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.





fred ives 16x20
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.







Hamlet of Myers: From point to park

By Louise Bement

The Hamlet of Myers in the Town of Lansing got its name from the early settler, Andrew Myers, Sr., who arrived at Salmon Creek in 1791, 26 years before Lansing and Tompkins County were formed.  The hamlet is on a point of land formed where the mouth of Salmon Creek empties into at Cayuga Lake. At the time Myers built a log cabin for himself, his wife, and children, his land was part of the Town of Milton and part of Cayuga County.

Myers was a boatman who built bateaux, flat-bottom boats that could carry six or eight tons of freight. He loaded his boats with potash and took them down the lake, the rivers, and canals to Albany and beyond. These early canals were not much more than ditches, but the flat bottom bateaux could travel on the shallow canals and be dragged through the swampy connecting areas.

One night Myers was returning home when he encountered a storm on Cayuga Lake. He pulled into port at King Ferry where he was advised to stay the night as a severe storm was brewing.  He reportedly swore, “I’ll take my boat home or take it to hell!” He must have gone to hell as he was never seen again.

Myers became a thriving community in the early 1900s when salt wells were drilled and salt production began. The International Salt Company produced mainly table salt at its Myers plant. The plant closed in 1962 and Myers gradually changed from a busy production center to a quiet residential hamlet.

Lansing International Salt circa 1903
International Salt Company plant at Myers in the Town of Lansing, circa 1903. Photo courtesy Bill Hecht.

Today, Myers is best known as the home to the Town of Lansing’s Myers Park. The International Salt Company donated a piece of swampy lake front to the town in 1959. A Lansing Park Commission was formed and work began in February 1965 to develop the beautiful park that is enjoyed today. The Town Highway Department used its heavy equipment to build roads, clear the trees, and level the land. Grace Brewer gave the marina in memory of her father, Frank Gallagher. The large pavilions were built by the Town and the Lions Club, and in 1998 a group of volunteers built the lighthouse.

Cayuga Rock Salt Myers NY 1929 Aerial
Aerial view from June 1929 of the salt plant.
Lansing International Salt workers women undated
Women on the job bagging salt at International Salt Co. in Lansing. The man, bottom left, is Bill LaFavor, the crew foreman. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Cratsley,Sr.
Lansing International Salt workers undated
Men moving salt barrels at International Salt Co. in Lansing. Undated photo courtesy Bill Hecht
Lighthouse at Myers Park
A group of volunteers built the lighthouse at Myers Park in 1998.

Screen Shot 2017-11-27 at 11.01.55 AMLouise Bement earned her Bachelors degree in secondary education from Mansfield State Teachers College in 1954. She received her Masters of Science in Education from Elmira College in 1972. After retiring from teaching fourth grade at Lansing, she has since kept busy being Lansing Town Historian (1981) and President of the Lansing Historical Association (1989). While teaching fourth grade she helped her students write four books on Lansing history:  Portland Point, International Salt, Cayuga Lake, and The Rock Salt Mine. (Photo courtesy of



Naming the Finger Lakes

by Carol Kammen

The Finger Lakes Region of New York is as much a state of mind as it is a place. It is also much more than lakes, for there is rolling land created by glacial activity, there is a national forest, and there is the history of those who have lived and used this land—from roaming hunter-gatherers, to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and then to those who came to settle, demarking the land on maps—our stories piling up on each other like glacial rubble. We live on a seven-layer cake of geography and history.

The Finger Lakes is bounded on the north by Routes 5 and 20, from which the larger lakes—Skaneateles, Owasco, Cayuga, Seneca, and Canandaigua—hang like socks on a clothesline. The southern border of the region could be a line drawn from Ithaca to Watkins Glen, then dipping slightly southwest to Hammondsport, a notable Finger Lakes community and probably, while the railroads ran, one of the most popular entry points into the area. To the west, Route 390, and Route 81 in the east complete the encirclement. Even though geographically defined and distinctive—an inland island, perhaps?—the borders are porous.

Counting the Finger Lakes can be difficult. Are there twelve, or thirteen, or are there only eleven Finger Lakes as the Dictionary of New York State reports and current tourist information likes to boast? I include tiny Cayuta (two miles long), Lamoka (four miles long), and Waneta (also known as Green Lake, almost seven miles in length) looking like snowflakes falling to the south, while in the west, there are the pinky lakes, Honeyoe, Canadice, Hemlock, and Conesus that look rather like nail clippings on the land.

All together the lakes appear as a toss of bent nails on a workbench. In the language of type-fonts, they might be considered dingbats. Their names are variations of Haudenosaunee words and are mostly descriptive: Long Lake (both Canadice and Skaneateles); Canandaigua from “chosen spot;” Lamoka from “mud lake.” Only Hemlock is an English word whose derivation is obscure. They are always, all of them, spoken with the word lake following the name: Cayuga Lake, Otisco Lake, Oneida Lake, unlike other bodies of water in the state where the word lake precedes the name: Lake Placid, Lake Champlain, Lake Ontario.

. . .

An astronaut aboard the International Space State captured this photo of the Finger Lakes outlined in snow in December 2004. Retreating glaciers carved out these long, narrow “fingers” that lie roughly parallel with one another. (NASA)

It is a wonder that the Iroquois who lived here first and never flew above the land in an airplane called these lakes “fingers” and believed themselves to be living on the Hand of the Great Manitou. Theirs was a spiritual connection to the land as well as a geographic and political one. Yet, how could they have known these were fingers of water excepting that to move across the land, they had always “to go around.”

. . .

Simeon DeWitt’s 1792 map of the New York Military Tract imposed a grid-like pattern on the land, affixed with new townships named after classical European people and places.

Time is visible in the names on the land. We were once laughed at as the “land of Silly Names,” when Europeans encountered towns named Rome and Ulysses and Romulus where there were three or four houses and a smithy perhaps, places deemed unworthy of their name’s classical origins.

Once we named our roads for their destinations—Aurora Street, Tioga Street, or Owego Street—or for the families that lived upon them. Now our roads proclaim bucolic retreats. We have gone from Jerry Smith Road or Town Line Road, or even Schoolhouse Road, to Stormy View, Reach Run, Whispering Pines, Sun Path, and Tigerlily Lane.

. . .

There is no indifference to the specialness of this place. Our geography determines a consciousness that infuses life, presents opportunities, and creates limits. With pride people are happy to remind us that Francis Perkins, while resident at Cornell, stated that Ithaca was the most isolated place on the Eastern Seaboard, and bumper stickers proclaim that it is ten square miles surrounded by reality. Yet, attachment is more than to the land: it shows in speech patterns, in ruggedness necessary to cope with winters that are often harsh, in the way people combine to tackle problems, and how they divide too, over just about everything. Attachment to place shows in attitudes and how those from the Finger Lakes self-identify when they speak of where they are from. The region is not a quaint past or a forgetful present: you know when you are here and many are homesick when they leave. The Finger Lakes is a state of mind. It is no one thing but many, it is no one time, but all time, it is no one way but many ways. It is, as my friend Art said recently, “Finger-laking good.”

It is a place of distinction.

Mostly, for many of us, it is home.

This essay is excerpted from the introduction to From the Finger Lakes: A Prose Anthology (2015), edited by Rhian Ellis and published by Cayuga Lake Books. 

carol-kammen-newWriter and historian Carol Kammen is the Tompkins County Historian. Kammen is the author of multiple books on local history, including Part and Apart: The Black Experience at Cornell, 1865-1945 (2009),  Ithaca: A Brief History (2008), First-Person Cornell (2006), and Cornell: Glorious to View (2003). She is also the editor of Place Names of Tompkins County and the Encyclopedia of Local History, as well as a regular contributor to the Ithaca Journal and History News, the magazine of the American Association for State and Local History.