By Charley Githler
Stewart Park, with its playground, tennis courts, barbecue stands and picnic tables, is undergoing a renaissance. The Friends of Stewart Park have stated as a goal to “restore Stewart Park to its original glory.” One can only hope that some of the magic of the park’s first decade can be captured when it opened as Renwick Park in 1894, and steamboat trips on Cayuga Lake left from its pier. For just over a decade, the park was the undisputed number one recreation draw for residents and visitors alike.
What is now Stewart Park was originally part of Military Lot 88, a 600-acre tract sold to James Renwick in 1790. It remained, undeveloped, in the Renwick family for 104 years. Then, in the early 1890s, 40 acres of that land was purchased by the Cascadilla School to build athletic facilities, while at the same time a trolley line leading to the lake was built by the Cayuga Lake Electric Railway Company, which developed a sort of amusement park. These properties opened in 1894 as Renwick Park.
While the true Steamboat Era on Cayuga Lake was a period of 90 years or so, from the 1820s to the 1910s, by the late 1880s, commercial steamboat traffic was being eclipsed by the new railroad lines on both sides of the lake. Water, the fastest and most reliable avenue of transport just a couple of decades earlier, was by then comparatively slow, and seasonal.
But there were important social changes happening in the 1890s, and this breathed life into the Cayuga Lake steamboat business. The ‘weekend’, as we think of it, wasn’t really a thing quite yet, but people were starting to seek out leisure time and activities, and while at the time the average workweek was 60 hours, factory managers, store clerks and office workers (and their families), of whom there were now more than ever, were taking more time for themselves.
And so, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscape architecture firm, Renwick Park opened in time for the summer season in 1894. It was an immediate hit with the public. There was a boat landing, a zoo, a swimming beach, a carousel and a performance pavilion for bands and entertainment. There were electric lights, and there was dancing. It was just a five-cent trolley ride from downtown. And, of course, Renwick Park had a pier that was a launching point for pleasure excursions on the Cayuga Lake steamboats.
Edith Horton, in her memoir “A Child in the Nineties,” remembered Renwick Park during that time. “A picnic basket was packed with potato salad and hard-boiled eggs, and cold-tea which always became lukewarm, in a quart can. With your family, you walked up to Tioga Street and stood waiting importantly for the street-car. Once aboard you went bumping along happily, past the houses, past Percy Field, the smell of the lake growing stronger, around the curve, and there it was, Renwick!
“You climbed down and ran to find the best table for the picnic. There you put the basket and unpacked it. There were the bears to feed, and deer, slender and startled, and a chattering monkey who was always eating peanuts.” As the electric lights came on at twilight, Patsy Conway’s band would play in the pavilion while rowboats and canoes glided in and out of the shadows near the shore.
On June 26, 1896, the Ithaca Daily Journal advertised Lil Kerslake’s Educated Pig Circus at the Renwick Beach Amusement Pavilion, providing entertainment “the same as exhibited at Hackenback’s Museum on the Midway at the World’s Fair,” as well as the musical duo Harry and Emma Smith. The Smiths were touted as “Refined Entertainers, Performers on a Variety of Musical Instruments, Every Instrument a Novelty.” Mr. Smith played the smallest banjo in the world. Also, Master Arthur Smith (no apparent relation to Harry and Emma, though who knows?), champion club swinger, vocalist, drum major and baton manipulator was on hand. Such entertainment was available at daily matinees and two evening shows for a nickel. On the same page are the ads and schedules for the steamboats Frontenac, Ithaca, Almy, and Beula, leaving variously from the steamboat (Ithaca) landing, Renwick pier or the pier at West Buffalo Street. Round trips to Cayuga could be had for between 15 and 25 cents, though a season ticket on the Frontenac or Ithaca was three dollars.
It would be easy to romanticize Renwick Park at the turn of the 20th century. Photographs of the park show people dressed for promenading, and an ensemble band in the bandstand. The pier is crowded with customers and people are clearly having fun. There was swimming where now there are weeds and muddy water. Yet, the water quality at Renwick Park was very likely worse than it is today. Ithaca’s mills and factories of Ithaca discharged their chemicals and waste into the creeks that flowed into the lake. To compound the situation, Ithaca had no sewer system until the turn of the twentieth century. Raw sewage was pumped directly into Cascadilla Creek and Cayuga Lake until 1908. (Swimming was not officially banned at the park until 1964.)
Plus, the area known as “the Rhine,” just a few hundred yards away, was a reminder of the class distinctions in Ithaca. Along the inlet and extending north through the marshy area then known as the “Hog’s Hole” (now Cass Park where the dog park is) and up to the west shore of Cayuga Lake was a motley collection of run-down houses, squatter’s shacks, lean-tos and dwellings made of packing crates, scrap lumber and pieces of tin. It housed a population that to many in the rest of Ithaca had the unsavory reputation of being violent, thieving, immoral, and intemperate.
It might also be added that it is somewhat jarring to 21st-century ears to hear of picnickers feeding caged bears and monkeys.
Still, by the 1890s, Cayuga Lake had certainly become a popular summer tourist location. It was the fashion to “go to the lake.” Large summer hotels and resorts such as the Sheldrake Hotel, the Glenwood, Atwaters, the Wind and Wave, and the Cayuga Lake House were built or expanded to accommodate the influx of visitors now coming between June and October by steamboat. A standard feature was a wide wraparound porch with a row of rocking chairs where people went to socialize. They often provided entertainment. There was a small flurry of construction of rustic wood-frame family “lake cottages”, with most of the materials brought by steamboat, also all with front porches facing the lake. Some still survive in their original state.
The park and the popularity of steamboat rides reflected a change in the way the lake was seen. Until then, it was viewed as an avenue of transportation for people and freight rather than for recreation.
Yet, for all the excitement of the steamboats arriving at the pier, some of them quite sleek and elegant, with flags fluttering, passengers crowding down the gangplank and more passengers boarding, and as festive as it all was, the era did not last long. In 1899, Tompkins County’s first automobile ever rolled in from Syracuse. It was a harbinger of changes more profound than anybody likely imagined at the time. They didn’t know it then, but cars would pretty quickly spell the end of the Renwick Park weekends and the steamboat age.
And then tragedy struck the crown jewel of the steamboat fleet. The most famous of the Cayuga Lake steamers from this time was also the largest - the Frontenac. A sidewheeler, built in 1870, it was 135 feet long and 22 feet wide and had a capacity of 350 passengers on deck and in the dining room. Hulking and graceful at the same time, she was a familiar, daily sight on the lake for over 35 years.
At 1 p.m. on a windy July 27, 1907, in very rough water, the boat caught fire near the Town of Aurora on the east side of the lake. After futile attempts to extinguish the blaze, the boat drifted in and ran aground about 200 feet from the east shore near a section known as Dill’s Cove, just north of Farley’s Point and about 2.5 miles south of the village of Union Springs. Apparently, the wind and waves were relentless and, though the water was only four feet deep, and many of the passengers had been able to put on life preservers, five women and two children drowned as the boat burned to the water line. This was a time when many people couldn’t swim, and women’s fashions dictated full-length dresses and long sleeves, even in July. Some of the wreck was salvaged in 1908, but the rest visibly remained until it was removed during a World War II scrap metal drive.
The Frontenac disaster seemed to mark the end of the era of leisure steam boating on the lake, but it was really the explosive growth of automobile ownership that eclipsed group excursions from Renwick Park. People were very quickly becoming more mobile and independent in their cars. You could drive anywhere there was a road. It was the modern thing to do.
By the time the Wharton Brothers leased the buildings in the park for their movie studio in 1915, there were eight car dealerships in Ithaca and 300 drivers licenses had been issued in Tompkins County the previous year.
Next trip to Stewart Park, close your eyes and imagine the parasols and straw hats, the sound of the trolley and a steamboat whistle, and the band playing Give My Regards to Broadway (the top hit in 1905). It’s one of the more charming chapters in Ithaca’s history.