A fence may be built to block off Ezra's Tunnel, which leads to gorges where three Cornell students have died in the last seven years.

Anne Charles / Sun Staff Photographer

A fence may be built to block off Ezra's Tunnel, which leads to gorges where three Cornell students have died in the last seven years.

November 9, 2017

Ithaca and Cornell Move Toward Fencing Off Tunnel to Gorge Where Students Have Drowned

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Cornell and Ithaca moved one step closer on Wednesday to blocking access to the gorge above Ithaca Falls, which has long served as a local swimming hole but has also been the site of three students’ drowning deaths in the last seven years.

Ithaca’s Planning Committee, in a 3 to 1 vote, sent a resolution to Common Council that, if passed next month, would authorize the city make a deal with Cornell in which the University would design and build a fence restricting access to the Fall Creek Gorge.

Cornell, under the agreement, would pay for all aspects of creating the gate in front of Ezra’s Tunnel and would then turn the gate over to the City of Ithaca, which would retain “sole ownership” of the barrier. The gate would include access for emergency and maintenance personnel.

Ezra’s Tunnel is roughly 16.5 feet tall and 14 feet wide and was constructed by Ezra Cornell in the early 1830s to divert water from the falls to help power a mill. Now, the tunnel is the primary access to the Fall Creek Gorge for students and locals, hundreds of whom swim illegally at the gorge and gawk at the city below each summer.

But the site is also a dangerous locale, particularly for Cornell students who may not be as familiar as Ithacans with the drowning risks posed by the flowing falls. Ithaca Police Officer Jamie Williamson, the department’s spokesman, said in August that officers respond to the gorges “about once a week during the summer months for some type of medical emergency,” a figure that includes all gorges throughout Ithaca.

Ezra Cornell's Tunnel, which Ezra Cornell began building in 1830 and is pictured here in 1868.

Courtesy of Cornell Library

Ezra Cornell’s Tunnel, which Ezra Cornell began building in 1830 and is pictured here in 1868.

In August of this year, a 17-year-old in Cornell’s prefreshman summer program, Winston S. Perez-Ventura ’22, drowned at Fall Creek Gorge, the area that the University is now attempting to shutter. In July of 2011, Nathaniel Rand ’12 drowned while swimming in the area below the falls, and in May of 2011, Kendrick Castro ’11 drowned the day after receiving his Cornell degree.

Seph Murtagh ’09, chair of the Planning Committee, was adamant that the tunnel should be closed off and that a decision to do so could save lives. Murtagh said he has taught the pre-freshman program that Perez-Ventura, who came to Cornell from the Bronx, was a part of and said he has warned students to not swim at the gorges and worried his directives would not be heeded.

“You tell [students] that the gorges are dangerous, you tell them to not swim in the gorges, but the truth is they’re excited,” he said. “You’ve got to put yourself in the shoes of a 17-year-old kid coming from the Bronx, never been around anything like this before, and it’s an attraction.”

“Maybe they get some bureaucratic warning about swimming in the gorges, but they’re curious, they’re around their friends who are talking about it, … and suddenly they don’t know what they’re doing and they get injured or they get killed,” he continued. “That’s the situation here. That’s what we’re talking about.”

Those opposed to the fence, including several Cornell students and at least one professor, said the dangers of the falls come hand in hand with living in a beautiful, natural region, and that closing off Ezra’s Tunnel is an excessive measure that would result in the closure of more natural areas.

“I’m completely opposed to it,” Prof. Stephen Winans, microbiology, said in an interview after he addressed the committee. “I think that access to Fall Creek [Gorge] is important for students at Cornell and the residents of Ithaca. It’s a place as beautiful as any state parks, with an astonishing sunset, and we should not deny that to people.”

Ezra's Tunnel, looking toward the east.

Anne Charles / Sun Staff Photographer

Ezra’s Tunnel, looking toward the east.

Alderperson Cynthia Brock, who is on the Planning Committee and represents the First Ward, said she was concerned erecting the fence would lead to a “very slippery slope.”

The danger of the gorge, she said, “is the cost of living around a natural area.”

“How much are we going to dumb down our environment?” Brock said. “Is our job as a municipality to create bumpers or barriers around anything that could possibly result in an injury? I don’t think that is our role. I wouldn’t want to live in [that] community.”

Todd Bittner, director of natural areas at Cornell Botanic Gardens, represented the University at the meeting on Wednesday and said the area is “the most dangerous waterfall and plunge pool in the entire Finger Lakes region.”

Bittner rattled off the names of students who had died at the Fall Creek Gorge and said the University wants to encourage the use of safe, natural spaces, arguing that the area above Ithaca Falls is both dangerous and “not a natural area.”

“It’s an industrial remnant from a different era,” he said. “There’s broken, cut metal fences, industrial scrap metal, graffiti, trash. It’s not a natural area, it’s not a beautiful space. It’s a neglected, dangerous space.”

“The risk isn’t just to the people that go out there, it’s also to the emergency responders who then have to rescue people who find themselves, too late, in jeopardy,” Bittner said.

Winans, the Cornell professor, said enforcing existing laws prohibiting swimming and educating students of the area’s dangers could encourage safe use of the locale.

“It can be made safe,” he said. “There’s already a $250 fine for anyone found swimming. There could be more signs warning people as well as signs explaining the important history of this area.”

Krystof J. Hochlewicz ’21 said he had “never been educated on gorge safety” by the University, and that enjoying the gorge area should be treated like using alcohol, noting that Cornell had required him to complete alcohol safety education training before he arrived on campus this fall.

“We can’t block everything,” he said. “This is absurd.”

Ezra Cornell, co-founder of the University, first arrived in Ithaca in 1828 when he was hired as a mechanic and carpenter. He created the tunnel later dubbed Ezra Cornell’s Tunnel by bursting through 200 feet of solid rock to carry water to the mills downtown.

“The summer of 1830 I … blasted the tunnel through the rock to take water from the dam above the falls for the mill,” Ezra said in 1861. “In 1831 we lowered the tunnel four feet, and built a new dam across the creek.”

Alderperson Michael Decatur, who represents the Fifth Ward, ultimately ended up voting in favor of sending the fence proposition to Common Council, but he said he was wary of adding more fences as part of what he called an “increasing trend of blocking off natural space.”

“Where does individual responsibility come into play?” he asked. “We can’t fence our way through every aspect of our lives.”

Several members of the committee said they would prefer a way for students and Ithacans to safely access the area, but ultimately agreed with Alderperson Rob Gearhart, who represents the Third Ward and said, “I don’t really see us doing better than this right now.”

Gearhart proposed that, after the fence was built, Ithaca or Cornell could potentially offer “guided, safety-led explorations once in a while.”

The final decision on allowing Cornell to build the gate will be up to the 10-member Common Council, on Dec. 6 at 6 p.m. at City Hall.