Ithaca is ICY, Part 2: The Frozen Lake

Cayuga Lake as a Frozen Ice Rink

By Louise Bement, Town of Lansing Historian

 Collection of The History Center in Tompkins County

Collection of The History Center in Tompkins County

Cayuga Lake does not freeze its whole length very often, but when it does, people take advantage of the winter sports enjoyed on the smaller lakes of New York State.

 Ad from the Ithaca Journal, December 2, 1896

Ad from the Ithaca Journal, December 2, 1896

There are records of its freezing from Mr. Davenport’s diary of Trumansburg Landing in February 1856, 1868, and 1875. Barbara Bell reported the 1912 freeze in her “Fifty Years Ago” column in the Ithaca Journal. Later years are recorded in Louise Bement’s diary in 1977 when the lake froze from Ithaca to Taughannock; and in 1979 when it froze about all the way (but at Union Springs there was still some open water).

In 1912 there were skating contests and parties at Aurora where the ice was the smoothest. People put chairs on sleds and rode on the ice, and there were horse races. John Townsend, an early Schuyler County car dealer, offered rides in his Maxwell with the top down. He had chains on the rear tires and a bear skin lap robe for passenger comfort.

 The Illston ice house on West Clinton Street was the longest-running ice house in Ithaca, in operation from 1876 to 1950. An Ithaca Daily Journal ad from may 8, 1897 touts the ice house's artesian well for producing ice "free from any contamination" compared to ice cut from the Inlet or Fall Creek.

The Illston ice house on West Clinton Street was the longest-running ice house in Ithaca, in operation from 1876 to 1950. An Ithaca Daily Journal ad from may 8, 1897 touts the ice house's artesian well for producing ice "free from any contamination" compared to ice cut from the Inlet or Fall Creek.

The lake did not have to freeze completely for ice harvesting to take place. Most years Cayuga Inlet froze, and ice was cut with big saws into huge blocks, which were packed in sawdust and stored in ice houses for year-round sale. There were commercial ice houses near where Dey Street meets Route 13, and smaller ice houses on people’s farms.

Jacob Rhodes’ diary of 1886 records that on January 26, he drew a load of ice for his father and then helped pack the ice. On January 27 he drew five loads. He paid $4.50 for the cutting of the ice. January 28 he and Caleb worked packing the ice, but it rained some and the ice was “spoiling.”

Farmers would get together and cut the ice, marking off the blocks to be cut with lines scratched into the ice. They would load the ice onto bobsleds and take it to their ice houses.

George C. Schemp wrote about skating on the lake in 1934:

“In 1934 the weather got real cold and went down to minus 35 degrees, so the lake froze over. The first time in my life to have it happen. A good friend of mine, Mike Strek, agreed with me that we should skate from Stewart Park all the way to Lansing Station. We planned to do this during Christmas Vacation and decided to do it on a weekend, thinking we could get a ride back from Lansing Station with my parents.

 So on a cold Saturday morning we walked to Stewart Park and, by sitting on a log, we put on our skates. It was rough going from the park to Estys as it had snowed a little which had melted, then froze again, which made little ripples in the ice, making it rough. When we approached Estys it smoothed out, as smooth as glass, and we really took off. We thought we were going thirty miles an hour because we were going so fast.

 Just before getting to Ross’s Point I heard a large crack and slowed my skates to a stop. This caused me to slide out into the water between two large pieces of ice. I did not go all the way into the lake as I stopped myself with my arms, which I spread out on top of the ice. Mike was closer to the shore so he had no trouble. I called him to help me so he found an old dead limb which he slid out to me. Then he pulled me out and I slid to shore. We walked on the shore about a half a mile before we found solid ice.

 The ducks caused the open water by Ross’s Point by swimming behind the point and not allowing the water to freeze. We started skating again and met my brother, John, with six ducks he had pulled out of the ice on his way up to meet us. We ate a lot of duck for a while.

 When we got to my grandfather’s house at Lansing Station my skates were frozen solid, so I had to walk with skates on up to the house from the lake. After I thawed out I was able to undress and wrap myself in an army blanket. What a way to go home after skating to Lansing Station. However it was a lot of fun and a great experience I will never forget.”