Anne Charles / Sun Staff Photographer

Anne Charles / Sun Staff Photographer

August 31, 2017

Common Council Debates Closing Ezra’s Tunnel

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A drowning death earlier this month has added to concerns about a historic tunnel in Ithaca and increased pressure on Common Council to close the pathway to some of Ithaca’s gorges.

Winston S. Perez-Ventura ’22 died near Fall Creek in a drowning accident in the beginning of August. Since then, the city has been considering shutting down the area due to the frequency of accidents.

IPD officers respond to the gorges “about once a week during the summer months for some type of medical emergency,” IPD Officer Jamie Williamson told The Sun.

“We’ve recommended to city staff to work with local agencies to improve their signage around these areas,” said Fourth Ward Alderperson Graham Kerslick. “The city makes every effort to make sure that there is adequate signage, but of course when it gets taken down or vandalized, it’s difficult to keep up with that.”

Despite “extensive signage” on Willard Way, a road leading to Ezra’s Tunnel, as it’s known, many visitors ignore the warnings and swim in the gorges anyway, former Fifth Ward Alderperson Josephine Martell told the Ithaca Voice.

Shutting down the tunnel is no easy task, however. Ezra’s Tunnel also serves as an emergency route for the gorge safety task force to quickly help people in hazardous situations near the gorges, Kerslick said.

“It’s not just a question of putting up some kind of gate,” he told The Sun. “We have to make sure that we’ve covered as many possibilities as possible. We don’t want to restrict access in one area and then encourage it in another.”

In addition, Common Council members and Ithacans have concerns regarding the preservation of natural life. Because of erosion and rockfall in certain parts of the gorges, some areas must be blocked off.

“We’re also trying to balance the look of the area,” Kerslick said. “We try to keep it as natural as possible while pointing out to people who are in these areas which areas are dangerous.”

The possibility of shutting Ezra’s Tunnel is just one effort to make the gorges safer. Since July, the Gorge Safety Task Force has been working with Cornell staff to find ways to prevent accidents at the gorges. The fate of Ezra’s Tunnel was one of many decisions the task force had to discuss.

The discussion is ongoing between the Common Council, IPD, gorge rangers, Ithaca Youth Council and Cornell.

“This area is one of those places where it is beautiful to be in, but it is a dangerous area in itself,” Kerslick said.

  • Jay Wind

    The reporter could have addressed whether there is any validity to the name “Ezra’s tunnel”. I know that Ezra made a tunnel near Bebee Dam for a mill, but why is this one called “Erza’s tunnel”?

    • Bill Brauninger

      The tunnel was excavated by Ezra Cornell while he was in Jeremiah Beebe’s employ as a machinist and millwright. Its purpose being to replace a wooden flume attached to the south gorge wall feeding water to power the latter’s grist mill below Ithaca Falls. I seem to recall an early reference to it as “Colonel Beebe’s tunnel”, so it may simply be a case of Cornell’s celebrity eclipsing that of Beebe over time.

      • Jay Wind

        Many thanks. It is important to note that Ithaca had many important figures (such as Colonel Beebe) before Ezra Cornell even came to town and that there were many people other than Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White who played important roles in the launch of the University.