A Timeline of Tompkins County History
Geological history of Tompkins County & the Finger Lakes area The Finger Lakes consist of 11 long, narrow, parallel lakes, running north-south like the fingers of a pair of outstretched hands. The southern ends have high walls, cut by steep gorges. Seneca and Cayuga Lakes are among the deepest in North America. These lakes all formed over the last two million years by the glacial carving of old stream valleys. Tompkins County is located at the south end of Cayuga Lake, the longest and the second deepest of the Finger Lakes. Cayuga is 38.1 miles long and 435 feet deep at its deepest spot. The Finger Lakes originated as a series of northward-flowing rivers that existed in what is now central New York State. Around two million years ago the first of numerous continental glaciers moved southward from the Hudson Bay area, initiating the Pleistocene glaciation, commonly known as the “Ice Age.” The “Ice Age” was really a series of many advances and retreats of glaciers. The Finger Lakes were probably carved by several of these episodes. Around 19,000 years ago the climate warmed, and the glaciers began to retreat, disappearing entirely from New York for the last time around 11,000 years ago. As the ice melted and glacial sediment dammed the river valleys, lakes much deeper than today’s formed, and streams plunged as waterfalls from the glacially steepened hills. As the lake levels dropped, a series of steps were left on the hillsides, like at the overlook at Taughannock Falls. The streams eroded downward, forming the gorges so characteristic of the Finger Lakes region, in a process that continues today. From Ithaca is Gorges: A Guide to the Geology of the Ithaca Area, by Warren Allmon & Robert Ross
First Residents of the Tompkins County Area Before the arrival of Europeans, a succession of native people were the first inhabitants of the area now called Tompkins County. As early as 11,000 B.C.E., native hunter-gatherers made camps in what is now central New York. As the Ice Age ended and the climate became milder, a wider variety of plants and trees became available as food sources. The people traveled less and formed communities to gather foods while continuing to hunt. Living seasonally along Cayuga Lake and other lakes and streams, the communities separated in winter to forage in smaller groups. The Cayugas, or Goiogouens, are one of the original nations of the Haudenosaunee, sometimes called the Iroquois. Later joined by the Tuscaroras, the Six Nations include, from west to east, the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Tuscarora, and Mohawk Nations. By the late 15th century, Cayugas built villages near water, and planted vegetable crops. Most dwellings were bark-covered longhouses, each home to several matrilineal families. As Europeans encroached on their lands, the Cayugas met missionaries and traders. During the 1650s, Jesuits came to the Cayuga Lake area to try to convert the Native American people to Christianity, establishing missions in Cayuga settlements between about 1667 and 1687. As the Revolutionary War developed, the Haudenosaunee and their individual nations remained neutral, though some of their members were recruited and fought on both sides. In 1779, George Washington ordered the destruction of the Haudenosaunee people, and his forces attacked many villages of the Six Nations. General John Sullivan’s troops burned Cayuga crops and settlements and killed inhabitants. One of the villages burned was Coreorgonel, just south of today’s Ithaca. Coreorgonel was a village of the Tutelo people, adoptees of the Cayuga Nation. In 1789 Governor Clinton made a treaty with the Cayugas, designating their 64,000-acre reservation at the north end of Cayuga Lake. Clinton had already sent his nephew, surveyor Simeon DeWitt, to map many of the remaining Cayuga and other Haudenosaunee lands for the new Military Tract. The federal Treaty of Canandaigua in 1794 reaffirmed the Cayuga Nation’s reservation, but was ignored by New York. In 1795 New York State took the Cayuga reservation for use by settlers. The Cayugas, the People of the Great Swamp, are still with us today, and their struggle for a reservation continues.
Ca. 50,000- 8000 BCE The first settlers in what is now North America migrate across a land bridge from Asia. Various cultures evolve, including the Hohokam in the southwest, and the Algonkian in the northeast. Later peoples include the Haudenosaunee, in what is now central New York. 1492-1611 European explorers, including Christopher Columbus, Henry Hudson, Giovanni De Verrazano, and Samuel De Champlain, voyage to the Western hemisphere. 1607 English settlers land at Jamestown, Virginia. 1620 English settlers, including those later known as Pilgrims, land at Plymouth, Massachusetts. 1775-1783 The Revolutionary War begins with the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and officially ends with the ratification of the Articles of Peace. 1776 The Declaration of Independence is signed in Philadelphia. 1787 The Constitutional Convention is held in Philadelphia. 1788 The Constitution is ratified. 1789 The first Congress meets in March, President George Washington is inaugurated in April, and the Bill of Rights is ratified by December.
1789 The first white settlers come to what is now Tompkins County, and build their first homes at the base of East Hill in Ithaca.
1790 Simeon DeWitt surveys part of the central Finger Lakes area for the Military Tract, land which will ultimately be given to Revolutionary War soldiers and officers in lieu of pay.
1792 The first road in Tompkins County is built, running from Dryden to Ithaca, probably widening an early Native American footpath. It comes to be known as the Bridle Road, or Bridle Path, because travelers need to lead their horses by the bridle through the dense forest. It later becomes Route 13. In 1804 a charter is granted for the Catskill Turnpike, which later becomes Route 79. 1794 Forest Home is settled. It prospers as an industrial center with paper, woolen, grist and saw mills along Fall Creek. 1794 John Watkins and Royal Flint are issued a patent for about 360,000 acres south of the Military Tract, some of which will later become part of Tompkins County. 1803 The Louisiana Purchase doubles the size of the United States, adding more than 800,000 square miles of territory between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. 1807 Congress forbids the importation of slaves into the United States, effective January 1, 1808.
1815 The Seneca Republican publishes its first issue. It will be renamed the Ithaca Journal in 1816. 1817 Tompkins County is created by an act of the state legislature. It is named for Daniel D. Tompkins, governor of New York from 1807-1817, and vice president from 1817 until 1824. Interestingly, Tompkins never visits the county that bears his name. When formed, the county contains the towns of Ulysses, Hector (later part of Schuyler County), Covert (later part of Seneca County), Dryden, Locke (which becomes Groton), and Genoa (which becomes Lansing). Ithaca is declared the county seat.
1820 The steamboat Enterprise is launched on Cayuga Lake, initiating a thriving steamboat business that lasts into the early years of the 20th century.
1821 Ithaca is incorporated as a village. The Town of Ithaca and the Town of Enfield are formed from part of Ulysses. 1823 The towns of Caroline, Danby, and Cayuta (later Newfield) are annexed to Tompkins County. 1825 The Erie Canal opens, providing a link from the east coast through the Appalachian Mountains to the west.
1827 Slavery is abolished in New York State. Slaves in Caroline legally gain their freedom.
1828 The Seneca-Cayuga Canal opens, creating an important link from Tompkins County to the Erie Canal and points west. 1828 Ezra Cornell, 21 years old, arrives in Ithaca to look for work. 1830 The Clinton House opens, acclaimed as one of the finest hotels west of the Hudson River. 1830-1838 The Trail of Tears, the forced resettlement of Native American tribes across the southeast, results in the deaths of thousands.
1833 The first two miles of Ithaca & Owego Railroad tracks are built along Six Mile Creek. The railroad officially opens the following year.
1833 The first Irish Catholic families arrive in Ithaca by this date. 1836 The St. James African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church is built on Wheat Street, now Cleveland Avenue, in Ithaca. It is thought to have served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Noteworthy abolitionist speakers at St. James include Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. 1840 Fire breaks out on Owego Street in Ithaca, (later State Street, and also Martin Luther King Jr. Street), destroying a warehouse and damaging 30 other buildings. Disastrous fires strike Ludlowville in 1858, Ithaca again in 1871, and Newfield in 1875. 1848 The Convention on Women’s Rights is held in Seneca Falls, New York, and is credited as the birth of the Women’s Rights Movement. 1850 The Fugitive Slave Law is passed, giving southerners rights to pursue runaway slaves in northern states, thereby aggravating sectional strife.
1860s Jewish residents settle in Ithaca. 1861 President Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated; the Civil War begins.
1862 Dryden Springs House, a water cure sanitarium, opens under the supervision of Dr. Samantha Nivison. 1863 The Emancipation Proclamation declares that all slaves in rebellious states are free.
1863 The Cornell Library opens to the public on Tioga Street in Ithaca. A generous gift from Ezra Cornell to the people of Tompkins County, it also houses offices, and a large auditorium for public meetings.
1865 The Civil War ends; President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated.
1865 Cornell University is founded. It will open its doors in 1868, with the first class consisting of 412 students, “the largest entering class ever admitted to any American college up to that time,” according to Cornell historian Carl Becker. 1875 Sage College for women opens at Cornell University with 30 female students. While some female students had been studying at Cornell since 1870, the opening of Sage College provides them with dormitory space and formalizes their place in the student body of the university. 1870s The Ladies Union Benevolent Society is formed to aid needy women and children with clothes, food and money. The Home is built in 1876 as a residence for needy women. In 1971 McGraw House is built for older men and women. 1872 Trumansburg is incorporated as a village. 1876 Ithaca is one of the first communities in the country to get telephone service. 1876 Schools in the county shift to a public school system, with Groton, Trumansburg, and Ithaca Academies becoming the core of each district’s school system. 1877 The Groton Bridge and Manufacturing Company begins to manufacture iron bridges, which will be built all over the country. 1880s The Ithaca Gun Company is established above Lake St. in Ithaca. At mid-20th century its turbines continue to be powered by Fall Creek. It closes in 1986. 1887 Ithaca’s trolley service is begun. It is discontinued in 1935, as buses and cars predominate on the roads.
1888 Ithaca is chartered as a city. 1890 Wyoming becomes the first state to enact women’s suffrage.
1892 The Ithaca Conservatory of Music, which later becomes Ithaca College, is founded by W. Grant Egbert in the Day House on Seneca Street. Beginning in 1911, it is housed in the Boardman House in DeWitt Park. 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision establishes the constitutionality of segregation, under the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
1896 Welthea Marsh becomes the president of the First National Bank of Groton. She is one of the first women bank presidents in the United States. 1898 The Morse Chain Company is incorporated in Trumansburg. It will later expand to South Hill in Ithaca. A number of mergers and re-organizations alter the company over time. One division still exists in Lansing as part of Borg Warner.
1903 A typhoid epidemic devastates Ithaca with more than 1,350 reported cases and 82 deaths, a disproportionate number of the victims being Cornell students. 1903 The Wright brothers make the first successful plane flight at Kittyhawk, North Carolina.
1912 The Ithaca Municipal Airport opens near Cayuga Lake. 1914 Wharton Studios begins to make silent films in Ithaca, inaugurating a brief period of glamour, which ends in 1920 when the studio moves to Hollywood. 1914-1918 World War I begins in Europe. In 1917 the United States becomes involved when it declares war on Germany. Armistice is declared on November 11, 1918.
1917 Thomas Bros. Aeroplane Company and Aviation School merges with Morse Chain Company to form the ThomasMorse Aircraft Corporation, a collaboration that will produce such notable planes as the S-4 “Tommy” Scout, used to train pilots in World War I. In 1929 the company is bought out by Consolidated Aircraft of Buffalo. 1919 Levi Spaulding becomes Tompkins County’s first African American policeman. 1920 The 19th Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, giving women the right to vote.
1920 Enfield Glen, later Robert Treman State Park, opens to the public. 1921 Four Ithaca women’s organizations fund and open the Women’s Community Building.
1921 Stewart Park, formerly Renwick Park, is developed as a popular recreational area for the community.
1921 Cayuga Rock Salt Company is formed in Lansing, improving on the efforts of the Rock Salt Corporation of 1915. The company is later bought out by Cargill. 1929 The Stock Market crashes, marking the beginning of the Great Depression.
1930 The Serv-Us League opens the Southside Community House on South Plain Street in Ithaca with the mission of “uniting the community for the betterment of each and everyone.” Mrs. Jessie Cooper serves as first director. 1931 Ithaca College is established from the Ithaca Conservatory of Music.
1933 New Deal legislation is passed, including the Emergency Banking Relief Act, and the Civilian Conservation Corps Reforestation Relief Act. A second round of New Deal legislation in 1935 includes the Social Security Act, which establishes a tax on employers and employees to provide for an old age and survivors’ pension for all citizens.
1933 The Danby State Forest is established with land purchased from farmers under a New Deal land purchase program. Thousands of acres are added in 1956. With varied terrain and undisturbed wildlife, it is one of the county’s great natural resources.
1935 A major flood devastates the county, killing several people and causing millions of dollars worth of damage. Cayuga Lake rises four feet. Much of the northeastern United States is affected. 1935 Four Civilian Conservation Corps camps are established in Tompkins County, with workers performing extensive work in the local state parks, and contributing to flood rescue and cleanup. 1938 The new Southside Community Center opens on South Plain Street in Ithaca, replacing the original building destroyed in the 1935 flood. The new director is James L. Gibbs. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attends the festivities. 1939-1945 World War II begins in Europe. The Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, marks the beginning of direct American involvement. The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 ends the war.
1941 Many local businesses, including Ithaca Gun Company and Morse Chain, adapt to wartime manufacturing to accommodate the military needs of World War II. A shortage of labor encourages the hiring of women in what had formerly been men’s jobs. 1947 Jackie Robinson joins the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American to play for a major league baseball team.
1950 The United States, under UN auspices, becomes involved in the Korean War. A truce is signed in 1953, establishing a demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Supreme Court decision legally ends segregation in public education.
1954 Hurricane Hazel tears through Tompkins County with sustained winds of 70 mph, and gusts as high as 90 mph. Dozens of trees and power lines are knocked down, damaging roofs and buildings, and injuring six people. 1955 The Montgomery Bus Boycott inaugurates civil disobedience as a common tactic of the Civil Rights movement, and launches the career of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an activist.
1956 Tompkins County takes over the Cornell Airport in Lansing, running it as a county facility. Renovated in 1994, the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport now serves more than 200,000 people each year. 1960 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at Cornell for the first of two visits. 1961 Ithaca College opens the first of its buildings on the new South Hill campus.
1962 Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson is published, which exposes the hazards of the pesticide DDT, and galvanizes public opinion on behalf of environmental concerns.
1963 The Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency is established, marking the transformation of downtown Ithaca in the 1960s. Many residents will feel that important buildings are needlessly sacrificed, and in 1966 Historic Ithaca is founded to help save such historic structures as the Clinton House.
1964 The Civil Rights Act is passed, prohibiting segregation or discrimination in hotels, restaurants, theaters, and other places of public accommodation. 1965 The Voting Rights Act is passed, striking down restrictions to voting that were used to disenfranchise African Americans. 1965 American combat troops arrive in Vietnam in increasing numbers, as the war begins to escalate. The last US troops withdraw by 1973, and the war formally ends in 1975.
1968 Tompkins Cortland Community College, part of the SUNY system, opens in Groton. In 1974 it moves to a 226-acre campus in Dryden. 1969 Apollo 11 lands on the moon. 1972 Title IX of the Education Amendments is enacted by Congress and signed by President Nixon, prohibiting sex discrimination in any educational program or activity receiving federal financial aid.
1973 The Ithaca Farmer’s Market opens as a venue for local farmers and craftspeople to sell their goods to the public.
1974 The Ithaca Commons, the first pedestrian mall in New York State, is built and opened to the public. 1975 The Altair 8800, the first “personal computer,” is invented. In 1976 the Apple I is built, and in 1977, the Apple II, described by the company as a “complete computer,” is an instant commercial success.
1977 The first Ithaca Festival, called “Celebration Ithaca,” is held. It grows to a three-day arts festival.
1989 The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolizes the ending of the Cold War.
1990 The Grassroots Festival begins at the State Theater in Ithaca as a benefit for AIDS support organization AIDSWork. The Festival later moves to Trumansburg for a four-day celebration of music and dance. 1992 Tibetan monks establish the Namgyal Monastery on North Aurora St. in Ithaca as the North American seat of the 14th Dalai Lama. 1995 The Internet, based on a networking system set up by the US Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1960s and 1970s, becomes fully commercialized and accessible to the public. 2001 Terrorists attack the United States on September 11th, sparking war with the Taliban government of Afghanistan. 2003 War with Iraq begins.
2004 Carolyn Peterson, the first woman elected mayor of Ithaca, takes office. 2008 Barack Obama is elected the first African American President of the United States.
2011 Svante Myrick is elected mayor of Ithaca. At the age of 24, he is the youngest candidate and first African-America to win the seat.
Captions for all the images included in this handout are featured in The History Center’s permanent exhibit Our Story: A Timeline of Tompkins County. A full list of sources is available upon request.
Tompkins County in the 21st Century
Over nearly 200 years, Tompkins County has undergone many changes but has still retained some of the unique characteristics that have been noted throughout its history. The population of Tompkins County has grown to over 100,000. In comparison to neighboring counties, Tompkins is diverse, with 13% of its residents born in other countries, and 17% speaking a native language other than English. Recent immigrants include families from Vietnam, Russia, Korea, and Burma. A Tibetan monastery and small Tibetan community are now established in the Ithaca area. Our political leanings have changed over time, too. Beyond the city of Ithaca, Tompkins County historically voted Republican. The Democratic Party grew along with the county’s population after 1950. Democrats first held a majority in the county legislature in 1993. Today there are only three Republicans in the 15-member legislature. Education, health care, and social services now account for almost half the jobs in the county, and Cornell University is the largest employer. Other major job sectors include manufacturing, real estate, retail, technology, government, and utilities. Farming remains an important part of our communities. Agriculture is the largest single land use in the Cayuga Lake watershed, and farms can be found in every town in the county. The Ithaca Farmers Market has grown to 150 vendors and attracts over 5,000 people a day. Today’s Tompkins County residents are unusually young; the current median age is 28. Our population is also very transient; as of the 2000 census, over half of county residents had lived here less than five years. Both of these characteristics likely reflect the presence of three colleges in the county, with nearly 30,000 students. Ithaca College has grown into a liberal arts college, still known especially for its acclaimed music department. Cornell has evolved into a world-renowned research university. Although widely-known for its colleges, Tompkins County has possibly become more recognized as a tourist attraction as part of the Finger Lakes region. It is estimated that the county draws 750,000 visitors per year. The gorges and waterfalls that pre-date even our area’s first inhabitants are now among the most popular tourist destinations in the state. About a half-million people come to admire Taughannock Falls each year. The Cayuga Lake Wine Trail is also a popular destination. As the first decade of the 21st century came to a close, Tompkins County was positioned on the cusp of further change through the natural gas industry. According to records of the Tompkins County Clerk for 2005 to 2009, at least 39% of the land area of the county has a recent gas lease. New hydraulic fracturing technology has caused many county residents and government officials to consider its potential impacts on water and air quality, and a future transformation to a more industrial landscape in the Finger Lakes. As a county, we have grown both in numbers, and in the diversity of our population and the work we do. We have held onto much of what makes Tompkins County unique. As we move forward into the future, we can reflect on our past, and the connections we still have with our history.