Margaret Hobbie

For the Next Chapter of Your Life
Call me today at (607) 257-0800 Licensed Associate Real Estate Broker, Howard Hanna Real Estate Services

Ithaca Now/Ithaca Then

Ithaca is a small city with a big reputation. Although I am not a native Ithacan I have lived here most of my life and have always been enchanted by the town’s physical setting, diverse population, and general quirkiness. Ithaca was a well-kept Upstate New York secret until May 1997, when the Utne Reader declared it “America’s Most Enlightened City”. Whether or not you agree with this assessment (my friend Brad Edmondson wrote a brilliant sidebar entitled “Ithaca Schmithaca”), the article unleashed a torrent of accolades that has continued for 15 years. Just in the past two years Ithaca has been declared the “most secure” small town by Farmers Insurance, a “top-seven retirement town” in Smart Money, a “perfect town” by Outside magazine, a “top 100 places to live” by, the #6 “foodiest town” by Bon Appetit, #1 best college town by the American Institute for Economic Research, and the #7 “brainiest metro” by the Daily Beast. (Go to for a longer list.)

Ithaca was settled about 200 years ago by settlers from the lower Hudson Valley, the Berkshires, northern New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. The original Iroquois inhabitants had been largely displaced by the tragic Clinton-Sullivan campaign in the late days of the Revolutionary War.

The first log cabins were built near the mouth of Cascadilla Gorge and the at the foot of what is now State Street, but the flat area at the southern end of Cayuga Lake was a swamp and needed to be drained and filled before many houses could be built. Trade and much other commercial activity centered on the Inlet in the western end of the flats. The town had a rough reputation and was known as Sodom in the early years.

In other parts of the county other small settlements were being established, mostly near creeks that provided water power. Thus clusters of very old houses can be found in Trumansburg on Trumansburg Creek; in McLean, Etna and Forest Home on Fall Creek; and Ludlowville on Salmon Creek.

Early inhabitants of the county were occupied with farming and small industries–the Village of Ithaca boasted over 100 businesses by the 1830s. 1830s lithographs of the city show the surrounding hillsides largely cleared and dotted with farms. Agriculture peaked around 1840 when many families moved to cheaper and more fertile lands in the Midwest. The countryside began a steady process of re-forestation, and many villages and hamlets have never regained their peak populations.

Cornell University’s opening in 1868 was a turning point in Ithaca’s history; our economy has been dominated by educational institutions every since. The Ithaca Conservatory of Music (which grew into Ithaca College) was established in 1890 and Tompkins Cortland Community College followed much later, in 1968.

Most Ithacans lived on The Flats during the nineteenth century and distinct neighborhoods evolved around elementary schools and churches. A few streets on lower East Hill and lower South Hill boasted large family houses. After Cornell opened, a neighborhood of boarding houses developed just south of the campus, and more homes were built between this neighborhood and the downtown.

The villages of Trumansburg, Dryden, and Groton prospered in the 1800s. They were self-contained, with their own churches, schools, and civic institutions. Beautiful neighborhoods grew on the north side of Trumansburg and in the South Street area, in Dryden along Union Street and neighboring streets, and in Groton on the east side of the village. Freeville gained importance when it became a railroad hub and has many beautiful late Victorian houses.

Changes in transportation marked the early years of the twentieth century and affected where we work and live. The Ithaca Street Railway (trolleys) was established in 1893 and at first just ran from downtown to Renwick Park on Cayuga Lake. But it soon expanded up East Hill and into the areas north of the Cornell campus. The Belle Sherman, Cornell Heights, and Cayuga Heights neighborhoods are dominated by houses built between 1900 and the second World War. The rapid expansion of automobile travel starting in the 1920s also brought about change as more people in non-agricultural occupations chose to live in the countryside. As housing spread out from Ithaca and the villages, lot sizes increased.

The decades after World War II saw rapid growth in all parts of the county as returning GIs established homes and the economy boomed. Within the City of Ithaca, the Crescent/Hawthorn part of South Hill, Woodcrest and Homestead on East Hill, and large tracts of West Hill were established in these years. Cape Cod and ranch houses, and later split-levels, were built on new streets in the villages, or as in-fill on established streets.

Image Credits

The historical photos and lithographs used on this website are from the collections of the History Center in Tompkins County, 607-273-8284 and Historic Ithaca, 607-273-6633. The lovely photos on my home page are by Dede Hatch.