Ithaca Gorge walk was a must-see attraction for 19th century visitors

By Lynn Thommen

A 1872 ad for the Ithaca Gorge walk.

Fall Creek Gorge, that mile-long portion of Fall Creek from the base of Ithaca Falls eastward to Beebe Dam, had long been accessible on the north side only to the most ardent and daring of climbers and hikers. Ithaca entrepreneur and Civil War veteran William Gordon Johnson (1834-1897) saw enormous potential for attracting visitors to a scenic pathway along the gorge’s still undeveloped side.

His Ithaca Gorge walk would offer unsurpassed, sublime views of sylvan, rock, and water scenery, passing no fewer than five waterfalls, along with vistas of the lake, town, and valley. From its opening in autumn 1869, the trail was promoted widely in guidebooks, newspapers, and magazines for the next 20 years.

The recommended visit would begin in the morning at the Lower Lodge located at the northeast corner of the Lake Street bridge and proceed eastward by ascents, descents, switchbacks, stairways cut into the rock walls, and finally a wooden spiral staircase that spanned from the creek bed to the bank above Triphammer Falls. While considerable manpower was expended in creating “everything requisite to the safety and comfort of visitors,” [1] one reviewer in 1876 noted that, “It is no mean feat to ‘do’ Ithaca Gorge.”[2] Mention is made of “tortuous and in some places difficult and somewhat dangerous scrambles over rocks and cliffs”[3] along narrow single-file paths hewn into the rock of the cliff faces, and steep descents.

 Undeniably romantic names were given to stops along the route: The Rest (with a small aviary), The Plateau (with a seasonal refreshment stand), Cliff Walk (which in 1882 was said to offer the finest view of Jennie McGraw Fiske’s opulent mansion), Trouble Bay (for its steep downward path). The waterfalls each bore names (which Johnson spelled using a singular fall, such as Ithaca Fall): Ithaca Falls, the largest with its drop of 150 feet, followed by Forest Falls to the east of today’s Stewart Avenue Bridge, Foaming Falls beneath the pedestrian suspension bridge, Rocky Falls adjacent to the water power plant, and lastly Triphammer Falls.

Johnson’s death in 1897 was followed by the opening of Cornell Heights as a residential community on the north side of Fall Creek, complete with the new Stewart Avenue bridge and electric street trolley. Ithaca Gorge’s trail and amenities were soon lost to 20th-century progress.

Cayuga Lake Scenery from Picturesque America ca 1875
Cayuga Lake scenery from “Picturesque America,” a two-volume set of books describing and illustrating the scenery of America, circa 1875.





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Lower Lodge, circa mid-1870s, was located at the northeast corner of the Lake Street bridge in Ithaca. Photo by Fred Ives


Johnson Ithaca Gorge guidebook cover
Ithaca Gorge walk guidebook cover.

Clarke F. W., Views around Ithaca: Being a Description of the Waterfalls and Ravines of This Remarkable Locality. Ithaca: Andrus, McChain & Co., 1869.

Johnson, William G. Illustrated guide book of Ithaca gorge, and its surroundings. Ithaca: Andrus, McChain & Lyons, 1873.

Kurtz, D. Morris, Ithaca and Its Resources, Being an Historical and Descriptive Sketch of the “Forest City” and Its Magnificent Scenery. Ithaca: Journal Association Book and Job Print, 1883.

Thurber, C.H. In and Out of Ithaca: A Description of the Village, the Surrounding Scenery, and Cornell University. Ithaca: Andrus & Church, 1887.

The University Guide containing an account of the Buildings, Museums and Collections of Cornell University. Ithaca: Finch & Apgar, 1875.

Articles and mentions in The Ithaca Journal and Ithaca Daily Journal found through on-line searches at New York State Historic Newspapers and Fulton History websites.

[1] Ithaca Daily Journal, 5 July 1879, page 4.

[2] Ithaca Daily Journal, 30 August 1876, page 4.

[3] Ithaca Journal, 30 May 1871, page 4.


HUANG_DARIEN Business and Editorial Portrait REIS_D20160223JR2
Photo courtesy Jon Reiss

Lynn Thommen has enjoyed a life-long interest in local history—the people, places, built structures, and events that make community. Since coming to Ithaca in 2015, she has focused on learning about the Cornell Heights neighborhood and Fall Creek gorge.

Previously, Lynn held senior positions at Bard Graduate Center, The Jewish Museum, American Ballet Theatre, and the Pierpont Morgan Library, and served as an officer of the Museums Council of New York City. She received a BA in art history from Colby College and a graduate degree in not-for-profit management from Binghamton University.