By Charley Githler
Ezra Cornell’s Tunnel – the attractive nuisance with its own Facebook page, the bucket list destination for generations of Cornellians dating back to at least the 1950s, the Fall Creek remnant of an industrial past – may be sealed off from the public sometime soon.
A surprising number of Ithacans are unaware of the existence of the tunnel. It’s in the cliff on the south side of Fall Creek Gorge between Stewart Avenue and Lake Street, and it has a storied past.
The mouth of Fall Creek Gorge near Lake Street was a focal point of manufacturing and milling enterprises as far back as 1813, when a grist mill was erected on the site. A plaster mill, a sawmill, a distillery, a foundry and tannery followed soon after. Water to run the mills was channeled from the creek by way of a wooden flume from a point above Ithaca Falls around the face of the bluff down to the mills. It worked, but the wooden flume was subject to frequent failure, especially in winter months.
In 1827, Jeremiah Beebe bought 125 acres of land, including the grist mill, and in 1830 he hired 23-year-old Ezra Cornell to be the ‘superintendent’ of the operation at a salary of $350 a year. It proved to be an inspired choice.
Ezra Cornell embodies the roll-up-your-sleeves, can-do spirit of the time. Ithaca had become connected to the brand-new Erie Canal system in 1828, with the completion of the Seneca-Cayuga Canal. (The Erie Canal was built by people with no formal engineering training, by the way.) The first leg of the Ithaca-Owego Railroad was opened in 1832. The Clinton House opened in 1830. The bank of Ithaca was opened in 1829. The village’s first hook and ladder company was formed in 1830. In Ithaca – population 5,270 in 1830 – things were happening.
To solve the problem of the unreliable wooden flume, Ezra Cornell, with no previous construction experience, quickly began the task of cutting a tunnel 200-feet long, 12-feet high and 13-feet wide through the stone cliff on the north side of the gorge. Employing four men (and himself) in the summer and fall of 1830, they drilled and chipped and blasted through the rock in six months. They worked one end at a time, and when the two ends met, there was a discrepancy of only two inches. Expanding the tunnel to its desired dimensions the next year, and damming the creek above the falls to feed the newly-designed sluiceway, it was to feed milling and paper companies, and eventually the Ithaca Gun Company, for over a century.
In an 1845 letter to his brother, Ezra Cornell recalled that the men worked two drills, while one man cleared stones with a wheelbarrow. He estimated the cost of labor to have been $600 ($1/day for wages), $240 for powder (80 kegs at $3/keg) and $160 for tools and repairs. It’s all documented in Cornell’s precise handwriting in the account books kept by him and held today by the History Center in Tompkins County.
While Fall Creek at the time was becoming a thriving commercial spot, it was still removed from the population center of the village. An 1851 map of Ithaca shows no dwelling or other structure between Farm Street and the mills. Even in 1872, as the population was growing, there was still a lot of vacant land in the blocks between ‘downtown’ and the Fall Creek mills.
Still, as the city enveloped the neighborhood, it stayed industrial for a long time. The Ithaca Gun Company remained in business until the mid-1980s; just below it, the Ithaca Paper Company was producing paper into the 1950s; adjacent to that, at the mouth of the gorge, the Fall Creek Milling Company, whose brands of flour were known throughout the country, was in business until it was acquired by Cornell in 1926. All were served by the sluiceway created by Ezra Cornell’s tunnel.
The environmental repercussions of having those manufacturing enterprises in the heart of the city were not confined to lead contamination by Ithaca Gun. After a massive fish die-off in 1914, the city entered into a deal with the Paper Company to have its discharge removed via the sewer instead of being dumped directly into Fall Creek.
The tunnel is no longer feeding anything today, of course. One end of it can be seen from the Stewart Avenue bridge, if you know what to look for. It’s been a popular destination for locals and Cornell students for years, but getting there is not for the faint of heart. Accessible by Willard Way and a trail behind Sigma Nu fraternity house, it has the distinct feel of an abandoned industrial site. It leads to what’s left of the old dam, and judging by the number of sunbathers on the dam on any given hot day, it remains a popular place.
Cornell now wants to start the process of discussing closing off the tunnel in a way that still allows EMS access. One idea that has been suggested is a large, heavy, locked gate.
“Ezra’s Tunnel remains of historical interest to Cornell and Ithaca,” said Todd Bittner, chair of Cornell University’s gorge safety committee. “However, that legacy is being diminished, as the tunnel and that part of Fall Creek Gorge are simply not safe for allowing public use.”
The university, in conjunction with the City of Ithaca, has started consider potential designs and costs for such a project. Because of the tunnel’s precarious location, it is already difficult and dangerous for any emergency responders to get to the tunnel, and the area is not in compliance with Cornell’s existing gorge safety programs. City officials at the Planning and Economic Development Committee are going to schedule a time to visit the site.
“Cornell and the City of Ithaca are continuing to work to pursue solutions to improve gorge safety here,” Bittner said.
And so, ‘Ezra’s Tunnel’ may be closed to the public soon. While certainly not the safest destination, it will mark the end of an era. Further down the gorge, vestiges of the mills are still there, mostly ignored by visitors, as Fall Creek’s industrial past fades further into the mists of time.