Street cars preceded local bus lines

The Ithaca Journal, Centennial edition, Friday, 08-April-1988
By D G Rossiter

It's more than 100 years ago - on Dec. 27, 1887 - that the original line of the Ithaca Street Railway opened, running along State Street from the Lehigh Valley station on West Buffalo Street to the Ithaca Hotel at State and Aurora Streets. At the time, this was one of only three operating electric railways in New York state. Two small streetcars shuttled continuously between the two terminals, providing a 10-minute headway.

The system was soon extended in two directions: the entire length of N Tioga Street and then west on Lincoln Street to the old steamboat landing in 1892, and up East Hill to South Avenue on the Cornell campus and to the East Ithaca railway station in 1893. State and Eddy Streets were selected as the easiest route up the hill. The links between campus, Collegetown, the downtown stores and rooming houses, and the railroad depots of the West End formed a traffic pattern that continues to this day.

In 1894 the Tioga Street line was extended to Renwick (now Stewart) Park, which was owned by the same interests as the street railway, and the Lincoln Street line was abandoned. In 1895 the campus line was extended to the University (now Uris) Library. In 1900 this line was extended across the newly-built Triphammer Bridge over Fall Creek into Cornell Heights, down Thurston Avenue and around The Knoll, back across Fall Creek and along Stewart Avenue to State Street, forming a loop around which cars traveled in both directions.

Not coincidentally, Edward G. Wyckoff, who owned the entire Cornell Heights tract, had obtained control of the street railway just four years earlier. The Cornell Heights extension was so successful that Wyckoff and a few other prominent Ithacans decided to try the same thing on a larger scale. In 1901 they formed a land company to buy and subdivide most of Cayuga Heights south of Upland Road, and also built an extension of the street railway into it. This line opened in the summer of 1906. It left the Cornell Heights loop at Wyckoff and Thurston Avenues, and followed Wyckoff Avenue and Highland Road almost to Upland Road. It then descended the hill in three long loops to reach Renwick Park, there joining the Tioga Street line.

Unfortunately for Wyckoff, Cayuga Heights did not develop fast enough to support most of the line, and after two years the line was cut back to Kline Road, just into Cayuga Heights. By 1919 there had been sufficient development along Highland Road to extended the line, by then humorously referred to as the "Great Northern", to the Five Corners (Upland Road).

In 1914 the street railway was re-organized as the Ithaca Traction Company, and was extensively re-built. New streetcars were ordered, but the economics of the day were against street railways, which had to maintain their own right-of-way and power plant. In 1924 the ITC became bankrupt, and re-organized as the Ithaca Railway in 1929.

The "Great Northern" and the line to East Ithaca depot [from College and Oak avenues] were discontinued in 1930. In 1934 a bus operator, Sweet & Oster, bought the franchise and replaced the streetcars with motor buses in the summer of 1935. The buses followed as far as possible the exact routes of the streetcars [,using roads in place of private right-of-way when necessary, for example using Stewart and Thurston Avenues instead of the streetcar right-of-way around The Knoll], and this pattern was maintained until August 1961, when operators discontinued bus service due to excessive losses.

On August 10, 1961, Common Council approved the formation of the Community Transit System to provide local transit, and two days later service began. In the summer of 1962, the system obtained its first new buses, and the routes were adjusted to the current "figure-eight" pattern.

Subsequently re-named Ithaca Transit in the mid-1970s, this system is one of the success stories of small city transit. Routes have been added to all parts of the City as well as to Stewart Park, Buttermilk Falls, Ithaca College, East Hill Plaza and the Tompkins Community Hospital. Ridership has increased from about 150,000 in 1961 to 849,000 in 1987. The employees of Ithaca Transit are known for their friendliness to longtime residents and newcomers alike. And the fare is a very reasonable 35 cents.

The rattling Birney streetcars have been replaced by comfortable Orion buses, but the alert observer can still find traces of the Ithaca Street Railway. Most notable is the pedestrian footbridge across Cascadilla Gorge in Collegetown. The line around [the Thurston Avenue side of] The Knoll today serves as a driveway as it leaves Thurston Avenue at Barton Place; [this section was a two-tracked passing loop]. The graded roadbed and concrete culverts of the lower loops of the Cayuga Heights line can be seen just east of Renwick Road near the end of N Sunset [and Devon] Road.

Note: This version has been slightly modified from the published version: (1) spelling, punctuation, and paragraph division have been adjusted to my current taste, (2) some information has been expanded (always in [square brackets]).

Tour Guide

I prepared this
tour guide (PDF, 5.3 Mb) for a bus tour of the ISR route and remains on 14-May-2017, sponsored by the History Center in Tompkins County. I have revised this (latest edition 07-June-2017) with some more pictures and better explanations. e As part of this I was interviewed (MP3, 12.7 Mb) by Lee Rayburn of WHCU radio Morning Newswatch, this interview aired on 10-May-2017.

Here is a map showing the locations mentioned in the tour guide.


Addendum 1997: Relics of the Ithaca Street Railway

Addendum 2000: Changes in relics

Addendum 2000: Public Transit in Ithaca today

Official site of Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) , including maps and schedules.

Most traces of the Ithaca Street Railway route structure are now gone, replaced by much-improved service to the suburbs and outlying areas.

Addendum 2004: Open questions

I would appreciate any help you can give on the following uncertainties I have about the exact location of the ISR; I was born too late to see it in action, and did not start looking for relics until about 1962, when much evidence was already removed.

  1. Alignment in Stewart Park. I think the railway entered parallel to the lake just where the railroad begins to curve N, so more or less on a line with the Youth Bureau. It ran parallel to the lake, close behind the large pavilion, with a baloon track to avoid reversing put in at some point -- when? Did the streetcar line ever extend all the way to the boathouse or the small pavillion?
    This track diagram from Richard Palmer's Ithaca-Auburn Shortline book shows the situation after 1914, when the Short Line was rebuilt north of Percy Field. It shows a single baloon track in Stewart Park.
  2. Alignment of the Cayuga Heights loop in the vicinity of Devon Rd. I can find no evidence that the grade crossed Pleasant Grove Brook, which it would have had to do twice as descended from Highland Rd through what is now 518 Highland Rd. (built 1954). I infer that the northernmost point of the curve was just at the S edge of the brook and so it would have crossed Hanshaw Road south of the top of Devon Road and through what is now the driveway of 211 Hanshaw (built 1952), and then along the (W?) side of the existing Hanshaw Rd. in front of 208 and 212 Hanshaw (built 1928-1930).
  3. Alignment of the Cayuga Heights loop between Cayuga Heights Rd at the end of Hanshaw Rd and the Sunset Park triangle. I suspect it went straight across what is now the lawn of the large house W of this intersection (218 Cayuga Heights Road, built in 1930, after the loop was abandoned).


Historical photos

Photo Tour 2004




Author: D G Rossiter

This page is http://wwww.swampstomper.nl/history/street.html
Last modified: Sun Jan 29 08:30:08 EST 2023