The City of Ithaca on Wednesday approved Cornell’s proposal to block off a 187-year-old tunnel leading to a swimming hole in one of the City’s gorges, authorizing the University to erect a 16-foot steel gate in front of the tunnel this winter. At the same time, the City also tasked a commission with exploring the possibility of one day reopening the area to the public.
Students and locals use the tunnel to access Fall Creek Gorge at the top of Ithaca Falls, including a swimming hole upstream, under the 25-foot Forest Falls, that is illegal to swim in and can be dangerous. Ezra Cornell, who co-founded the University, built the tunnel with a group of men in 1830, who blasted the 200-foot tunnel out of the gorge wall to harness water and power mills in the area.
Two students have died in or near the swimming hole in the last seven years after using the tunnel to access the area, most recently a 17-year-old incoming freshman, Winston S. Perez Ventura, of the Bronx, who drowned in August.
“Praise God!!!!” said his mother, Agnelli Gutierrez, in a text to The Sun on Wednesday night when informed of the vote, which she called “wonderful news.”
The City owns Ezra’s Tunnel and the section of Fall Creek Gorge west of the Stewart Avenue bridge. Cornell owns the upstream part of the gorge, to the east of the bridge, which includes the popular swimming hole that sits under Forest Falls, near where both students died.
It is legal to walk through the tunnel and around the gorge, and there are no warning signs in the area. Swimming in the gorges is illegal and can draw a fine up to $250, although Jamie Williamson, public information officer for Ithaca Police, said recently that the gorges are a “huge strain” on the understaffed department.
Common Council voted 6 to 3 to approve the gate, with alderpeople Cynthia Brock (D-First Ward), George McGonigal (D-First Ward) and Ducson Nguyen (D-Second Ward) voting against the barrier. Cornell will also erect a fence to shut off access to a small slot near the tunnel that leads to a treacherous lookout.
Perez Ventura, who was in Cornell’s pre-freshman summer program, drowned at the swimming hole on Aug. 4 of this year, and in May of 2011, Kendrick Castro, 22, drowned after being swept away by the water while wading toward the falls on the day after he received his diploma.
In addition to approving the gate, the City directed the Parks, Recreation, and Natural Resources Commission to explore “re-establishing public access” to the natural area and to make recommendations to Common Council.
Rob Gearhart (D-Third Ward) said the gate is not intended to be a permanent closure. It will have a locked, 6-foot-by-8-foot door that will be accessible by first responders and could one day be opened.
“I will be voting for this gate with the hope that we will also marshall our time and resources [to] maybe take it down sometime in the near future,” Gearhart said.
Of the 15 people who spoke regarding Ezra’s Tunnel at the Common Council meeting on Wednesday evening, all but two spoke against the gate. Supporters were almost all students or graduates of Cornell, who said they found the area to be a calm slice of nature. An online petition to keep the tunnel open had gathered nearly 900 signatures as of the meeting.
As a student in the 1960s, Frank Proto ’65 said, he and his friends went through the tunnel “a number of times.” He urged the City to keep the tunnel and the section of Fall Creek Gorge to which it leads open.
The tunnel, originally built to supply water to plaster, flour, paper and other mills along the gorge, has been used as a pathway for most of the last century. “Ezra’s Tunnel Lures Students,” read a headline from The Cornell Daily Sun in 1963.
Joe McMahon, chair of the Natural Areas Commission, which passed a resolution in favor of the gate, said he wishes there were more money available to make the area safe, but absent additional funds, the tunnel should be blocked.
“I do not see this as closing off our gorges,” he said. “I see it as the city being a responsible landowner dealing with a problem in the only way they are financially able.”
Cornell trains RAs to discuss the gorges with students at the beginning of the year and sends multiple emails to students each year warning of the dangers. Several students said that Cornell had never informed them of the dangers, which concerned some council members.
Deborah Mohlenhoff (D-Fifth Ward) represents the area where Ezra’s Tunnel sits and said that the council should listen to the Natural Areas Commission, which is “as close as we have to experts” on this gorge area.
Mohlenhoff, director of student activities at Tompkins Cortland Community College, said she has lost students to tragedies “exactly like this” and cautioned that students do not always remember the large amounts of information provided to them during orientations. She commended the present students for making the time to voice their opinions to the Common Council during finals week.
Brock, a vocal opponent of the gate, said she sends her three teenagers out into the world every day wanting them to be safe and come home, and said it is also important that they know how to evaluate risk.
“I’m very mindful of how it must feel for a parent to lose a child, and the pain and the desire that comes with that — that desire to make a change so that will never happen again,” she said. “For those families that have experienced that grief, I am eternally sorry.”
Brock said adventure has become increasingly structured and that “as a result, when you leave that very sheltered space and engage with the world around you, those young people have not had the opportunity to develop in an environment of risk where they learn what their limits are.”
Logan Bell has lived in Ithaca for seven years and founded Free the Gorges, a loose group that organizes against city efforts to close natural areas.
“I don’t think the approach of building fences and walls is where our government should be heading,” Bell said in a recent interview. “People will find a way around walls, they always do.”
He said on Wednesday night that the “only recourse” if the city votes to erect the gate would be “to put our bodies in front of the machines of this government and put our bodies in Ezra’s Tunnel” to prevent construction of the gate.
Dan McClure, the Cornell construction manager who designed the gate and would install it this winter, said in a recent interview that the steel gate would be impossible to climb over and resistant to bolt cutters or other devices.
McGonigal said that if Cornell’s education is not adequate, students should pressure the University to do more to make incoming students aware of the dangers.
“The propeller for closing Ezra’s Tunnel is Cornell University, and their representatives have been telling us that students are told about gorge safety as soon as they get off the bus,” McGonigal said to a chorus of disagreement from Cornellians who spoke against the gate.
Prof. Stephen Winans, microbiology, said he has had four children who have graduated from Cornell and that all have “enjoyed Ezra’s Tunnel,” which he called “a shrine to the University.”
Gutierrez, the mother of Perez Ventura, said making the area safer “will be a team effort” and that she is “willing to be a part of it.”