TOURS          GIVE       



  • Tue, February 23, 2021 5:19 PM | Anonymous

    Martha Van Rensselaer, was one of the first two full time female  professors hired by Cornell University. Born in 1864, she was inspired by her mother’s involvement in the suffrage movement. After working as a school commissioner in Cattaraugus County, she was passionate about improving the lives of rural farming families. This led to her accepting an invitation in 1900 from Liberty Hyde Bailey of Cornell to create a program specifically for rural women in the area. After more than 20,000 women enrolled in the program, Cornell realized how important home economics courses were and went on to offer these courses full time in 1908. Van Rensselaer worked alongside Flora Rose, who had been employed by Cornell in the previous year, to co-run the Department of Home Economics. The department flourished under their guidance and by 1919, the department expanded into the School of Home Economics. 

    Van Rensselaer worked diligently to ensure the knowledge she was teaching students at Cornell was accessible to women everywhere. She co-wrote A Manual of Home Making, in 1919 which was widely read. She also often held talks for the Ithaca community, the contents of which were often written about in the Ithaca Journal which aided in further circulating her ideas. Van Rensselaer was also very active outside of the education realm, illustrated by her work as director of the Home Conservation Division of the United States Food Administration during World War I. She was a member of the 1930 White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, which advocated for the education and health of children in the United States. Due to her involvement in so many national level organizations she was named one of the twelve most important women in America in 1923 by the @League of Women Voters.

    Back home in Ithaca, Van Rensselaer lived with her co-director, and life partner Flora Rose for 25 years until her death in 1932. Van Rensselaer and Rose’s relationship was well known, marked by one colleague's reference to them as “Miss Van Rose”. After her death, Cornell dedicated a building in the college of Human Ecology to her, and at it’s naming ceremony, Rose described Van Rensselaer as having “indomitable zeal, unswerving purpose, courage, a great interest in people and an understanding and respect for them”. 

    Learn more about her life through our Ithaca LGBTQ History Walking Tour.


    This article was written in February 2021 by Writing Intern Kate Delaney

  • Thu, February 04, 2021 8:15 PM | Anonymous

    In a community famous for its educators, Beverly Jane Martin was a standout. Respected teacher, principal, community leader, and social justice warrior, Beverly Martin lived all her life in the same house on Second Street in Ithaca. She attended the Ithaca City Schools and received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Cornell, the latter in Elementary Education. Upon graduation she began teaching 6th grade at Central Elementary School, the start of a long, illustrious career spanning 36 years. Ms. Martin eventually served there as principal, and later became Director of Affirmative Action for the district, a position that was expanded to Director of Affirmative Action and Intercultural Relations Services. She was a member of numerous local and national organizations, including Club Essence and the Council for Equality, and was a lifetime member of the NAACP and the National Urban League. She served on the boards of a variety of community organizations, such as GIAC, the Southside Community Center, and United Way of Tompkins County. Ms. Martin was the recipient of many local and national awards for her dedicated service to education, and in 1991 received the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission Award. She was beloved by her students and was an influential mentor to several young teachers embarking on their careers.

    In 1992, the year before she died, Central Elementary School was renamed the Beverly J. Martin Elementary School in her honor. When accepting this well-deserved tribute, she said, “To have a school named after you in your lifetime really takes your breath away.”


    Explore Black history in Tompkins County and learn about leaders and innovators of color from our shared history. 


    Research assistant to The History Center in Tompkins County, Louise Matosich wrote a Then & Now column for the Ithaca Journal in 2007 remembering her friend Beverly. Read for a personal account and joyful memories of Beverly J. Martin. Originally published Saturday, February 24th 2007. 

  • Mon, February 01, 2021 8:00 AM | Anonymous

    Of all the kinds of local history that we preserve at The History Center, one of theTwo small black and white images of a young black woman working at a desk. Images are of Dorothy Bliss working at the DeWitt Historical Society in the 1950's. more interesting ones is our own. We document the work we've done, and, when we can, the people who have come before us. So we were especially delighted when a former colleague, Dorothy Bliss, emailed last year asking if we wereinterested in a donation of her records from her time here at The History Center in the mid-20th century. She had collected Ithaca Journal articles, photographs and other memorabilia, and also offered a brief narrative introduction to an autobiography she was writing. We were excited to receive Dorothy's materials, not only because they offer insights into a long-past era, but because Dorothy is African American, and her observations on race relations in mid-20th century Ithaca are invaluable.

    Dorothy Simmons Bliss (Mrs. Wayne Bliss) started working at the DeWitt Historical Society (as we used to be known) in 1956 as a secretary to the curator, typing, taking dictation, mimeographing materials, and cataloging and labeling artifacts. At first she made $31.60 per month, a modest amount which gradually increased. At the time she was a wife and the mother of two young children, and she became adept at juggling the responsibilities of her family with working outside the home. On her work days, she wrote, "I would run practically all the way home during the noon hour so I could see that everything was okay with my children when they came home for lunch." In addition to her work at the DeWitt Historical Society, she took on freelance typing jobs for a variety of clients, often working for African American Cornell graduate students. Dorothy was glad for the example these high achieving scholars set for her children, and welcomed the encouragement they gave them.

    Dorothy candidly relates the struggles and indignities she suffered at the hands of her boss, as well as others. "He thought that our race was moving too fast and that I was not ready to move up to more prestigious employment. My progress was slowed." One white researcher complained about having to sit near Dorothy as she did her work. But Dorothy was determined to control her anger and maintain her dignity despite this disgraceful affront. She movingly recounts her reaction: "I swelled up inside and didn't cry in her presence. But oh dear what does one do?" She then shares a source of strength and comfort: "So many have described having to bear up under insulting situations to put food on the table. Maya Angelou would write a poem entitled 'Still I Rise,' published in 1978. I would like to have given it to this woman right after she made her remark to me." Dorothy's situation is emblematic of what so many Black people have faced, and echoes the cries of today's Black Lives Matter movement, as well as Black people through the ages in America. It's painful to acknowledge that The History Center (then the DeWitt Historical Society) can't claim to have been any different than other employers of the time. That our atrocious behavior wasn't unusual doesn't diminish its shame. We're grateful to Dorothy for putting a spotlight on this sordid part of our past, and we're deeply sorry for what she experienced at our supposedly enlightened institution.

    Dorothy worked here until 1960 and later went on to work at Cornell University. Last year she celebrated her 100th birthday and is currently working on her autobiography. Her materials are part of our Black History Collection, and when her autobiography is published it will be added to a Dorothy Bliss Collection.

  • Sat, January 23, 2021 2:26 PM | Anonymous

     The Balloting Book, and Other Documents Relating to the Military Bounty Lands in the State of New York, 1825 contains a frontispiece that is a map of the Military Tract as it existed in 1792. It shows the five easternmost Finger Lakes, Lots on 28 Townships laid out geometrically, and two reservations - the Onondaga Reservation at the foot of the Salt Lake and the Cayuga Reservation on either side of the north end of Cayuga Lake.  The book documents the military enlistment policies of the Continental Congress and the State of New York and the subsequent fulfillment of land grant obligations to the veterans of the Revolutionary War.

    On the fifth page one finds an “Extract from the Journal of Congress” dated September 16, 1776, relative to the formation of the Continental Army that states “eighty-eight Battalions be enlisted as soon as possible, to serve during the present war….”  It goes on to list the number of battalions expected from each of the thirteen colonies. New York was expected to raise eight battalions.  Furthermore, it states that “twenty dollars shall be given as bounty to each non-commissioned officer and private soldier, who shall enlist to serve during the present war.” In addition, it is noted, “that Congress shall make provision for granting lands…to the officers and soldiers who shall engage in the service, and continue therein to the close of the war, or until discharged by Congress.” The re-organized Continental Army of 1776 consisted of 36 battalions 768 men each, of which 640 men each were rank-and-file.  Note: The Revolutionary War enlistments therefore, began in 1776 and did not end until 1783 - seven long years of hardship and military service.

    The distribution of bounty lands was left up to each new state at the close of the war. In New York State various acts were passed beginning in 1783 that reaffirmed the State’s commitment to provide bounty lands, but they did not specify where those lands would be.  At one point in time, lands in the Adirondacks were proposed, but these lands were rejected as “unfit for settler agriculture.”  Settlers, land speculators, and the state government’s eyes of course were all on the lands west of the 1768 “Boundary Line.” This line, negotiated by Sir William Johnson with the Haudenosaunee of the Six Nations,  designated “Native Lands” to be west of the line  running up from the Susquehanna River  to follow the Unadilla River northward to the juncture of Canada Creek with Wood Creek, about eight miles west of Fort Stanwix” (present day Utica region).  The agreement was: settlement allowed to the east of the line, but trespass when on Six Nation lands to the west.  The settlement included a direct payment of over 10,000 pounds/sterling put in the hands of the Sachems of the Iroquois. The lands we are referring to, of course, are those of the central /eastern Finger Lakes. 

    A series of negotiations between the New York State government and the Six Nations took place between 1783 and 1789. These negotiations involved the State in the purchase of lands west of the “Boundary Line” from representatives of the Six Nations. Because the power to negotiate treaties with the Six Nations had been given to the Continental Congress, those negotiations have been deemed illegal by many scholars of history and are the basis for contemporary tribal land claims today.  

    By 1789, the State was ready to direct its Surveyor General, Simeon DeWitt, to complete the survey of the purchased lands, and to map them, including the demarcation of the Cayuga and Onondaga Reservations lands. This mapping then became known as the Military Tract. Records contained in the Balloting Book indicate that over 2,000 veterans were eligible to apply for a bounty land grant. The names of the eligible men are listed by the Companies and Regiments in which they served. Reading through them one can note the ethnic diversity suggested by their surnames.  Also, one can find the names of 12 “Indians” who had been given commissioned officer rank in the Continental Army and were eligible for grants each of 1200 acres or more. The tribal allegiances of these men are not specified. 

    Of course, after seven years, some veterans had died.  Others had moved on with their lives and had established themselves and their families in comfortable situations and were not interested in pioneering anew.  Many were quite willing to sell their allotment cheaply to newer arrivals or land speculators.  The rather complicated process of allotment is described in great detail in the Balloting Book.  The deeds were made out to the veteran, but could be picked up in Albany by the veteran’s designate. One can find in the section titled “The Book of Delivery” for example, our Town of Ulysses’ Abner Trimmins, receiver of Lot 2, had Dr. Reuben Frisbee pick up his deed for him.

     According to the research done in 2016 by Mary Ellen Gleason, Registrar of the Chief Taughannock Chapter of the NSDAR, some 305 men who were Revolutionary War veterans lived part of their life in Tompkins County after the Revolutionary War and many are buried in local cemeteries.  However, only about eight of these men actually took up land through the balloting procedure. The rest bought their land from “unscrupulous land speculators who had bought Lots from impoverished veterans for almost nothing.”  Do you know what Lot you are living on today?

    John Wertis is the Ulysses Town Historian

    Photo caption: The map in the Balloting Book of 1825 shows the individual lots that were drawn to distribute to veterans of the Revolutionary War.

  • 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. 

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


Exhibit Hall Wednesday-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 2020-2022 The History Center in Tompkins County

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software
Visit Us