By Charley Githler
It may be hard to imagine, but from the time Cayuga Lake was connected to the Erie Canal in 1828 – and for more than a century thereafter – Ithaca was a port city.
A village of less than 5,000 at the time, the excitement brought on by sudden accessibility to the outside world generated a brief period of land speculation in the 1830s, and while we never fully lived up to the giddy dreams of those early days, the West End of town became a hive of commercial and transportation activity in a very few years. Echoes of that time can still be seen today.
The area where Buffalo, Court (then Mill) and Esty streets meet up with the Inlet was dredged and was the most important ‘port’ section of town, being actually part of the canal system. The neighborhood little further south – where Seneca, State and Brindley streets cross the Inlet, and the basin at the junction of Six Mile Creek and the Inlet – became an industrial and commercial zone of boatyards, grain elevators, loading docks and lumber yards. As railroads came, the transformation was even more thorough, with rail yards, warehouses and freight stations on both sides of the canal.
Some of the infrastructure of that time survives – remnants of the rail lines, a few of the industrial buildings around Seneca and Brindley streets, and the train stations. What is more remarkable is that the configuration of the waterways and roads of the port, which came through urban renewal and the Flood Control Project of the 1960s, is more or less intact and still there.
To explore the area with history in mind, looking at old maps (a trip to The History Center in Tompkins County is always a good place to start) and a trip by foot or bike on the new Waterfront Trail are good ideas, but by far the best way to investigate is by water. Launching in a kayak rented at Puddledockers on West Buffalo Street puts you in the heart of what used to be the port of Ithaca.
It was a place once choked with canal boats and lined with commercial structures. A look at the Sanborn map of Ithaca from 1893 shows grain elevators, warehouses, lumber yards, coal sheds and machine shops lining both sides of the canal. Heading south on the Inlet under the Buffalo, Seneca and State street bridges in 2017, the waterside vestiges of that commercial world are now all but overwhelmed by the natural world.
The crumbling concrete, stone-and-mortar and wooden walls of the old canal are still there, but so is a profusion of vegetation. Ducks and geese are ubiquitous. As one leaves the traffic noise of the bridges behind and enters the basin where Six Mile Creek meets the old Inlet waterway, the presence of the urban world melts away, replaced by the sounds of birds and water.
This is a place where, in the mid-19th century, regular freight and passenger trips to Buffalo by canal boat were launched, a dozen boatyards were kept busy building and repairing canal boats, and hundreds of people were employed in a profusion of businesses. The surrounding area was almost completely deforested to feed the lumberyards around Brindley, Seneca and State streets, since the canal furnished a way to transport it. Cars full of Pennsylvania coal were transferred from trains to barges.
None of that hustle and bustle is evident today. Next to the one-lane Brindley Street bridge, a snapping turtle as big as a dinner plate can sun itself on a log, apparently unconcerned by the presence of a kayak, without fear of interference.
Canal water was notoriously dirty in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The hundreds of boats passing in and out used the waterway as a bathroom and dump. The Inlet brought disease as well as business. Lead and oil from the boatyards seeped into the canal. Today, the water is opaque with mud and sediment, especially after this summer’s rains, and hidden obstacles in the form of logs and limbs lurk invisible just below the surface. Still, the morning haul of a bankside fisherman included several impressive catfish and a carp.
It was the canal trade and businesses near the Inlet that gave rise to the community known as “the Rhine.” Canal workers themselves had a reputation for brawling, drinking, staging cockfights and various other forms of mischief, and the area along the Inlet extending north through the marshy area then known as the ‘Hog’s Hole’ (now Cass Park where the dog park is), comprised of a motley collection of run-down houses and squatter’s shacks, shared that unsavory reputation.
Of course, the canal boats weren’t the only commercial vessels to use the Inlet. Steamboats, originally designed to tow freight barges up and down the lake, started carrying passengers for pleasure excursions, especially on the weekends. Mostly, they docked at a pier on the lake at Renwick Park, but for a time around the turn of the 20th century there was a steamboat landing at the juncture of the Inlet and Cascadilla Creek where the farmers market is now.
As the Erie Canal became the Barge Canal system about 100 years ago, improving navigation in the Inlet was part of that project. Between 1905-1913, the Inlet was widened and deepened, and some of the surrounding swamps were filled in to raise the elevation of the modern park region (Cass and Stewart). It remained an important shipping point into the 1920s.
Until that Barge Canal project, there was virtually no control of the lake and Inlet water level, and flooding occurred almost annually. Even after deepening and widening the canal and the creation of a flood control channel there was frequent flooding, sometimes severe. The notorious 1935 flood, the most extreme in memory, spurred plans for what ultimately became the Federal Flood Control Project in the late 1960s, which consisted of completely re-routing the Inlet from the old steamboat landing two and a half miles south, widening and straightening the channel. It left the old Inlet and basin in place, though, and it has become a sort of de facto nature preserve.
The old port is now a world of water, at once remote from the modern world, and yet just a few feet from Ithaca’s traffic, stores and business. It’s worth the effort to see it from a duck’s eye view.