A train moves over a rail trestle in Brooktondale.

Hiking trails help make Ithaca a special place. The South Hill Recreation Way, the Black Diamond Trail and the East Ithaca Recreation Way are popular, with people walking, trotting along with a dog or two, running along in all kinds of exercise garb, riding mountain bikes and even on skis in winter. How were these trails formed? Strangely enough, they are the remains of a much older group of transportation corridors.  Walkers, joggers, skiers and bikers may not realize they are following the routes of railroads that once served Ithaca.  Unlikely as it seems, Ithaca was one of the first communities in the country to adopt — or attempt to adopt the “rail road” as a form of transportation.

Developed by James Watt and Thomas Newcomen in England for mine pumps, later applied to land transport by Nicholas Cugnot and Richard Trevithick, the idea of steam power was exciting in the late 18th century. Trevithick and George Stephenson worked up vehicles that traveled on “railways” in British mines. The railway allowed a set of guidance poles or rails to steer loads with less friction than mere wheels on ruts or muddy paths. This “way” had used  horse power to haul heavy loads from within mines to better roads or docks.

Stephenson built an engine used on the Stockton and Darlington Railway  in northeast England in about 1815. By 1826 John Stevens built one to run around a circular track on his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey Yet, in 1828, a group in Ithaca applied for a rail way charter from the state legislature, and it was granted, just the second in the New York, after one from Albany to Schenectady. Just three years after completion of the Erie Canal, construction of a canal up South Hill would have been difficult, if not impossible, so a rail way seemed a good choice. Why a canal or anything? People envisioned shipping through Cayuga Lake to the newly constructed Erie Canal. There was also the possibility of bringing coal deposits from Pennsylvania  along the Susquehanna River and thence through the Finger Lakes to the north. A canal from Elmira to Watkins Glen was under way, but that would leave Ithaca in a secondary position. So, local entrepreneurs decided on a rail road.

By 1832 it was in operation between Ithaca and Owego, using horse power. South Hill was conquered using two “planes”: rails going steeply up-hill — cables towing upbound cars, partly counterbalanced with downbound loads. The power was horses turning a huge pulley (or “engine”) in a circle at the top. The path of the inclined planes is still used for an electric power line up South Hill from the vicinity of Baker Park.

After the hilltop, it was an easy trip along the valleys of Six Mile and Catatonk Creeks to the Susquehanna at Owego. This line, the Ithaca and Owego, ran with horses until 1837 when it acquired a “steam engine” named the “Ithaca” but affectionately or grumpily known as “Old Puff.” As time went on, the planes were seen as slow and antiquated. A new line was constructed from Cayuga Inlet, beginning to climb the hill near Buttermilk Falls. By means of a zig-zag or switchback, it reached the top of South Hill. This route was still time-consuming, and the trains were limited in length since they had to back up onto a fairly short length of track to make the grade.

South Hill Rec Trail

Some residents want development restrictions similar to those enacted in South Hill. 

Renamed the Cayuga & Susquehanna, it was bought by a coal-hauling railroad from Pennsylvania: the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western. The Lackawanna became a New York to Buffalo line, making big profits with coal into the mid-20th century. It was the “Road of Anthracite” and the “Route of Phoebe Snow.” Phoebe was an early  public relations promotion, her part being played by a red-headed model dressed “all in white” and featured in ads and advertising posters. She touted her railroad as cleaner for travelers because it burned anthracite coal producing very little flying ash. But Phoebe never came to Ithaca and theThis switchback line was tortuously slow. It is this route that has turned into the South Hill Recreation Way.

Since climbing South Hill was not a good route, local investors chose a less abrupt alignment down Inlet Valley for the Ithaca & Athens, built in 1874. It went from Sayre and Athens PA via Van Etten. At Athens it connected with Asa Packer’s Lehigh Valley Railroad, carrying coal from the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania. This allowed connections all the way to the New York area, via the Lehigh River valley. At the same time, the Geneva & Ithaca was built north through Glenwood, Taughannock, Trumansburg and Interlaken to Geneva, where  it made connection to the New York Central. The NYC was the powerhouse of New York railroads under control of “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt and his descendants. He is known as the first “tycoon” amassing a fortune still influencing American life today.

The Geneva & Ithaca and the Ithaca & Athens soon became parts of Packer’s Lehigh Valley road. But all this need not concern today’s hiker and trail user. Merely note that the Geneva & Ithaca line up West Hill, quite visible from South Hill, is now the Black Diamond Trail. It is being developed, albeit slowly, by the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. For skiers, note that Black Diamond does not refer to the trail’s difficulty or skill level. Rather, it is named for the premier train on the Lehigh Valley, the Black Diamond, called “the handsomest train in the world” or even the “Honeymoon Express.” It was used by many honeymooners traveling to Niagara Falls. The Black Diamond Trail is not at all difficult, since the grades are limited to 2% or less (2 feet of rise in 100 feet of run). The trail will run from Cass Park to Taughannock Falls or even Trumansburg and would be  usable as a bike route.

Ezra Cornell himself wanted a direct connection to the University he founded on East Hill. The Utica, Ithaca & Elmira, a rural line meandering across the hills and valleys south of Ithaca. had stations at East Ithaca, Besemer’s and Brooktondale and even a “Union Station” at Wilseyville. Not a grand transportation palace, a “union station” was merely one that served two railroads: the Lackawanna and the Lehigh Valley which ran parallel down the valley and had but one station between them at Wilseyville. More notable than stations was the huge trestle at Brooktondale which spanned the valley of Six Mile Creek with a forest worth of timber. This line became defunct by the late 1930s, but a portion of it is still in use as the East Hill Recreation Way for runners, hikers and bikers today.

The Lackawanna line didn’t last past the mid-20th century point. The switchbacks were too steep, limiting and time-consuming for any modern railroad. The switchback line was turned into the South Hill Recreation Way in the 1980s. The middle part of the switchback is missing, though, substituting a steep connector between the upper and lower portions. Down South Hill, there could be a connection with the part of the line that curved up from Inlet Creek. So far, only that “turquoise bridge to nowhere” over Route 13 exists, but there is the possibility for more trail from Buttermilk Falls.

Ithaca also had two other rail lines. An early one ran along the lake shore all the way to Auburn. Today, it only carries coal and salt cars , with the rails ending at the AES Cayuga power plant. The other, built in the early 20th century, was called the Auburn Short Line connecting the downtown trolley line with rails that also went as far as Auburn.

Today Ithaca has lost almost all its railroads, but their history lingers on. We can daily set foot or wheel or ski on it. Rails were good while they lasted. Back in the day  ten-car “specials” would haul hundreds of celebrating Cornell students out of town and back on holiday breaks. All three of Ithaca’s stations remain as banks or bus stations or for lease (Lehigh Valley, Lackawanna and East Ithaca). Rails had some 180 years as a transportation mode that seemed modern in its day. Perhaps they seem antiquated now. But remember:  the car and truck and bus, powered by internal combustion (or perhaps electricity) have been with us for  about 124 years, and may also be headed for some historic footnote. The ghosts of our past may be mostly invisible, yet if you look carefully, you may see them still.•

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