A major aspect of Ithaca’s charming, quaint location is its isolated nature. No interstate highways run through Tompkins County, forcing the Cornell student body to rely solely on state highways to get to campus. One of these popular state highways that services traffic from Interstate 81 to Ithaca is NY Route 79. This picturesque two-lane road travels from the east hill of Ithaca, past the onslaught of “no zoning” signs in Slaterville Springs, through the rural Tioga County hills into Lisle, eventually intersecting with Interstate 81 at Whitney Point in Northern Broome County.
Those who frequently travel this route may have passed a clearing on the side of the road on one of the final bends. If you just so happened to glance over at the right time, you may have even seen people pulled over at the clearing filling jugs, bottles, glasses, whatever they could find, with water. Having passed by this water spout dozens of times, it felt like a crime to continue to drive past this spring without trying it and learning a bit more about it.
The opportunity to stop and try this renowned water came on my return from spring break back to beloved Ithaca (I went to the Bahamas, thanks for asking). It was a clear, cloudless Thursday evening around 5 p.m. when I took exit 8 off I-81 toward Whitney Point. As I approached the clearing just past the Village of Lisle, I was shocked to see that no one was stopped to fetch some water on this fine evening. This was one of the only times I had seen this location empty. Nevertheless, I hit the brakes and pulled into the small loop.
I hopped out of the car and made my way over to the white pipe emerging from the side of the hill. My initial reaction to seeing the rustic pipe was questioning if this water was clean. The tube was covered by an array of stickers from the mouth to where it entered the hill. Further down, the interior of the pipe was covered in a brown film as far as I could see into the dark cavity of the pipe. Although there was no visible damage to the pipe, it certainly did not convince me that the water I was about to try was absent of any bacteria that could render me bed-ridden for my Easter weekend.
After mustering enough courage, I extracted my gas station water bottle from my car and held it under the steady stream. As I stuck the Deer Park plastic bottle under the pipe, I flinched at how cool the spring was. I was also pleasantly surprised to notice there was no murkiness to the water, indistinguishable from any tap water. Without hesitation, I gulped a massive sip of the water, enough to provoke a large belch, startling some birds within the Lisle woods. The water tasted fresh and cold, extremely refreshing for the unseasonably warm day. Although there was a slight aftertaste, one I couldn’t quite put my finger on, the water still tasted excellent and clean — far better quality than the subpar water in my dorm, Founders Hall. After refilling my bottle for the 40 minute drive home, I vowed from that day onward to stop at the Lisle Spring any time my future travels took me on NY-79.
Impressed by the water’s quality, I perused the Town of Lisle website to find someone who may be knowledgeable about this spring. After making numerous phone calls to the various council members, I finally received a response from Mitchell Quail, Jr., the Superintendent of Highways for the Town of Lisle. Although Quail was unsure when the spring was put together, he was emphatic that the spring has been a very popular spot for many decades.
Although the spring did not come from an identifiable lake or reservoir, Quail assured me that the water comes from “various hilltop springs, creating a constant flow of water.” After a quick glance at a map, it appears that the source of the water comes from various streams in the hills southwest of Lisle and Whitney Point, most serving as tributaries for the larger Tioughnioga River. As to why this spring is such a popular spot in particular, Quail was unsure.
Much of the traffic at this spring was likely a result of a social domino effect — people stopping to investigate why others are stopping, just as I did myself. However, there had to be an initial reason for why people started visiting this spring.
Although many modern filtration systems for water exist today, clean drinking water is not always available. The Village of Whitney Point, located about one mile from the Lisle spring, derives their water from a series of wells. The Village of Whitney Point wells, as well as much of Broome County, are in proximity to discharge facilities — industrial facilities that release wastewater into the environment. For this reason, the Village of Whitney Point classifies their wells at a “medium-high” to “high” susceptibility to harmful bacteria and viruses. Although this is merely one theory, fears over clean drinking water in this region of Broome County may have contributed to the initial acclaim of this spring.
The Lisle Spring, while mysterious to most Cornellians speeding on NY-79 trying to get as far from Ithaca as possible for break, is an instrumental source of fresh drinking water for many locals in Lisle and Whitney Point. Next time you pass by, I encourage you to stop. Although the pipe may look grimey or intimidating at first, fill up a bottle for the road. I promise you’ll be back for more.
Jimmy Cawley is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences. He currently serves as the dining editor for the 141st board. He can be reached at [email protected].