Chain.

        The Ithaca & Owego Railroad was organized in 1827 and is reputed to have been the third railroad built in North America. It was the missing transportation link in an otherwise water route between the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. It connected Ithaca, on the southern shore of Cayuga Lake with the Susquehanna River at Owego. Ithaca was a rapidly-developing small city with a population of 5,000 by 1840.

         Pre-dating a "zig-zag" or switchback system were two inclined planes which overcame the steep South Hill. From the summit it was a “flat land” 30-mile railroad to Owego. Although the planes were abandoned in 1850, they have long captured the interest of railroad historians.  For generations remnants could be found on the Ithaca College campus. A similar operation existed with the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad in Albany.

        Acting upon requests from local pubic representatives the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers in 1828 assigned Lieutenant (later captain) William H. Swift to survey two local railroad routes. One was between Ithaca and Owego and the other between Ithaca and Catskill. Swift secured the necessary surveying instruments to Ithaca. In a letter to Swift, General Alexander Macomb, chief of the Topographical Engineers, wrote:

        “There is a young Gentleman at Ithaca, a Mr. Hughes, who was formerly at the Military Academy, who will be a very able assistant to you and I desire that you employ him in order that he may be useful to the Company after you have completed the location of the road.” 

         Swift began his surveys in May of the two suggested routes between Ithaca and Owego. These routes had originally been suggested for a proposed canal that never materialized. He determined that one along Six Mile Creek and the East Branch of Catatonk Creek was more feasible than the other along Cayuga Inlet valley via the Village of Spencer. In retrospect, the latter course might appear preferable. The first route was chosen for a number of considerations.

        The country from the top of South Hill to Owego was not as expensive to construct. The only costly construction would be for two incline planes. The total cost for building and equipping the railroad up to the end of 1838 was $575,393.05. In defending his South Hill proposal, Swift said most traffic would be southward from Ithaca to Owego and this route had the easier grades; an important factor in the days of horse-drawn trains. Swift then turned his attention to surveying a route for a railroad from Ithaca to Catskill. He also surveyed what became the Catskill and Canajoharie Railroad.   

        About this time, Simeon DeWitt, Surveyor-General of New York State, and other local businessmen became identified with the effort to build the railroad. With renewed interest and capital, John Randel Jr. was secured from the New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad in Delaware to do the engineering work. In his report to the directors and officers of the Ithaca & Owego in 1833, Randel said overcoming the elevation between Ithaca flats and the summit of South Hill “was one of the most formidable obstacles that presented itself in the location of this Rail Road.”

        Randel said the total elevation to be overcome was 511 feet, in a distance of 4,193 4/10 feet. His solution was to “to divide the whole elevation between two inclined planes in such proportions as would give each a grade that would pass nearly along the general slope of the hill, or rock, and thus lessen the cost of excavation through it."

        The foot of the first plane was located about 400 yards southwest of a bridge over Six Mile Creek on South Cayuga Street; and 114 feet northwest of the foot of South Hill. From here, it was 1,733 feet to the head of the first plane. A “middle yard" was provided for at this point, for a length of 250 feet. The upper plane then extended 2,226 feet to the summit of the hill. An engine house was constructed at the head of each plane. The lower plane had a rise of one foot in about every 4 1/4 feet, making a total rise of 405 feet. The upper plane rose one foot in twenty-one.

        Samuel J. Parker, in his reminiscences of early-day Ithaca, said: "At the foot of the lower inclined plane was a high fill of stone dug out in making the plane, through which was a road culvert for the common wagon road up the valley.  I often went to see the rock blasted out; the heavy long pine timbers laid 12 to 16 inches square, the strap iron, spiked on the timber, the cable wheel for the large rope that was to, and did for years draw the cars up the hill; and at last the extraordinary long cable two and a half inches in diameter laid in these wheels; the great power house at the top of the first incline plane; which building was 85 feet wide, and 80 feet long, and stood on an artificial mound made of rock excavated above it, for the second incline plane. This building was just below the road, running just above the upper switch of the present D.L. & W. Railroad a little southwest of the present stopping place of passenger cars."

        Contracts for grading the first nine miles of the railroad were signed in February, 1832, and work on the planes soon commenced. From Cayuga Inlet the route extended in a semi-circle to the foot of the planes, closely following what today is Titus Avenue.

       On February 13, 1834, the inclined planes and 13 miles of railroad were “opened for transportation and travel.” The American Railroad Journal of February 22, 1834 reported: "The incline plane at Ithaca was for the first time used, and successfully. A car loaded with two tons of iron and thirty passengers, passed up the great plane, an elevation of 405 feet, in eight minutes."

       At the top of each of the incline planes there was an “engine house" containing a horse-operated winch with the necessary gearing for drawing up the cars. Windmills regulated the speed of the descending cars. Four horses were employed continually on the lower plane and two on the upper. Only two loaded cars were drawn up the planes at one time.

        An old time railroad employee, Jason P Merrill, recalled: "The Ithaca end of the road had two incline planes, the first one beginning at a point about where South Geneva Street intersects the Spencer road and ending on East Hill. Here the main power house, used for hauling up and letting down cars, and where incoming passengers were discharges and outgoing ones boarded the cars. The second or upper plane as it was called was located about a half mile south. From this point to the main power house, cars were run by gravity, the speed being regulated by hand brakes." 

        Alvin Merrill, father of Jason, recalled working on the plane driving horses when he was 11 years old. "The horses went round and round like those that worked a threshing machine. The cars were let down and hauled up the high, steep hill by that windlass-like system. While two cars were going down it aided in hauling one car up the plane. A man went along with the train carrying oak plugs to use as brakes in case the rope cable broke. The plugs were thrown into the car wheel spokes and caught the wheels against the car.”

        To save money, horses were substituted for steam engines for hauling up the planes. Large amounts of "Cayuga Lake Plaster" were shipped to Owego, while much of the incoming freight to Ithaca was lumber.

    No records have been found detailing the operation of the planes. Mr. Parker said the “short little cars” were loaded at the storehouse at Cayuga inlet. The cars were then drawn by horses to the foot of the first 

    plane, where they were attached to the cable or rope. After one or two cars were thus attached, a flag was waved to indicate it was all clear to go up the plane. Then the winch was set in motion by the moving horses. As the rope moved up the one side of the plane, other cars were lowered. This procedure took about 20 minutes. The horses were then hitched to the opposite side of the arm of the driving wheel, and the process was reversed.

        Mr. Parker said, "It was a lucky day when 25 cars thus went up the two planes, and on to Owego; the same number reaching Ithaca." The Ithaca & Owego soon was floundering in financial difficulties and could not meet expenses. Parker said, "It cost more to get plaster. to Owego and lumber to Ithaca, and keep the road in repair, than to use horses traveling the usual wagon roads." He said the line fell into disrepair.

        In spite of financial problems, however, the railroad was able to secure a steam locomotive; primarily through the efforts of one of the leading stockholders, Richard Varick DeWitt. This locomotive was built in Albany by Walter McQueen, a noted 19th century locomotive builder, and shipped to Ithaca by water  via the Erie Canal, and Cayuga Lake. It was hauled to the top of the planes by several teams of horses.

        To lighten its financial burden the State of New York loaned the railroad company $300,000 with the stipulation that if interest payments were not made, the Comptroller could sell the company at a public auction. In 1840, the state loaned the railroad another $28,000, with the total interest commitment to the State now being $14,000 a year.

        Total revenue for freight between 1834 and 1839 was $117,577.13 for freight and $2,097.14 for passengers

       The railroad failed financially and the state foreclosed. It was auctioned off in Albany on May 20, 1842.

    It was picked up by a new organization called the Cayuga & Susquehanna Railroad Company, which was incorporated on April 18, 1843. No action was taken towards improving the property until 1849, when attention was given towards eliminating the inclined planes.

       A serious accident in 1842, told in detail below, resulted in the discontinuation of the lower plane for passenger travel. They were met at the foot of the upper plane by stagecoaches and carriages. However, work on replacing the planes with switchbacks as well as reconstruction of the entire railroad did not start until 1849. By that time, the Cayuga & Susquehanna Railroad fell into the hands of George W. Scranton of Scranton, Pa. and others who were building the Leggett's Gap Railroad from Scranton to Great Bend. This evolved into the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western. 

        Superintendent William Humphrey directed the laying out and construction of the new alignment into Ithaca. From the steamboat landing at the inlet it ran up the valley to Butternut Creek, where it swung to the northeast on a gravel filled trestle. It then gradually climbed up the, hill. To avoid the cost of bridging ravines near the level of Six Mile Creek, a reverse switch in the form of a Z was built on the South Hill. The new line struck the old grade four miles from the top of the inclined planes.

         For more than a century, trains would back up and go forward in a spectacular ascent and descent in and out of Ithaca. During reconstruction, the Ithaca depot was located at the top of the inclined planes, which had been abandoned before the new line was completed. 

    Reconstruction work commenced on September 1, 1849, and the switchbacks were completed in March, 1850. The whole work was completed on May 1, 1850.

        Alvin Merrill recalled, "Civil Engineer McNiel, with Calvin Bogardus, Horace McCormick, Daniel Stevens, John Miller and myself laid out the seven mile zig-zag route down the hill to gain a distance of one mile, that made the incline plane a thing of the past."


    Tompkins Volunteer, Tuesday, May 3, 1842


    On Saturday last, our village was nearly panic struck by the intelligence that a passenger car had accidentally broken loose, and gone down the incline plane. The facts as near as we can glean, and from what we have seen are these in the first place, there are two incline planes, leading from the summit of

    the railroad into the village. The upper one is about 2,200 feet, descending one foot in 22, we believe, and the second plane, eighteen hundred, descending one foot to four. 

        It has been the practice invariably to let the passenger car down the first plane, with the aid of what is called a brake, with the passengers in it. As usual the train from Owego arrived, and after detaching the

    car from the rest of the train, they proceeded down the plane. After they had gone some one hundred feet Mr. Hatch, the superintendent of the road, and who always stands at the Brake, felt something give way. 

        He spoke to someone near him to assist him, as the car began to move with double rapidity. But he soon discovered that the brake was of no avail, and he leaped off thinking he could stop by blocking a wheel. But in jumping off, the car moved with greater velocity than he supposed, threw him, and before he could warn the passengers of their danger, the car was out of hearing distance of his voice.

        Some of the passengers seeing that all was not right, began to leap out, injuring themselves more or less. Before the car reached the foot of the first plane five or six had jumped out. Judge Dana of this place, and one or two more escaped from their perilous situation after the car had entered the Engine House where the other plane commences. 

        Judge Dana, we understand had his wrist either broken or sprained, we have not learned which, and one or two more were considerably hurt. A Mr. Wm. D. Legg, one of the passengers, deserves unusual praise, for his almost unparalled presence of mind, in saving himself, and a Lady who was in the apartment with him. He says he was unconscious of any danger, until he happened to look out and saw two or three jumping out, and the lady looking out at the same time exclaimed, " Oh we shall all. be killed.“ 

        He told her he would save her, and at the same instant clasped her around the waist, opened the car door, carried her out and walked to the back of the car and stood down on the step, and there watched for a favorable place where he could let her fall, without coming in contact with the timbers of the road.

       The car then under swift motion, as it entered the Engine House he let her fall, and immediately leaped off himself, when the car was within ten feet of the other plane. He struck on his feet and received no injury whatever, and ran back to help the lady. He found she had received but little injury, comparatively speaking, but was much frightened.

       But the worst is to be told. The car passed on, and says our informant, so great was its velocity, after it had left the second engine house, that it was scarcely visible, leaving behind it as it were, a pillar of smoke. It kept the track for nearly 1,700 feet, when it ran off with tremendous crash, and went end over end some one hundred feet, and was literally dashed to atoms, not a wheel or any part of the heavy iron works of which it was composed remained whole. They were either twisted or broken to pieces. 

       And what makes this accident remarkable is, that a Mr. Babcock who remained in the car the whole way, was picked up from among the wrecks of the car alive!!!-- But he was a horrid spectacle - his nose was nearly cut off, his right arm, between the shoulder and elbow, was broken in two places, his head was mutilated in several places in a shocking manner; but neither of his legs were broken, and we are informed that serious internal injury has been discovered.

        He was immediately conveyed to the nearest house, and Dr. Hawley dressed his wounds. The chance of his recovery is about two to five. We were by during the dressing of the wounds and few can describe the excruciating pain he underwent. He could be heard to hallo for twenty rods. If ever the tortures of the rack were exhibited it was at that occasion. He still continues deranged and the only fear that the Doctor apprehends of his recovery is that a concussion of the brain will take place, if so, death must ensue.

       We do not think that any blame can be attached, either to the Superintendent, Mr. Hatch, or the Company. It has been the custom for years to let the car down in that manner, therefore in our opinion, it can only come under the head of accident, and not carelessness. We were told soon after the “tragedy” had taken place, that we should "blow up “ the Company, but we are not of that “kind of folks." The deed is done, and experience,  although dearly bought, will, we are in hopes, induce them to abandon forever the practice of trusting passengers to come down on the plane in any vehicle whatsoever. 

    (Follow-up article from the Tompkins Volunteer, May 10 1842)

                                            The Railroad Accident

        We made a most woeful mistake in our last, as respects the upper plane of the railroad, that is, the one that they have been in the habit of letting the car down by the aid of a brake. We were  misinformed. The plane is 2,200 feet long, instead of 1,200 feet, descends one foot in twenty-two, or in other words, 104 feet in 2,200. 

       We deem it proper to correct this error, from the fact, that any person of ordinary intellect, would at once see that plane of one foot to six descent, would be attended with imminent danger even if every wheel was fastened.

    Richard Palmer is a historian with a specialty in railroad history. He is also a member of the Cornell Railroad Historical Society.

  • Thu, November 19, 2020 8:00 AM | Anonymous

    The discovery in the museum’s archives of a course catalog for the Thomas School of Aviation - one of the first civilian flight academies in the country – sparked development of the living history character who is the one constant in the scene-shifting, fast-moving series of learn-at-home series about enterprise and culture in World War I-era Tompkins County.

    The Old Flight Instructor is my best guess at who was teaching “Aviation for Sport, War and Business,” as the catalog promises, a scant 15 years after the Wright brothers’ launch. 

    It was an exciting time to be in Ithaca: The Thomas brothers employed more than a thousand skilled workers, building hundreds of Tommy trainers for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The Wharton brothers brought famous names of the silent film industry to their studios in Renwick (now Stewart) Park. True enough, World War I raged on in Europe, and the influenza epidemic was spreading across the land. 

    But what a time to be alive here!

    I was able to perform the Old Flight Instructor skit, subtitled “Learn to Fly Tommy – First Lesson Free,” just a few times to museum audiences before the lockdown began. Zoom performances continued through spring and summer (distance dinner theater anyone?) until Executive Director Ben Sandberg ordered up a videotape session in front of Tommy. A grant application to cover five, learn-at-home episodes was successful.

    All characters in the series are real and thoroughly researched. Oliver Thomas really did give tours of the Brindley Street airplane factory (company offices were upstairs). Edith Day, star of “A Romance of the Air,” was impressed with the Tommy that shared credits in her silent film. Lansing-born astronomer David Todd touted “canals” on Mars as proof of extra-terrestial agriculture – although he failed to teach celestial navigation by speakerphone to Thomas School students. And Cornell’s James A. Meissner shot down numerous enemy aircraft – while colliding in midair with at least one.

    Only the Old Flight Instructor is speculative. 

    He would be 130 years old this month. So please pay heed as he adjusts the mask over his snowy white beard, peers at his virtual students through foggy wire-rimmed lenses, and growls “A high-flying welcome to the Class of 1918 in the Thomas School of Aviation.”

    He still thinks it’s then.

    H. Roger Segelken is a volunteer docent with The History Center

    This five-part web series will be premiering on The History Center YouTube channel every Saturday morning at 11am November 14th - December 12th. Subscribe so you don't miss an episode!

  • Sun, November 01, 2020 5:14 PM | Anonymous

    The History Center is delighted to announce a new online exhibit on the New York Heritage Digital Collections website. It celebrates schools, school groups, and classes from the 1860s to the 1960s. 

    Tompkins County Schoolhouse Photos Collection

    Schools are and always have been the main social enterprise of any community. This centrality is illustrated by New York State’s directive to ensure that adequate funding be put aside for the establishment of schools when Tompkins County was first formed in 1817. These hubs of learning were scattered throughout the county; many were small one-room buildings placed in or near villages, hamlets and other population centers. Classes were often mixed, with older students sharing space, teachers, and resources with their younger sisters and brothers. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that districts consolidated and small village schools were closed. Tompkins County and communities throughout the state established the modern public school system that we know today.

    Scope of Collection

    This collection includes black and white photographs of Tompkins County school buildings, classes, and assorted groups. The work of many different, mostly unknown photographers, these images range from small 19th century one-room school houses with a scattering of students, to large class groups of hundreds of students in mid-20th century public schools.

    This is the sixth collection from The History Center in Tompkins County archives that has been digitized and made available on New York Heritage Digital Collections. Explore the others here.

    This archival collection was made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities CARES Act funding. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this collection do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

  • Thu, October 01, 2020 6:24 PM | Anonymous

    At the beginning of September, The City of Ithaca announced their intention to remove the “White Settlers” plaque in DeWitt Park. The monument, consisting of a bronze plaque bolted to a boulder, identifies two Revolutionary soldiers, Jonathan Woodworth and Robert McDowell, who are described as the “First White Settlers” in Ithaca. The plaque has become the frequent focus of protests that decry its exclusionary message and the people the plaque ignores. The City of Ithaca will donate the plaque to The History Center’s collections, if approved for removal at the October Common Council meeting.

    I don’t profess to be an expert local historian, so I feel uncomfortable speaking to the veracity of the plaque’s historical claims. Others much more knowledgeable than I highlight the complex realities at the end of the 18th century and how our understanding of that history has changed over time. The plaque’s simplistic and definitive statement flattens these complexities, and we are left with an incomplete understanding of our community. I am also a white male-identified person, which carries an obligation to listen when others state that the plaque’s language creates an environment of exclusion and oppression. 

    I can attest to the learning opportunity the plaque has afforded me. The removal process offered me a gateway to better understand multiple periods of Tompkins County’s past. It took active engagement to move beyond Woodworth or McDowell. Only through purposeful exploration does the engaged audience discover the histories of the many peoples who called this land home before them, like the Tutelo or the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ'. Nor does it mention Yaple and Dumond, another pair of “first settlers” identified on a New York Historic Marker on nearby Buffalo Street. The plaque’s inherently reductive representation of local history erases the powerful complexity of the moment it commemorates.

    As an engaged audience, we should also aspire to understand the moment in time that produced the memorialization. The Cayuga Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution installed the plaque as part of an effort to honor the sesquicentennial of the American Revolution. Again, our responsibility as an engaged audience is to pursue the diversity of stories and people. The narrative surrounding the D.A.R.’s early monument work focuses on their commemoration of largely male, white colonizers. The narrative is justified, but also ignores some efforts of the Cayuga Chapter of the D.A.R. For example, they did attempt to honor indigenous communities by collaborating on programs and historical markers. As always, the depth of our local past requires us to be active participants in the exploration of our past.

    That leaves the lessons of the plaque for the current moment and the discussion today. Future generations will understand us, in part, by our decision to remove the plaque. Our challenge in this third moment is to capture the multifaceted voices of our time for future generations. I’m thankful for the public discourse the plaque’s removal inspired and to live in a community where such a debate is possible. Once the plaque is accessioned into The History Center’s collections, we will strive to represent the diverse voices involved in its history through exhibits, programs, and other learning opportunities. This allows us to continue recording the diversity of our current moment for future generations – a vital aspect of recording and memorializing the people and places of Tompkins County.

    Ben Sandberg

    Executive Director of The History Center in Tompkins County

    Originally published in the October 2020 History Happenings Monthly Newsletter. 

  • Fri, August 28, 2020 5:39 PM | Anonymous

    Pledge to support Executive Director Ben Sandberg as he embarks on a 24 hour bike ride through Tompkins County on September 7th!

    Support Ben here:

    Ride along virtually with Ben as he bikes as many miles in Tompkins County as he can in a single 24-hour period. Your pledge per mile - whether $.25, $.50, or $1.00 - strengthens The History Center’s continued resilience. This year, Ben is riding county roads to support our postponed exhibit honoring suffragists of Tompkins County. We can still celebrate the 100 (+1!) anniversary of the 19th Amendment in the summer of 2021 with your pledge!

    Before making a pledge, you might be curious about Ben's riding capacity. His current biking record is 140 miles in one day. His September 7th goal is 175 miles, but if the ride goes smoothly, he won't stop there.

    Ben Sandberg first fell in love with local history through his passion for biking. He has done a number of bike tours around the United States, in addition to many long days in the saddle. His routes frequently are planned to stop at historical societies and local history museums. Moving through a community at biking speed gives a deep appreciation for the people, the landscape, and the built environment. Through biking in his early 20’s, Ben realized that we live surrounded by local history that shapes our lives in often unnoticed ways. He is excited to more deeply understand our whole county through this endurance test on September 7th, 2020.

  • Sun, August 02, 2020 8:00 AM | Anonymous

    Stories from Inside” is a project and website created by the History Center Youth Ambassadors to present selected stories of Tompkins County residents during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring. The website includes diaries, press releases, photographs, poetry, and more from people across the community, including students, teachers, business owners, and local government officials. This project was created by the History Center Tompkins County’s Youth Ambassador Program and the submissions used in the website are included in our COVID-19 in Tompkins County Archival Collection.


    Our thanks to the History Center Youth Ambassadors who contributed their time this spring and summer for this project: Sunny C., Raia G., Giancarlo R.V., Emily W., and Isaac W.

  • Mon, July 20, 2020 2:44 PM | Anonymous

    Monday, July 20th, 2020

    For Immediate Release

    The Alex Haley Memorial Project and The History Center in Tompkins County unveil historic signage celebrating Alex Haley on August 8th, 11 am.

    ITHACA, NY. July 20th, 2020 – The Alex Haley Memorial Project, in collaboration with The History Center in Tompkins County, will live stream a ceremony to honor Ithaca-born Alex Haley on August 8th, at 11am. Alex Haley is a celebrated author, best known for his 1967 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The ceremony will unveil a historic place sign on Cascadilla Street marking the house where he was born. The ceremony will include thoughts from members of the Alex Haley Memorial Project, the Legacy Foundation which provided funding for the sign, The History Center in Tompkins County, and local representatives. Due to an abundance of caution, interested audiences are encouraged to participate through a livestream on The History Center’s Facebook page. A sign language interpreter will be present to ensure equal access to the livestream.

    Alex Haley was born in Ithaca on August 11th, 1921. His parents were enrolled respectively at Cornell University and the Ithaca Conservatory of Music. The connection to Tompkins County higher institutions of education was unusual for Black Americans in that era, and is an important reminder of the continuing systemic inequalities that persist today. His work Roots: The Saga of An American Family and the subsequent television adaption is one of the most influential and important U.S. works in the last century. 

    The unveiling ceremony on August 8th closely marks the 99th anniversary of Alex Haley’s birth. The Alex Haley Memorial Project and The History Center in Tompkins County look forward to additional programming next summer for the centennial anniversary.

    The History Center in Tompkins County helps communities use the tools of history to understand the past, gain perspective on the present, and play an informed role in shaping the future.

    For additional information, please contact:

    Benjamin Sandberg, Executive Director


    Phone: (607) 273-8284, ext. 222

  • Mon, June 15, 2020 2:16 PM | Anonymous

    In recent weeks thousands of demonstrators have gathered across Tompkins BLM_IthacaCommons_June2020 County to protest police brutality and racism in the wake of the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by law enforcement, and Ahmaud Arbery by white vigilantes. These local protests are part of a global movement that has emerged to protest systemic racism and excessive force used by police departments across America on black and brown bodies. 

    The problem of unjustified and horrific violence against black and brown people, often at the hands of the police who are tasked to serve the community, is not new. There is a long and grim history behind the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. This history is coupled with the black and brown community's heightened vulnerability to the effects of societal stressors, most recently seen in the disproportionate physical and economic effects of COVID-19. This moment in time has become an inflection point, and black and brown people, with allies of other groups, are seizing it and speaking out with righteous fury and saying, no more.

    Protests are spreading across the world in support, and we at The History Center are watching this history in the making, hoping to preserve the parts of it rising in Tompkins County. We are reaching out to the community and asking any of you to contact us with your experiences of this critical moment and send them to us. It could be an email, a diary, a blog, photographs, protest banners and signs, a video or podcast; any form of communication that works for you we would be grateful to receive. 

    The History Center's Black History Collection will be enhanced with an accompanying Black Lives Matter Collection, and it will become part of the archived history of Tompkins County; used in exhibits, educational programs, and by researchers and students documenting the history of this county. We recognize the current Black Lives Matters protests emerge out of a long history of organizing, and community action in Tompkins County. It is our intent that this archive will also include information about anti-racist efforts from previous years and decades, and the community is encouraged to share their previous recollections of other efforts with us as well. 

    Please email with your input at this historic time or visit to learn more about this and other collections.

Physical Address

Located inside the Tompkins Center for History & Culture

110 North Tioga Street

(On the Ithaca Commons) 

Ithaca NY, 14850 USA

Gayogo̱hó:nǫ' Territory


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


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