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Great Railroad Stations - Itaca, NY

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Great Railroad Stations 

by John C. Dahl

Ithaca, New York

The Lehigh Valley Railroad was among the most colorful of all New York Stateís many trunk line railways.  The Lehigh remains one of my all time favorite operations, and itís rich history is part of the fabric of life in Upstate New York. 

Ithaca is located in the south central portion of the Finger Lakes. Situated at the base of Cayuga Lake, Ithaca is the site of two major institutions of higher learning, Ithaca College and Cornell University. The city is surrounded on three side by hills, and the Lake on the fourth.  Because of this geography, the Lehigh Valley constructed a bypass route to expedite freight.  The passenger main however went through the city and during the railroads prime years some eighteen trains per day utilized the Ithaca branch.  Steep grades westbound often meant double headed steam consists.  What a sight and sound show it must have been to witness a train barking up the grade to Willow Creek and Trumansburg.  Taking a train west out if Ithaca required plenty of skill on the part of the Valleyís engineers.

In addition to the passenger line west, Ithaca was the end point for the Auburn & Ithaca branch which went up the east shore of Cayuga Lake. In Auburn, it connected with another Lehigh branch that ran northeast from Sayre, Pa. up the Newark Valley through Freeville to Auburn, and on to the Lake Ontario port of North Fair Haven.  Like many other railroads, the Lehigh Valley was primarily a coal hauler.  Black Diamonds provided more than just a neat name for the railroadís premier passenger accommodation, but a healthy source of revenue to the balance sheet.  Early on, the Valley became a fast merchandise expediter.  Swift freight trains carried manufactured goods from the industrial complexes in Niagara Falls and Buffalo east to the New York harbor ports in New Jersey. Important Canadian connections in Niagara Falls (Suspension Bridge) contributed large numbers of car loadings to the busy mainline.

A view from approximately 1910 of the Ithaca depot. The freight house is at the right.

The Ithaca depot was constructed just over one hundred years ago, in 1898 by local Ithaca architect A.B. Wood.  The yellow pressed brick station was done in a Colonial Revival motif and has Romanesque style arches incorporated into it.  With a status as an important passenger station, the railroad furnished the station with a high quality interior, much of which is still intact today.  Ithaca was so important to the railroad that in addition to the station, it also had a downtown ticket office at State and Aurora Streets.  Several generations of Cornell students and alumni would recall with pleasure arriving and departing from the Ithaca depot. In Autumn, football specials brought in crowds for the games.  The presence of Cornell University also gave the railroad itís trademark "Cornell red" colors, used extensively in later days on the Valleyís classic Alco & EMD diesel fleet.

After World War II, the railroad sought to modernize and streamline itself in the robust but changing economy.  The late 1940ís saw the demise of steam, and cutbacks in passenger service.  The railroad would give up itís passenger service altogether in 1961.  By then it was only a shadow of itís former glory.

The tracks were removed but the depot was spared.  Today the station houses a fine restaurant.  One can dine in the former waiting room. While your meal is being prepared, view the displays of railroadiana and listen carefully for the ghost train whistles of the Lehigh Valley railroad.

October 12, 1998. Photo by Jon Rothenmeyer.


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