• Sat, November 21, 2020 4:32 PM | Anonymous

    Inclined Planes of the Ithaca & Owego Railroad

        The steep rolling hills surrounding Ithaca, New York offered great  challenge to early-day railroad builders. Prior to its abandonment in 1956, the Ithaca Branch of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad entered the city by way of switchbacks. After the D.L. & W. was abandoned a segment of this was later used by the Lehigh Valley Railroad to serve Morse Chain.

        The Ithaca & Owego Railroad was organized in 1827 and is reputed to have been the third railroad built in North America. It was the missing transportation link in an otherwise water route between the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. It connected Ithaca, on the southern shore of Cayuga Lake with the Susquehanna River at Owego. Ithaca was a rapidly-developing small city with a population of 5,000 by 1840.

         Pre-dating a "zig-zag" or switchback system were two inclined planes which overcame the steep South Hill. From the summit it was a “flat land” 30-mile railroad to Owego. Although the planes were abandoned in 1850, they have long captured the interest of railroad historians.  For generations remnants could be found on the Ithaca College campus. A similar operation existed with the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad in Albany.

        Acting upon requests from local pubic representatives the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers in 1828 assigned Lieutenant (later captain) William H. Swift to survey two local railroad routes. One was between Ithaca and Owego and the other between Ithaca and Catskill. Swift secured the necessary surveying instruments to Ithaca. In a letter to Swift, General Alexander Macomb, chief of the Topographical Engineers, wrote:

        “There is a young Gentleman at Ithaca, a Mr. Hughes, who was formerly at the Military Academy, who will be a very able assistant to you and I desire that you employ him in order that he may be useful to the Company after you have completed the location of the road.” 

         Swift began his surveys in May of the two suggested routes between Ithaca and Owego. These routes had originally been suggested for a proposed canal that never materialized. He determined that one along Six Mile Creek and the East Branch of Catatonk Creek was more feasible than the other along Cayuga Inlet valley via the Village of Spencer. In retrospect, the latter course might appear preferable. The first route was chosen for a number of considerations.

        The country from the top of South Hill to Owego was not as expensive to construct. The only costly construction would be for two incline planes. The total cost for building and equipping the railroad up to the end of 1838 was $575,393.05. In defending his South Hill proposal, Swift said most traffic would be southward from Ithaca to Owego and this route had the easier grades; an important factor in the days of horse-drawn trains. Swift then turned his attention to surveying a route for a railroad from Ithaca to Catskill. He also surveyed what became the Catskill and Canajoharie Railroad.   

        About this time, Simeon DeWitt, Surveyor-General of New York State, and other local businessmen became identified with the effort to build the railroad. With renewed interest and capital, John Randel Jr. was secured from the New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad in Delaware to do the engineering work. In his report to the directors and officers of the Ithaca & Owego in 1833, Randel said overcoming the elevation between Ithaca flats and the summit of South Hill “was one of the most formidable obstacles that presented itself in the location of this Rail Road.”

        Randel said the total elevation to be overcome was 511 feet, in a distance of 4,193 4/10 feet. His solution was to “to divide the whole elevation between two inclined planes in such proportions as would give each a grade that would pass nearly along the general slope of the hill, or rock, and thus lessen the cost of excavation through it."

        The foot of the first plane was located about 400 yards southwest of a bridge over Six Mile Creek on South Cayuga Street; and 114 feet northwest of the foot of South Hill. From here, it was 1,733 feet to the head of the first plane. A “middle yard" was provided for at this point, for a length of 250 feet. The upper plane then extended 2,226 feet to the summit of the hill. An engine house was constructed at the head of each plane. The lower plane had a rise of one foot in about every 4 1/4 feet, making a total rise of 405 feet. The upper plane rose one foot in twenty-one.

        Samuel J. Parker, in his reminiscences of early-day Ithaca, said: "At the foot of the lower inclined plane was a high fill of stone dug out in making the plane, through which was a road culvert for the common wagon road up the valley.  I often went to see the rock blasted out; the heavy long pine timbers laid 12 to 16 inches square, the strap iron, spiked on the timber, the cable wheel for the large rope that was to, and did for years draw the cars up the hill; and at last the extraordinary long cable two and a half inches in diameter laid in these wheels; the great power house at the top of the first incline plane; which building was 85 feet wide, and 80 feet long, and stood on an artificial mound made of rock excavated above it, for the second incline plane. This building was just below the road, running just above the upper switch of the present D.L. & W. Railroad a little southwest of the present stopping place of passenger cars."

        Contracts for grading the first nine miles of the railroad were signed in February, 1832, and work on the planes soon commenced. From Cayuga Inlet the route extended in a semi-circle to the foot of the planes, closely following what today is Titus Avenue.

       On February 13, 1834, the inclined planes and 13 miles of railroad were “opened for transportation and travel.” The American Railroad Journal of February 22, 1834 reported: "The incline plane at Ithaca was for the first time used, and successfully. A car loaded with two tons of iron and thirty passengers, passed up the great plane, an elevation of 405 feet, in eight minutes."

       At the top of each of the incline planes there was an “engine house" containing a horse-operated winch with the necessary gearing for drawing up the cars. Windmills regulated the speed of the descending cars. Four horses were employed continually on the lower plane and two on the upper. Only two loaded cars were drawn up the planes at one time.

        An old time railroad employee, Jason P Merrill, recalled: "The Ithaca end of the road had two incline planes, the first one beginning at a point about where South Geneva Street intersects the Spencer road and ending on East Hill. Here the main power house, used for hauling up and letting down cars, and where incoming passengers were discharges and outgoing ones boarded the cars. The second or upper plane as it was called was located about a half mile south. From this point to the main power house, cars were run by gravity, the speed being regulated by hand brakes." 

        Alvin Merrill, father of Jason, recalled working on the plane driving horses when he was 11 years old. "The horses went round and round like those that worked a threshing machine. The cars were let down and hauled up the high, steep hill by that windlass-like system. While two cars were going down it aided in hauling one car up the plane. A man went along with the train carrying oak plugs to use as brakes in case the rope cable broke. The plugs were thrown into the car wheel spokes and caught the wheels against the car.”

        To save money, horses were substituted for steam engines for hauling up the planes. Large amounts of "Cayuga Lake Plaster" were shipped to Owego, while much of the incoming freight to Ithaca was lumber.

    No records have been found detailing the operation of the planes. Mr. Parker said the “short little cars” were loaded at the storehouse at Cayuga inlet. The cars were then drawn by horses to the foot of the first 

    plane, where they were attached to the cable or rope. After one or two cars were thus attached, a flag was waved to indicate it was all clear to go up the plane. Then the winch was set in motion by the moving horses. As the rope moved up the one side of the plane, other cars were lowered. This procedure took about 20 minutes. The horses were then hitched to the opposite side of the arm of the driving wheel, and the process was reversed.

        Mr. Parker said, "It was a lucky day when 25 cars thus went up the two planes, and on to Owego; the same number reaching Ithaca." The Ithaca & Owego soon was floundering in financial difficulties and could not meet expenses. Parker said, "It cost more to get plaster. to Owego and lumber to Ithaca, and keep the road in repair, than to use horses traveling the usual wagon roads." He said the line fell into disrepair.

        In spite of financial problems, however, the railroad was able to secure a steam locomotive; primarily through the efforts of one of the leading stockholders, Richard Varick DeWitt. This locomotive was built in Albany by Walter McQueen, a noted 19th century locomotive builder, and shipped to Ithaca by water  via the Erie Canal, and Cayuga Lake. It was hauled to the top of the planes by several teams of horses.

        To lighten its financial burden the State of New York loaned the railroad company $300,000 with the stipulation that if interest payments were not made, the Comptroller could sell the company at a public auction. In 1840, the state loaned the railroad another $28,000, with the total interest commitment to the State now being $14,000 a year.

        Total revenue for freight between 1834 and 1839 was $117,577.13 for freight and $2,097.14 for passengers

       The railroad failed financially and the state foreclosed. It was auctioned off in Albany on May 20, 1842.

    It was picked up by a new organization called the Cayuga & Susquehanna Railroad Company, which was incorporated on April 18, 1843. No action was taken towards improving the property until 1849, when attention was given towards eliminating the inclined planes.

       A serious accident in 1842, told in detail below, resulted in the discontinuation of the lower plane for passenger travel. They were met at the foot of the upper plane by stagecoaches and carriages. However, work on replacing the planes with switchbacks as well as reconstruction of the entire railroad did not start until 1849. By that time, the Cayuga & Susquehanna Railroad fell into the hands of George W. Scranton of Scranton, Pa. and others who were building the Leggett's Gap Railroad from Scranton to Great Bend. This evolved into the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western. 

        Superintendent William Humphrey directed the laying out and construction of the new alignment into Ithaca. From the steamboat landing at the inlet it ran up the valley to Butternut Creek, where it swung to the northeast on a gravel filled trestle. It then gradually climbed up the, hill. To avoid the cost of bridging ravines near the level of Six Mile Creek, a reverse switch in the form of a Z was built on the South Hill. The new line struck the old grade four miles from the top of the inclined planes.

         For more than a century, trains would back up and go forward in a spectacular ascent and descent in and out of Ithaca. During reconstruction, the Ithaca depot was located at the top of the inclined planes, which had been abandoned before the new line was completed. 

    Reconstruction work commenced on September 1, 1849, and the switchbacks were completed in March, 1850. The whole work was completed on May 1, 1850.

        Alvin Merrill recalled, "Civil Engineer McNiel, with Calvin Bogardus, Horace McCormick, Daniel Stevens, John Miller and myself laid out the seven mile zig-zag route down the hill to gain a distance of one mile, that made the incline plane a thing of the past."


    Tompkins Volunteer, Tuesday, May 3, 1842


    On Saturday last, our village was nearly panic struck by the intelligence that a passenger car had accidentally broken loose, and gone down the incline plane. The facts as near as we can glean, and from what we have seen are these in the first place, there are two incline planes, leading from the summit of

    the railroad into the village. The upper one is about 2,200 feet, descending one foot in 22, we believe, and the second plane, eighteen hundred, descending one foot to four. 

        It has been the practice invariably to let the passenger car down the first plane, with the aid of what is called a brake, with the passengers in it. As usual the train from Owego arrived, and after detaching the

    car from the rest of the train, they proceeded down the plane. After they had gone some one hundred feet Mr. Hatch, the superintendent of the road, and who always stands at the Brake, felt something give way. 

        He spoke to someone near him to assist him, as the car began to move with double rapidity. But he soon discovered that the brake was of no avail, and he leaped off thinking he could stop by blocking a wheel. But in jumping off, the car moved with greater velocity than he supposed, threw him, and before he could warn the passengers of their danger, the car was out of hearing distance of his voice.

        Some of the passengers seeing that all was not right, began to leap out, injuring themselves more or less. Before the car reached the foot of the first plane five or six had jumped out. Judge Dana of this place, and one or two more escaped from their perilous situation after the car had entered the Engine House where the other plane commences. 

        Judge Dana, we understand had his wrist either broken or sprained, we have not learned which, and one or two more were considerably hurt. A Mr. Wm. D. Legg, one of the passengers, deserves unusual praise, for his almost unparalled presence of mind, in saving himself, and a Lady who was in the apartment with him. He says he was unconscious of any danger, until he happened to look out and saw two or three jumping out, and the lady looking out at the same time exclaimed, " Oh we shall all. be killed.“ 

        He told her he would save her, and at the same instant clasped her around the waist, opened the car door, carried her out and walked to the back of the car and stood down on the step, and there watched for a favorable place where he could let her fall, without coming in contact with the timbers of the road.

       The car then under swift motion, as it entered the Engine House he let her fall, and immediately leaped off himself, when the car was within ten feet of the other plane. He struck on his feet and received no injury whatever, and ran back to help the lady. He found she had received but little injury, comparatively speaking, but was much frightened.

       But the worst is to be told. The car passed on, and says our informant, so great was its velocity, after it had left the second engine house, that it was scarcely visible, leaving behind it as it were, a pillar of smoke. It kept the track for nearly 1,700 feet, when it ran off with tremendous crash, and went end over end some one hundred feet, and was literally dashed to atoms, not a wheel or any part of the heavy iron works of which it was composed remained whole. They were either twisted or broken to pieces. 

       And what makes this accident remarkable is, that a Mr. Babcock who remained in the car the whole way, was picked up from among the wrecks of the car alive!!!-- But he was a horrid spectacle - his nose was nearly cut off, his right arm, between the shoulder and elbow, was broken in two places, his head was mutilated in several places in a shocking manner; but neither of his legs were broken, and we are informed that serious internal injury has been discovered.

        He was immediately conveyed to the nearest house, and Dr. Hawley dressed his wounds. The chance of his recovery is about two to five. We were by during the dressing of the wounds and few can describe the excruciating pain he underwent. He could be heard to hallo for twenty rods. If ever the tortures of the rack were exhibited it was at that occasion. He still continues deranged and the only fear that the Doctor apprehends of his recovery is that a concussion of the brain will take place, if so, death must ensue.

       We do not think that any blame can be attached, either to the Superintendent, Mr. Hatch, or the Company. It has been the custom for years to let the car down in that manner, therefore in our opinion, it can only come under the head of accident, and not carelessness. We were told soon after the “tragedy” had taken place, that we should "blow up “ the Company, but we are not of that “kind of folks." The deed is done, and experience,  although dearly bought, will, we are in hopes, induce them to abandon forever the practice of trusting passengers to come down on the plane in any vehicle whatsoever. 

    (Follow-up article from the Tompkins Volunteer, May 10 1842)

                                            The Railroad Accident

        We made a most woeful mistake in our last, as respects the upper plane of the railroad, that is, the one that they have been in the habit of letting the car down by the aid of a brake. We were  misinformed. The plane is 2,200 feet long, instead of 1,200 feet, descends one foot in twenty-two, or in other words, 104 feet in 2,200. 

       We deem it proper to correct this error, from the fact, that any person of ordinary intellect, would at once see that plane of one foot to six descent, would be attended with imminent danger even if every wheel was fastened.

    Richard Palmer is a historian with a specialty in railroad history. He is also a member of the Cornell Railroad Historical Society.

  • Thu, November 19, 2020 8:00 AM | Anonymous

    The discovery in the museum’s archives of a course catalog for the Thomas School of Aviation - one of the first civilian flight academies in the country – sparked development of the living history character who is the one constant in the scene-shifting, fast-moving series of learn-at-home series about enterprise and culture in World War I-era Tompkins County.

    The Old Flight Instructor is my best guess at who was teaching “Aviation for Sport, War and Business,” as the catalog promises, a scant 15 years after the Wright brothers’ launch. 

    It was an exciting time to be in Ithaca: The Thomas brothers employed more than a thousand skilled workers, building hundreds of Tommy trainers for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The Wharton brothers brought famous names of the silent film industry to their studios in Renwick (now Stewart) Park. True enough, World War I raged on in Europe, and the influenza epidemic was spreading across the land. 

    But what a time to be alive here!

    I was able to perform the Old Flight Instructor skit, subtitled “Learn to Fly Tommy – First Lesson Free,” just a few times to museum audiences before the lockdown began. Zoom performances continued through spring and summer (distance dinner theater anyone?) until Executive Director Ben Sandberg ordered up a videotape session in front of Tommy. A grant application to cover five, learn-at-home episodes was successful.

    All characters in the series are real and thoroughly researched. Oliver Thomas really did give tours of the Brindley Street airplane factory (company offices were upstairs). Edith Day, star of “A Romance of the Air,” was impressed with the Tommy that shared credits in her silent film. Lansing-born astronomer David Todd touted “canals” on Mars as proof of extra-terrestial agriculture – although he failed to teach celestial navigation by speakerphone to Thomas School students. And Cornell’s James A. Meissner shot down numerous enemy aircraft – while colliding in midair with at least one.

    Only the Old Flight Instructor is speculative. 

    He would be 130 years old this month. So please pay heed as he adjusts the mask over his snowy white beard, peers at his virtual students through foggy wire-rimmed lenses, and growls “A high-flying welcome to the Class of 1918 in the Thomas School of Aviation.”

    He still thinks it’s then.

    H. Roger Segelken is a volunteer docent with The History Center

    This five-part web series will be premiering on The History Center YouTube channel every Saturday morning at 11am November 14th - December 12th. Subscribe so you don't miss an episode!

  • Sun, November 01, 2020 5:14 PM | Anonymous

    The History Center is delighted to announce a new online exhibit on the New York Heritage Digital Collections website. It celebrates schools, school groups, and classes from the 1860s to the 1960s. 

    Tompkins County Schoolhouse Photos Collection

    Schools are and always have been the main social enterprise of any community. This centrality is illustrated by New York State’s directive to ensure that adequate funding be put aside for the establishment of schools when Tompkins County was first formed in 1817. These hubs of learning were scattered throughout the county; many were small one-room buildings placed in or near villages, hamlets and other population centers. Classes were often mixed, with older students sharing space, teachers, and resources with their younger sisters and brothers. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that districts consolidated and small village schools were closed. Tompkins County and communities throughout the state established the modern public school system that we know today.

    Scope of Collection

    This collection includes black and white photographs of Tompkins County school buildings, classes, and assorted groups. The work of many different, mostly unknown photographers, these images range from small 19th century one-room school houses with a scattering of students, to large class groups of hundreds of students in mid-20th century public schools.

    This is the sixth collection from The History Center in Tompkins County archives that has been digitized and made available on New York Heritage Digital Collections. Explore the others here.

    This archival collection was made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities CARES Act funding. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this collection do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

  • Thu, October 01, 2020 6:24 PM | Anonymous

    At the beginning of September, The City of Ithaca announced their intention to remove the “White Settlers” plaque in DeWitt Park. The monument, consisting of a bronze plaque bolted to a boulder, identifies two Revolutionary soldiers, Jonathan Woodworth and Robert McDowell, who are described as the “First White Settlers” in Ithaca. The plaque has become the frequent focus of protests that decry its exclusionary message and the people the plaque ignores. The City of Ithaca will donate the plaque to The History Center’s collections, if approved for removal at the October Common Council meeting.

    I don’t profess to be an expert local historian, so I feel uncomfortable speaking to the veracity of the plaque’s historical claims. Others much more knowledgeable than I highlight the complex realities at the end of the 18th century and how our understanding of that history has changed over time. The plaque’s simplistic and definitive statement flattens these complexities, and we are left with an incomplete understanding of our community. I am also a white male-identified person, which carries an obligation to listen when others state that the plaque’s language creates an environment of exclusion and oppression. 

    I can attest to the learning opportunity the plaque has afforded me. The removal process offered me a gateway to better understand multiple periods of Tompkins County’s past. It took active engagement to move beyond Woodworth or McDowell. Only through purposeful exploration does the engaged audience discover the histories of the many peoples who called this land home before them, like the Tutelo or the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ'. Nor does it mention Yaple and Dumond, another pair of “first settlers” identified on a New York Historic Marker on nearby Buffalo Street. The plaque’s inherently reductive representation of local history erases the powerful complexity of the moment it commemorates.

    As an engaged audience, we should also aspire to understand the moment in time that produced the memorialization. The Cayuga Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution installed the plaque as part of an effort to honor the sesquicentennial of the American Revolution. Again, our responsibility as an engaged audience is to pursue the diversity of stories and people. The narrative surrounding the D.A.R.’s early monument work focuses on their commemoration of largely male, white colonizers. The narrative is justified, but also ignores some efforts of the Cayuga Chapter of the D.A.R. For example, they did attempt to honor indigenous communities by collaborating on programs and historical markers. As always, the depth of our local past requires us to be active participants in the exploration of our past.

    That leaves the lessons of the plaque for the current moment and the discussion today. Future generations will understand us, in part, by our decision to remove the plaque. Our challenge in this third moment is to capture the multifaceted voices of our time for future generations. I’m thankful for the public discourse the plaque’s removal inspired and to live in a community where such a debate is possible. Once the plaque is accessioned into The History Center’s collections, we will strive to represent the diverse voices involved in its history through exhibits, programs, and other learning opportunities. This allows us to continue recording the diversity of our current moment for future generations – a vital aspect of recording and memorializing the people and places of Tompkins County.

    Ben Sandberg

    Executive Director of The History Center in Tompkins County

    Originally published in the October 2020 History Happenings Monthly Newsletter. 

  • Fri, August 28, 2020 5:39 PM | Anonymous

    Pledge to support Executive Director Ben Sandberg as he embarks on a 24 hour bike ride through Tompkins County on September 7th!

    Support Ben here:

    Ride along virtually with Ben as he bikes as many miles in Tompkins County as he can in a single 24-hour period. Your pledge per mile - whether $.25, $.50, or $1.00 - strengthens The History Center’s continued resilience. This year, Ben is riding county roads to support our postponed exhibit honoring suffragists of Tompkins County. We can still celebrate the 100 (+1!) anniversary of the 19th Amendment in the summer of 2021 with your pledge!

    Before making a pledge, you might be curious about Ben's riding capacity. His current biking record is 140 miles in one day. His September 7th goal is 175 miles, but if the ride goes smoothly, he won't stop there.

    Ben Sandberg first fell in love with local history through his passion for biking. He has done a number of bike tours around the United States, in addition to many long days in the saddle. His routes frequently are planned to stop at historical societies and local history museums. Moving through a community at biking speed gives a deep appreciation for the people, the landscape, and the built environment. Through biking in his early 20’s, Ben realized that we live surrounded by local history that shapes our lives in often unnoticed ways. He is excited to more deeply understand our whole county through this endurance test on September 7th, 2020.

  • Sun, August 02, 2020 8:00 AM | Anonymous

    Stories from Inside” is a project and website created by the History Center Youth Ambassadors to present selected stories of Tompkins County residents during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring. The website includes diaries, press releases, photographs, poetry, and more from people across the community, including students, teachers, business owners, and local government officials. This project was created by the History Center Tompkins County’s Youth Ambassador Program and the submissions used in the website are included in our COVID-19 in Tompkins County Archival Collection.


    Our thanks to the History Center Youth Ambassadors who contributed their time this spring and summer for this project: Sunny C., Raia G., Giancarlo R.V., Emily W., and Isaac W.

  • Mon, July 20, 2020 2:44 PM | Anonymous

    Monday, July 20th, 2020

    For Immediate Release

    The Alex Haley Memorial Project and The History Center in Tompkins County unveil historic signage celebrating Alex Haley on August 8th, 11 am.

    ITHACA, NY. July 20th, 2020 – The Alex Haley Memorial Project, in collaboration with The History Center in Tompkins County, will live stream a ceremony to honor Ithaca-born Alex Haley on August 8th, at 11am. Alex Haley is a celebrated author, best known for his 1967 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The ceremony will unveil a historic place sign on Cascadilla Street marking the house where he was born. The ceremony will include thoughts from members of the Alex Haley Memorial Project, the Legacy Foundation which provided funding for the sign, The History Center in Tompkins County, and local representatives. Due to an abundance of caution, interested audiences are encouraged to participate through a livestream on The History Center’s Facebook page. A sign language interpreter will be present to ensure equal access to the livestream.

    Alex Haley was born in Ithaca on August 11th, 1921. His parents were enrolled respectively at Cornell University and the Ithaca Conservatory of Music. The connection to Tompkins County higher institutions of education was unusual for Black Americans in that era, and is an important reminder of the continuing systemic inequalities that persist today. His work Roots: The Saga of An American Family and the subsequent television adaption is one of the most influential and important U.S. works in the last century. 

    The unveiling ceremony on August 8th closely marks the 99th anniversary of Alex Haley’s birth. The Alex Haley Memorial Project and The History Center in Tompkins County look forward to additional programming next summer for the centennial anniversary.

    The History Center in Tompkins County helps communities use the tools of history to understand the past, gain perspective on the present, and play an informed role in shaping the future.

    For additional information, please contact:

    Benjamin Sandberg, Executive Director


    Phone: (607) 273-8284, ext. 222

  • Mon, June 15, 2020 2:16 PM | Anonymous

    In recent weeks thousands of demonstrators have gathered across Tompkins BLM_IthacaCommons_June2020 County to protest police brutality and racism in the wake of the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by law enforcement, and Ahmaud Arbery by white vigilantes. These local protests are part of a global movement that has emerged to protest systemic racism and excessive force used by police departments across America on black and brown bodies. 

    The problem of unjustified and horrific violence against black and brown people, often at the hands of the police who are tasked to serve the community, is not new. There is a long and grim history behind the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. This history is coupled with the black and brown community's heightened vulnerability to the effects of societal stressors, most recently seen in the disproportionate physical and economic effects of COVID-19. This moment in time has become an inflection point, and black and brown people, with allies of other groups, are seizing it and speaking out with righteous fury and saying, no more.

    Protests are spreading across the world in support, and we at The History Center are watching this history in the making, hoping to preserve the parts of it rising in Tompkins County. We are reaching out to the community and asking any of you to contact us with your experiences of this critical moment and send them to us. It could be an email, a diary, a blog, photographs, protest banners and signs, a video or podcast; any form of communication that works for you we would be grateful to receive. 

    The History Center's Black History Collection will be enhanced with an accompanying Black Lives Matter Collection, and it will become part of the archived history of Tompkins County; used in exhibits, educational programs, and by researchers and students documenting the history of this county. We recognize the current Black Lives Matters protests emerge out of a long history of organizing, and community action in Tompkins County. It is our intent that this archive will also include information about anti-racist efforts from previous years and decades, and the community is encouraged to share their previous recollections of other efforts with us as well. 

    Please email with your input at this historic time or visit to learn more about this and other collections.
  • Tue, April 21, 2020 10:00 AM | Anonymous

    This post was written by Al Chaffee, Newfield Historical Society President. 

    1. All early burials were done in a west to east or approximate west to east direction with the head always to the west. It was said that if the dead were to be able to sit up they would face the sunrise.  The tops of the bodies or caskets were maybe a foot or so deep, as far as I’ve been able to tell.

    2. Easily over 95% (possibly around 98% ) of the burials done in the first 25 years of Newfield history were done on the family’s own land - not in a public cemetery which was then called a burying ground.

    3. Of the Town of Newfield's twelve original public cemeteries six or half of the cemeteries were located very close to one-room schools. Part of the reason for this was that the early schools were used for community events, church services and for funerals. Many years ago Lochary VanKirk and I visited his distant cousin, Dora (Earl) Decker, who resided at the Folts Home; a nursing home up in Herkimer, N.Y. Lochary lived at 90 VanKirk Rd. in the large house that his grandfather, Andrew Jackson "Jack" VanKirk built. Marty and Linda Burun now live in that house. Dora told us about when she was a girl; she went to the one-room Jackson Hollow School. She recalled a day when school was dismissed for the funeral of Miss Nancy Schoolcraft. Nancy died on Feb. 2, 1892 and was buried in the Chaffee Creek Cemetery. Albert Knettles”A.K.” Allen was a Newfield undertaker at this time. A. K. chose Nancy's funeral to be the first one that his son Archie “A.R.” Allen, would handle by himself. A. R. was only 15 years old when he did the funeral for Nancy Schoolcraft down in the Jackson Hollow School. A.K. and A. R. were the first two of the three generations of the Allen family to operate the Allen funeral business in Newfield.

    4. Many of the rural public cemeteries in Newfield were started around 1850. Earlier dated grave stones in these cemeteries were for loved ones' bodies that were brought in from private land and buried there after the cemetery was started. The first burial in the Estabrook Cemetery along Rte. 13 in Pony Hollow was that of William B. Estabrook who died on Apr. 12, 1852. In the same front row is a marble marker giving the death date of Desire, Isaac L. Smith's wife, as Nov. 29, 1832. Also very close to Wm. B.'s stone are the stones of two of Robert P. Beebe's wives, Mary and Hannah whose stones show that they died in 1839 and 1845 respectively. All three ladies must have had their bodies brought in, probably from private land, after Wm. B.'s burial in 1852. Burials on private land were very common and prevalent even up to and well past the 1850's in Newfield. People viewing the stones in Estabrook Cemetery would incorrectly assume that Desire Smith was the first burial in that cemetery in 1832. This situation is common in most public cemeteries.

    5. The first burial in the Woodlawn Cemetery was on Jan. 16th, 1881. It was for a 9 year old Charley Sebring who had died just two days earlier. Charley's father, Charles Sebring, a Civil War vet had died in 1875 at the age of 31 and was buried in the Sebring Settlement Cemetery up on the Trumbulls Corners Rd. There are 43 grave markers in the Woodlawn Cemetery with death dates earlier than the first burial in 1881 going back to as early as 1827. One of these is for Charley's dad, Charles, whose body was later moved down and reburied next to Charley. Most of these earlier than 1881 markers are for bodies that were moved in from the less well kept rural cemeteries but some were for bodies brought in from private family owned land. My Grandmother, Mamie Chaffee, told me about Rebecca Cook (1846 - 1885) who was killed in a buggy accident. Rebecca was originally buried on private land up behind Hazel Shulte's present home on Burdge Hill Rd even in 1885 after the Woodlawn Cemetery had been in operation for several years. Several years later Rebecca's body was brought down and reburied in the Woodlawn Cemetery.

    6. I was told by the old-timers that early Newfield residents commonly considered death as just a part of life. In the Newfield Village Cemetery on Bank St. there are 47 marked graves of folks who died in the 1830 - 1839 decade. Of those forty-seven deaths, twenty-three or half were 9 years old or younger when they died. The average age of those 47 at their time of death was 23. And adults would have had a better chance of being buried in a public cemetery with a proper marker than a child.

    7. The grave of Capt. Joseph Gregg of Co. I, 137th Regt. N.Y.S.V. in the Newfield Village Cemetery on Bank St. has become a lot more well-known in the last three or four years. He now has an approximately 16 foot flag pole and flag and a new marker which calls him the "Hero of Gettysburg". As Civil War historians and researchers did more in-depth research, they found that the basically previously unknown Capt. Gregg and his men played a very important part of the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg. On the evening of July 2nd the 137th was left to guard the foot of Culp's Hill. The rebels started to move up through that area in the dark and Capt. Gregg, with a group of men, made a bayonet charge against them. With vision being very limited due to night time darkness, the southerners retreated. Captain Gregg's gravestone reads "fell while nobly leading his men at bayonet Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg". I think that Capt. Gregg received two bullet wounds with a serious one to his upper arm. He had his left arm amputated at the shoulder and he died the next day, July 3, 1863. It is thought that it is possible that if it were not for Capt. Gregg and his men's bayonet charge in the darkness of night, the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg may have been different. Capt. Gregg was survived by his wife Hannah, daughter of Major John and Annis Puff. Capt. Gregg and Hannah's only child, Jennie, died a year earlier at the age of 3 months.

    8. There are another five American flags placed every year before Memorial Day about three or four feet apart up in the northeast corner of the Newfield Village Cemetery on Bank St. Back in the 1950's and early 1960's I remember William Kellogg "Willie" Ellison placing flags at the heads of these five then very obvious graves. Willie explained that these were the graves of five soldiers that never received proper markers. Well we are still placing flags on these graves in remembrance of those five soldiers whose names have been forgotten and whose actual graves are no longer discernable.

    There is so very much more that could have been written but we wanted to keep this short. We hope that you found this somewhat interesting. Please contact us if you want to discuss or want more information.

    Also please consider joining the Newfield Historical Society. You can contact me at 564-7778.  Our goals are simply to research, preserve and share a very interesting Newfield history.


     Al Chaffee, Newfield Historical Society President

  • Fri, March 20, 2020 1:04 AM | Anonymous

    We are living through one of the most demanding and disturbing times in modern history. The whole world is grappling with the unsettling realities of the Coronavirus outbreak. Tompkins County is no exception, and our community has completely restructured in the past 2 1/2 weeks with the goal of protecting our most vulnerable, and slowing down the spread of the virus locally so our local health workers can continue to provide the best care to all patients. Many historians have been comparing the COVID-19 outbreak to the global influenza pandemic of 1918. In this instance however we have an opportunity to better document this pivotal time in our community than we've ever had before.

    The History Center in Tompkins County and the Cornell University Archives are collaborating in creating ongoing archival collections related to the impacts of COVID-19. Cornell is focusing on the impacts nationally, while we at The History Center are focusing on the issues locally. To this end we need your help!

    Please let us know how you are coping with these tremendous challenges. Write about your experiences with this virus and the impacts you are seeing in the local community. Capture pictures of ways community spaces have changed, and how you are practicing social distancing in your own lives.

    If you are a local business that has been impacted consider sending us any materials you designed or developed to share this news with your patrons.

    Teachers, this can also be an activity for students to pursue in their own way.

    In this time of great urgency we are seeing many people step up to provide aid and comfort to those in need, such as our elderly and ailing neighbors. We are all in this together and sharing our stories can lighten our emotional load. Our stories are the first draft of the history our descendants will read when we're gone.

    To all of our community we send our best wishes to stay safe and well.

    Please send all materials to Donna Eschenbrenner at with information about the date, time, and location of images and author attribution of any written pieces. Visit to learn more, and follow us at @tompkinshistory on your preferred social media platform for posts about local history.

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