Thursday's Deluge Damages Cornell Dam

Thursday evening’s heavy rains demolished a section of the dam between the top of Ithaca Falls and the Stewart Avenue bridge...

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By David Hill via the Ithaca Journal, 8/12/13

The energy of flowing water that Ithaca benefactor and university founder Ezra Cornell tapped to power his village’s early mills is the very force that once again is tearing apart the dam he built more than 180 years ago.

Thursday evening’s heavy rains demolished a section of the dam between the top of Ithaca Falls and the Stewart Avenue bridge. An observer for the National Weather service measured 4.55 inches northeast of Freeville Thursday night. The rain fell within a couple of hours Thursday, but the creek was still flowing high and fast into the weekend. The Fall Creek drainage winds through much of northeastern Tompkins County from its source near Lake Como in Sempronius, Cayuga County.

As the water receded through the weekend, it revealed the damage and that boulders of concrete, some with visible bits of graffiti, had been knocked downstream, and showed that some of the remaining dam itself was undermined. A log the size of a mature tree and pointing downstream had come to rest in an opening in the dam.

After more than a century and a half, the dam was hardly whole before the latest heavy rainfall. The dam was part of the system Ezra Cornell designed and oversaw to power flour and plaster mills belonging to his new boss, Jeremiah Beebe. The project included a tunnel and sluice from the impoundment through the ravine’s southern wall to the mill below. Cornell used blasting powder to open the rock wall, according to 1952 Cornell biography “The Builder” by Philip Dorf.

Work was begun in June 1830 and completed the following spring, according to Dorf. Cornell would later build dam farther upstream to create what is now known as Beebe Lake to help ensure a steady flow of water, before making his fortune in the early telegraph industry and donating his farm as the site for the new university.

Swimming in the creek, both above and below the falls, is illegal, and has been the site of several fatal drownings.

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