We are having real winter weather this year, and, when it isn’t frigid, we can enjoy a variety of outdoor activities locally. Back in the good old days people enjoyed much of the same fun, but outdoor recreation has definitely changed a lot since then. Sledding down the Buffalo Street hill would be unthinkable today, yet back in the late 19th- and early 20th-century, it was a popular pastime, as were fast-moving rides in horse-drawn sleighs with bells ringing.
Back in the 19th century, heavy snow played a major role in winter activities. Farms could be snowed in for weeks, but people did get out, and ways were cleared for horse-drawn cutters to bring in necessary supplies. The railroad histories tell of locomotives stuck in impassable snowdrifts, some so bad that passengers had to stay overnight in local farmhouses, while other incidents involved delays while people got out of the train and shoveled the track clear. Young people took advantage of rural roads being rolled to make transport easier and created icy paths for their wooden sleds.
Heavy snows brought special winter fun in the past. As a city of hills, Ithaca afforded many sledding opportunities, especially back when there were few or no automobiles. Numerous accounts tell of Flexible Flyers and bobsleds hurtling down the State Street hill with an easy trip back up with the sled attached to the back of a horse-drawn wagon or cutter. Other good downhill routes were from the top of Coddington Road to Hudson Street, and then down Columbia Street to the old hospital bridge (now just a pedestrian walkway), or down Hector Street on West Hill. All these runs required courage and considerable steering skills.
The biggest thrill of the past was the speediest trip of all, whizzing down Buffalo Street through the Aurora Street intersection to the level at the bottom, sometimes continuing through town to the West End. When there was enough snow, the street was closed to cars and was packed, becoming very icy. Someone at the top supervised the proceedings. Faster sleds were allowed to go down first, some clocking at 70 mph. Not surprisingly, after a while the run was deemed too dangerous, and
an alternate route down the less-steep Seneca Street was used. But with the advent of regular car traffic, all such activities were banned. One could, however, slide down Libe Slope, and bales of straw were placed at the bottom to stop speeding sleds from going into the street.
In early days there was some skiing on the golf course and on Libe Slope. In the 1930s the university had a ski center in the Caroline hills, featuring slopes and jumps, a ski tow and shelter. The sport became popular and in 1939 and 1948 the Cornell team won the New York State Ski Association championships. Collegiate skiiers would be seen around town, working out much as runners do today.
For many years a major winter attraction was the Toboggan Slide on Beebe Lake. The first one, made of wood, appeared at the south side at the turn of the 20th century, and reportedly the first run was made by Dean Teefy Crane (whose real name was Thomas Frederick) of “Give my regards to Davy” fame. Although costly to operate and inherently dangerous, the slide was enormously popular and provided a huge speed thrill. Sometime in the 1920s the wooden structure was replaced with one of steel. It remained both appealing and a cause for concern. No fatal accidents were reported but in 1940 alone there were 21 injuries, including 7 fractured vertebrae. In December 1949, without comment, the university’s Department of Buildings and Grounds removed the slide.
Ice skating has provided winter recreation from the early days. Although skates were primitive and hard to wear back then, the locals got out and skated on frozen creeks and ponds, quarries, flooded tennis courts, and schoolyards. And on Cayuga Lake. The widest point (3.45 miles) is close to Wells College in Aurora, and in cold weather every year students even today watch and hope for the lake to freeze over as it means classes are canceled. It hasn’t happened often, but in 1875 the lake was frozen over for more than a month. In March Emma Lampert, a senior from Rochester noted for her ability to fly like a bird and do fancy patterns on the ice, took off to skate across the frozen expanse. Only a few saw her leave, but upon her return she was greeted by gravely concerned faculty and wildly cheering students. College benefactor E. B. Morgan noted in his diary for March 19 of that year that residents of both shores were conveyed across the lake in horse-drawn sleighs.
The greatest skating achievement on the lake took place during the very cold winter of 1912–1913, when Floyd Newman (Cornell 1912) skated with four companions the entire 40 miles to Cayuga at the northern end. By the time they arrived, however, darkness was coming, and there wasn’t enough time to skate back. Fortunately the southbound train (yes, there was a train then) was hailed within an hour. It was a brave achievement but dangerous. Two days later a couple of other skaters tried to match it and drowned.
Less ambitious outings were frequent, as when the south end of the lake froze, many skaters gathered, some with sails, some pulling sleds or boxes on runners. Other less hazardous areas around the city provided good skating over the years. In the 1920s the schoolyard on West Hill was cleared of snow and the middle was flooded to make a hockey rink for the local children. In the 1930s there was skating at Van Natta’s Dam on Six Mile Creek, and even on Fall Creek near the old boathouse in Stewart Park. The golf course tractor was used to sweep and shave the ice and, with floodlights and park benches on the shore, the place became very popular. And in the 1950s Percy Field (always known as a swamp and the present location of Ithaca High School) was flooded to make a rink, making a safe and convenient location.
Beebe Lake was the major large skating area from the 1890s onward. Maintained by the Cornell Athletic Association, the skating space was open to the public for a minor entrance fee, and people came from far and wide. When the ice was determined safe, the Ithaca Street Railway trolleys sported a white banner with a red ball on it, announcing that skaters were welcome. If you boarded the bus with skates, you could ride for half price. Beebe Lake was also the important place for ice hockey, which came to the university in 1896. Civil engineering professor John T. Parson was so fascinated by the game that he built and maintained a rink on the lake through popular subscription. The 1907–1908 team was undefeated and in 1911 Cornell won the collegiate championship.
Some of these competitions, it turns out, ended up on city rinks as the ice on Beebe Lake often would melt just before a scheduled contest. Moreover, if the streams froze over before the lake, the Cornell teams played on Cascadilla Creek at Dwyer’s Dam (opposite the university heating plant). With the opening of Lynah Rink in 1957 and the appointment of Coach Ned Harkness soon thereafter, ice hockey was no longer an outdoor recreation dependent on the vagaries of the weather and became, as we know, a big-time sport at the university, for both men and women. And surely peewee hockey has been thriving ever since.
We have ice sculptures on the Commons these days, but during Junior Week at Cornell early in the 20th century, ice castles with decorated pillars were part of the decor at Beebe Lake, while for many years fraternities competed for the best ice sculpture. Children at this time had great fun when the ice on the creeks began to break up. They would get a strong pole and knock off big enough chunks to jump on and ride downstream, sometimes traveling for six or seven city blocks. If the trip became too fast, they would have to pole vault to the nearest shore.
Winter recreation has changed with the times, and sleds, skates, and ski equipment have vastly improved. Ski slopes have become a business operating for the public, with different levels of opportunity and challenge, along with classes for adults and children. Cross-country skiing has become very popular, with easy access to many good locations. Though there is no more sledding on the streets, we still have the hills, and everyone can go out and have wonderful fun. Ski and ice hockey competition is widely organized on both the college and high school levels. We have Cass Park and Lynah Rink and plenty of good ponds around for skating. We still make snowmen and build snow forts and have snowball fights. And there are good trails and clear areas for walking, sometimes with snowshoes. Let’s get out and enjoy this beautiful winter.