Ice skating on Beebe Lake in an undated photo.

In the winter of 1899, a group of Cornell students came up with a novel idea for what would become a staple of the university’s winters festivities for decades to come.

The planning committee for Cornell’s Junior Week – an old tradition on East Hill – proposed the construction of a grand midway in the dead of winter, a spectacle replete with a full band, dancing, booths and ice skating, all lit by the incandescent glow of lights strung over the action. And it would all be built in the center of Beebe Lake.

Beebe Lake Daily Sun Article

The approximately 20 acre reservoir now known as Beebe Lake (named for millwright Colonel Jeremiah Beebe, who owned a mill at the base of Ithaca Falls.) used to be no more than a swamp and then, a pond, before the lake was created with the construction of a dam on Triphammer Falls by Ezra Cornell in 1838 (which raised the water level to 18 feet) and a second, for the hydroplant, in 1898, raising the depth ten additional feet to 28. Even with the massive rise in water, its relatively shallow depth allowed for ample freezes to take place rather quickly. As a result, whenever the ice reached sufficient thickness, the festival could take place. As with any weather-related affair, the timing depended largely on the conditions and looking at old editions of the Cornell Daily Sun, delays were frequent – the third Ice Carnival in February 1902, for instance, was delayed more than a week. 

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In a journal entry from Cornellian Walter Todd contained in historian Carol Kammen’s book First Person Cornell, Todd describes an affair involving lights strung up over the ice (in early November) with colored lights and lanterns. At center ice would be an arena, decked out in flags and evergreens with a bandstand (with windows that could close to retain heat in between numbers), booths and a formal skating rink enclosed within. 

All of this, he said, would be constructed on extremely short notice.

“You can imagine also that a good deal of planning has to be done beforehand and the whole thing executed the day of and the day before the carnival because it is uncertain what kind of day it would be,” he writes. “And executed during an exam week.”

Up until 1908 the carnival was a formal dress affair that cost less than a dime (slightly more to use the toboggan ramp that was erected to the side) to attend but, as the Daily Sun noted in 1908, the committee “decided that no one is to appear in costume at the event, the idea being that as a fancy dress affair, the Carnival has never been as successful as it might be.”

Beebe Lake Hockey

Hockey on Beebe Lake, 1930s.

The event itself was ambitious: a sample schedule for the 1905 carnival touted a hockey game between the University of Rochester and Cornell (a 7-0 win) in the afternoon followed by the carnival itself, which over the years featured costume and ice sculpture contests, a grand parade and bonfires well into the night. In 1939, the organizing committee even managed to score Swedish skating star Vivi-Anne Hulten and her troupe of figure skaters, where 1,200 students lined the banks of VanNatta’s Dam (on Six Mile Creek, moved due to weather conditions) to watch her perform a repertoire of fancy skating tricks.

In the winter 2014 edition of Ezra Magazine, associate director of student programs in Cornell’s Office of Alumni Affairs Corey Ryan Earle noted much of the early winter activity on Beebe Lake was thanks to engineering professor Johnny Parsons, who secured funds, equipment and staff to clear snow from the lake and eventually, in the ‘20s, constructed a lodge on its shores for winter sports. However, after World War II caused a stop to the affair, the 1940s would prove the end of skating on the lake, junior week and of the ice carnival. The final story, in the Cornell Daily Sun described a vibrant weekend and fitting end to the tradition, with a basketball game against Columbia, a dance at Willard Straight and a Dramatic Club show accompanying the festival. It made sure to note one thing to close the story:

“A special proficiency in figure skating is not necessary.” 

Follow Nick Reynolds on Twitter @Nickthaca

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