Cornell erected a steel gate last week in front of Ezra’s Tunnel, blocking off a cave blasted through rock by the University’s co-founder in 1830 that in recent decades has been used to reach a swimming hole where two Cornellians have drowned.
The closure of the 200-foot tunnel above Ithaca Falls follows the city’s approval, in December, of Cornell’s offer to pay for and build the gate, which is on city land. The City’s 6-3 vote followed a months-long debate between those who wanted one of the most beautiful gorge areas to stay accessible and others who believed that more teens would be injured or die if the tunnel remained open.
The black gate, made from a combination of stainless steel and galvanized steel, stands about 16-foot tall and includes a locked, 6-foot-by-8-foot door that can be used by medical personnel in case of emergencies. Some Common Council and Cornell community members hope that the gate could one day allow for guided tours, although there are currently no plans for tours of the area.
Contractors paid by Cornell worked in freezing temperatures and snow from Monday through Wednesday last week, welding the bolt cutter-resistant gate shut.
“We had the refreshing opportunity to work in sub-zero wind chills to get the work done” by the first day of classes, Dan McClure, the Cornell construction manager who designed the gate and oversaw the installation, said in an email to The Sun.
“I commend the efforts of the team we put together to work on the side of a cliff in icy conditions, at some significant risk to themselves, in an effort to help secure the safety of others when the good weather returns,” McClure said.
McClure said it is not yet clear how much the implementation of the gate cost, saying it would likely end up costing about as much as the gate Cornell erected in the Cascadilla Gorge. The gate will now be transferred to the City of Ithaca, which will maintain the gate.
Cornell owns the gorge area east of the Stewart Avenue bridge, where students and locals swim illegally under Forest Falls, and the City of Ithaca owns the gorge area to the west of the bridge, including Ithaca Falls and Ezra’s Tunnel.
In 2011, Kendrick Castro, 22, from Reston, Virginia, drowned the day after he received his diploma after slipping and being swept away by the rushing waters as he waded toward the swimming hole under Forest Falls. Winston S. Perez Ventura ’22, a 17-year-old from the Bronx, was enrolled in Cornell’s pre-freshman program when he drowned at the swimming hole on Aug. 5 of last year.
Both passed through the tunnel shortly before their deaths.
“The installation of the safety barriers to close off the dangerous area above Ithaca Falls is a crucial component of the broader gorge safety efforts between Cornell and the City of Ithaca, to promote safe and responsible use of the gorges,” Todd Bittner, Cornell’s director of natural areas, said in an email.
Cornell’s co-founder, Ezra Cornell, used gunpowder to burrow through the tunnel in 1830 with a crew. A dam above Ithaca Falls, which is now spray painted and crumbling, once sent water gushing through the tunnel and powered mills along Fall Creek.
For decades, students have traveled through the tunnel to lounge on the rocks upstream from the 150-foot-tall Ithaca Falls or swim illegally under Forest Falls. A headline from The Cornell Daily Sun in 1963 reported that “Ezra’s Tunnel Lures Students.”
Frank Proto ’65 told The Sun in December, after urging Common Council to vote against the gate, that he and his friends walked through the tunnel “a number of times” in the early 1960s.
Logan Bell, who founded a loose group, Free the Gorges, that advocates to keep natural areas open, said the erection of the barrier “feels almost unreal.”
“There’s this big industrial piece of metal blocking access to an area that’s so beautiful,” he said on Sunday evening. “We really don’t have much of a recourse at this point other than … going in more dangerous paths to get to the same areas.”
Joe McMahon, the former chair of Ithaca’s Natural Areas Commission, wrote in an op-ed in The Sun that he wished he could continue to enjoy the area, but that the danger of the area and the desire of people “to go to a spot where there is little-to-no oversight” requires that it be shuttered.
Some Common Council members said in December that they supported the gate, but also held out hope that it would 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,” Rob Gearhart (D-Third Ward) said in December.