Figure skating and hockey on the "lagoon" at Stewart Park.

It is written that there are two types of people: those who endure winter and those who embrace it. Is it mere nostalgia, or does it seem like winters were more exciting and dramatic years ago? Look at the pictures and winter just seems like it was more fun back in the day. Maybe there were more winter-embracers back then. 

Historically, outdoor iceskating was probably the most popular winter activity in Ithaca. Dating back to the 19th century, when skates were comparatively primitive and hard to wear (leather boots with strapped-on runners), Ithacans have taken to the frozen lakes, ponds, and creeks to skate. 

From the 1930s to the 1970s, Stewart Park Lagoon was a favored skating spot. The city forester and the parks superintendent used the golf-course tractor to sweep and shave the ice smooth, and eventually there were floodlights and benches installed on the shore. There was also skating on Cayuga Inlet, and in the 1940s and 1950s, Percy Field (where Ithaca High School is now located) was flooded and maintained as a skating rink.

Of course, there was also Cayuga Lake, which, depending on conditions, could provide miles-long stretches of open ice for skaters and even horse-drawn sleighs (and, eventually, automobiles). Lake ice is notoriously changeable and can vary a great deal in thickness, though. 

One of Ithaca’s coldest winters was in 1912. (The mean temperature in January 1912 was 16.6 degrees; January 2014’s mean was 17.7 degrees) It was so cold the City of Ithaca provided a horse-drawn bobsled filled with car batteries to unfreeze the pipes in people’s homes downtown. That February, Floyd “Flood” Newman (Cornell ’12, of Newman Arboretum fame) skated with four friends the 40 miles to the north end of the lake catching a southbound train back to Ithaca. Two days later, in a tragedy that made the pages of the New York Times, two other Cornell students fell through the ice and drowned near King Ferry, trying to duplicate the feat.

Beebe Lake, on Cornell’s north campus was created back in 1828 to harness the hydropower of Fall Creek, and in 1898, the dam was raised another ten feet to bring the lake to the size it is today. From that point on, it was probably the most popular local skating venue. Maintained by the Cornell Athletic Association, it was open to the public (for a fee). When it was open for business, Ithaca streetcars were decorated with a white banner with a red ball on it, and riders displaying their skates could ride the trolley for half price.

The Cornell men’s ice hockey team played on Beebe Lake from 1907 until the completion of Lynah Rink in 1957. Skating on the lake was thanks in large part to Johnny Parsons, an engineering professor who encouraged it by securing the funds, equipment and staff to clear snow from the lake. As the lake’s popularity increased, temporary shelters were built, and a warming house for skaters opened in 1922.

An equally popular winter activity on Beebe Lake for the first half of the 20th century was the toboggan slide, which opened in 1902. The large wooden slide (replaced by steel in 1912) sent the adventurous racing down the south shore of Beebe Lake onto the ice. It was eventually dismantled in 1949, in part because of the frequency of serious injuries (21 in 1940 alone, including seven fractured vertebrae).

Of course, in a location as hilly as Tompkins County, there were and are no shortage of sledding slopes. Before automobiles, since roads were generally snow-covered, it was not unusual to see sleds, toboggans and other sliding contraptions speeding down State Street or Coddington Road. Even more recently, when snow conditions were favorable, Buffalo Street would be closed to traffic for tobogganing. Someone would be stationed at the top, to direct the proceedings and see to it that the faster sleds went first. In time, city officials deemed the activity too dangerous. Perhaps we live in a more cautious time. Still, having driven down Buffalo Street hill in a car, with brakes, the idea of sliding down that street on a toboggan at speeds exceeding 70 mph boggles the 21st-century mind.

The Ithaca City School District opened a 110-foot toboggan slide in the 1930s near Van Natta’s Dam. Supervised by school staff, it was open after school on weekdays from 3:30 p.m. until dark and on weekends.

Winter wasn’t all recreation, of course. In the 19th century winter activities often revolved around survival. Farms and even the villages in the hills could be snowed in for weeks. People relied on the food put aside, and ways had to be cleared for horse-drawn cutters to bring in supplies. In outlying towns such as Newfield there was often a “path master,” whose job it was to secure men for snow removal and direct road-clearing operations. Workers were often compensated with reduced taxes.

In Ithaca, where people relied on more frequent deliveries of food and supplies, blizzards could pose more of a problem. Still, with two railroad lines serving the village (Ithaca became a city in 1888), it was rare for the community to be cut off completely for more than a couple of days.

Fire hazards were a real concern, though, due not only to increased congestion of stoves and fireplaces, but also due sometimes to the extremely low temperatures that froze water in the tanks and hoses of the firefighting equipment. In the 1870s and 1880s, the village had a sort of rickety and unreliable system of gravity-fed cisterns and hydrants—drawing water from Cascadilla and Six Mile creeks—that were set up throughout downtown. 

Into the 1920s, attempts at snow control simply involved citizens going into the streets to level the drifts for sleigh traffic. Snow removal was not yet practiced on a citywide basis. In order for residents to travel by carriage, or for stores to receive goods (and customers), they were responsible for clearing their own streets. Snow shovelers were frequently hired to do this for them, which provided dozens of temporary jobs throughout the winter season. 

After a record-breaking snowfall on January 29, 1925 (26 inches in one day), A. K Fletcher remembered, “snow piled up very high from State down Tioga to Seneca, becoming a problem for sleighs, automobiles and street cars. A large old Lehigh coal car was brought [on the trolley tracks] to State and Tioga, some of us young guys were hired, and we shoveled all night into the coal car. The car was towed by ‘gasoline-electric’ interborough streetcar to Renwick [now Stewart] Park where the snow was dumped, then it returned again for more snow.” The shovelers were allowed to take a food break at the Sideboard Restaurant (about where the Tompkins Trust Company now is on Tioga) at 2 a.m.

Eventually salt was experimented with, but was strongly protested against because it ruined the streets for sleighing and damaged the shoes and clothing of pedestrians. For a time, streets and icy bridges were coated with sand instead.

It was the popularity of the automobile that would usher in the modern era of snow removal. By the late 1920s, there were hundreds of cars registered in Ithaca, increasing the demand for dry, safe streets. Scenic snowfalls once reminiscent of winter merrymaking became unbearable, and the freezing weather once welcomed by sleigh parties created hazardous driving conditions. Accidents were rapidly rising due to weather-related conditions. And so in the 1930s, no longer concerned about protests, city public works officials began to use salt by the ton to improve road conditions. Motorized salt spreaders became a tool in fighting snowy roads, and businesses and private citizens as well used tons of salt to keep driveways, sidewalks and access routes clear of snow and ice.

A local winter industry whose robustness was entirely dependent on weather conditions was ice harvesting. From Ithaca’s early days to the 1940s, cold temperatures permitting, cutting blocks of ice from Cayuga Lake for local consumption and export to big cities was a thriving business. At the height of this harvesting in 1886, more than two million tons of ice was harvested.

Before electric home refrigerators became common in Ithaca (by the 1930s in the city, later in the outlying towns) people used iceboxes. Ithaca households and businesses used 12,000 tons of ice in 1925. Most municipally-consumed ice was harvested in winter, stored in ice houses, and delivered bi-weekly by the iceman. The horse-drawn ice wagon and the occupation of the iceman, who made door-to-door deliveries of block ice, was as much a local institution as the milkman and the postman. Typically, a customer would place a card in the front window of the house, indicating how many pounds of ice were wanted. The iceman would use tongs to lift the ice block onto scales, chip it down to the desired size, carry it to the house and place it in the ice box. 

As the big cities grew, many of their sources of natural ice became contaminated from industrial pollution or sewer runoff. Since there was no large body of pure water in these urban settings, New York City, in particular, turned to the clear, clean water of the Finger Lakes. Cayuga Lake ice was highly prized because it was usually cleaner, harder and slower to melt. The colder the weather and the steadier the freezing, the cleaner and more dense the ice. Of course, a thaw or a rainstorm could ruin the ice crop. When conditions allowed, hundreds of men and horses, and scores of boats and railroad cars were employed to gather this ice and get it to the major cities. 

In 1909, there were two large ice warehouses in the city (one on the southwest corner of State and Fulton streets—across from where Maxie’s is now) and as recently as 1942 there were still 4 separate ice purveyors in the city.

Now that winter is unquestionably here, those who endure and those who embrace must each muddle through. Still, it’s hard not to wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to embrace if there were more horse-drawn sleighs about. §


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