Cornell Rewind: Routes to move-in day have varied

“Cornell Rewind” is a series of columns in the Cornell Chronicle to celebrate the university’s sesquicentennial through December 2015. This column will explore the little-known legends and lore, the mythos and memories that devise Cornell’s history.

The History Center in Tompkins County
A Robinson Airlines flight circles above campus on the way to the Ithaca Municipal Airport (left-center at foot of Cayuga Lake) sometime in the late 1940s. Ithaca’s homegrown airline became Mohawk Airlines, and the airport moved to its current location.
Ezras railroad
The History Center in Tompkins County
Ahead of the curve, Ezra Cornell (second from right among the top hat-wearing dignitaries standing in front of the locomotive engine) with the first Utica, Ithaca & Elmira train southeast of town, Nov. 11, 1873.

What brought you to Cornell? “My parents’ minivan” is the modern-day punch line. Alumni parents might have wisecracked, “My father’s station wagon.”

Time was, a station wagon really was a wagon – meeting the train at the depot and carrying incoming students to the campus they would call home for the next four years.

In the university’s early days, train travel served as the most viable option for students journeying to Cornell for the fall semester. The earliest students arrived in Ithaca a couple of days before the start of classes, took the requisite entrance exam and, if admitted, became instant Cornellians.

Students from points south and west usually disembarked at a downtown train station. But for a short time, passengers rode the line Ezra Cornell built and were delivered to a platform on campus near the present-day Bard Hall.

From the north, students sailed on Cayuga Lake ferries. In 1872 Webb Hayes, son of President Rutherford B. Hayes, wrote: “I started for Cornell University at Ithaca, N.Y. … I changed cars at Cleveland, arriving at Rochester at 7 p.m., where I again changed cars arriving at Cayuga – where I took a steamboat for Ithaca passing down Lake Cayuga and landing at Ithaca.”

Beginning in 1833 and continuing to the last passenger service in 1962, Ithaca was a rail travel hub. The first railway to Ithaca, the Ithaca & Owego, began operation with ceremonial trips in 1833, using horses and steam engines. After the failure of the company in 1849, the tracks became part of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western (D.L.&W.)

After 1871 additional rail routes, many supported by Ezra Cornell, went through Ithaca. Eventually most of the small local railroads became part of the Lehigh Valley system, which offered passenger service to New York (a trip that took eight hours) and, with a transfer to the Reading Railroad in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to Philadelphia. In the early 20th century, the Lehigh Valley and the D.L.&W. provided a variety of services to Cornell, including special trains just for students at the beginning and the end of the semesters, for holidays and for special events. The Lehigh Valley ran a special train directly to Philadelphia for the traditional Thanksgiving Day football game against Penn.

Of ocean voyages and trolley rides 

For Cornell’s international students, ocean voyages by sailing ships and steamships were part of the intercontinental itinerary. Some of the first came from Brazil. Early in the last century, students from China took the long journey via the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. When Hu Shih, Class of 1914, and his classmates Fu Shi Chun and Seu-Zung Kwauk came to Cornell in 1910, they left Shanghai on the S.S. China on Aug. 13, arrived in Honolulu Sept. 3 and landed in San Francisco Sept. 10 before traversing the country by train to Ithaca.

trolley in 1887
The History Center in Tompkins County
Ithaca’s downtown State Street, one stop for the first trolley in 1887, is today’s Ithaca Commons. Clinton House, which still stands today with its six columns, is in the background.

By 1893, Ithaca’s trolley system ran up to the Cornell campus, with a five-cent fare, so students could get up the hill from the train station downtown. The trolleys also were used for everyday transportation. In winter, when the ice on the lake was thick enough, the trolleys posted a flag with a red ball to alert skaters.

In the 1920s, motor coaches – as buses were called – lured budget-minded travelers off the trains. Imagine the excitement among winter break-bound students who read this announcement in the Dec. 11, 1929, Daily Sun: “Bus Line to Run Special Coaches for Holidays.” The story promised “equipment of all the busses (sic) is of the latest type, with reclining chairs and hot water heating facilities.” By the 1960s Greyhound and Trailways buses ran to Ithaca and charter buses were available for holidays.

Flying to the Finger Lakes

Although New York’s Finger Lakes region was an early cradle of aviation manufacturing and innovation, with the Thomas Brothers Aeroplane Co. in Ithaca and Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Co. in Hammondsport, it wasn’t until April 6, 1945, that Cornellians could buy a seat on an Ithaca-based airline. Robinson Aviation’s Fairchild F-24s – both of them – had only three passenger seats. Flying in and out of the Ithaca Municipal Airport (located on the lake-edge site of today’s Cass Park), they sold 900 tickets the first year.

The History Center in Tompkins County
Steamboats plying the waters of Cayuga Lake transported matriculating students. Here, the steamboat Frontenac is docked at Steamboat Landing, now the site of the Ithaca Farmers Market.

Robinson became Mohawk Airlines in 1952 and moved somewhat farther above Cayuga’s waters to a spacious (if occasionally fog-bound) plateau donated by Cornell now known as Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport.

In 1972 Mohawk planes were repainted to read “Allegheny Airlines,” which evolved into US Airways, one of three carriers currently serving Ithaca.

Train whistles still echo off Cornell towers heralding the daily passage of Pennsylvania coal to a power plant up the lake. Or southbound salt on the return trip. But mourn not the passing modes of transport: Most rails have become trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding and other pursuits.

What once housed Robinson Airlines is today’s Hangar Theatre. Two downtown Ithaca train stations were repurposed – one became the bus depot, while the other – complete with vintage passenger coaches – serves as a Chemung Canal Trust Co. branch. The East Ithaca rail station on Pine Tree Road, moved from its original location on Maple Avenue, serves southwestern food.

And the rail and trolley stop at Rogues Harbor in Lansing – for the old New York, Auburn and Lansing railroad – is still there along East Shore Drive, reinvented as a bed-and-breakfast.

Parents can overnight there after dropping their first-year students at North Campus ... in their minivans.

Media Contact

John Carberry