For centuries, Ithaca was a Cayuga Indian settlement. In 1779 General John Sullivan's Revolutionary War troops drove the local Indians away and burned down their orchards and cornfields. The first white settlers arrived in 1788 and set up farms in fields that had earlier been cleared by the Indians. When the title to the site was given to Revolutionary War veterans, those first pioneers were forced to move on as well. In the 1790s the first grist mill was built. Two years later, a road was cleared from Oxford in Chenango County to Ithaca.
In 1798 Simeon DeWitt, a surveyor-general of New York State, arrived in the area, and soon acquired more than 2,000 acres of land at the southern end of Caygua Lake. At that time, the land that now makes up Ithaca was part of the town of Ulysses. In 1804, DeWitt named the new town Ithaca, after the island home of Ulysses, a popular figure from Greek mythology. In 1817, Tompkins County was formed with Ithaca as its heart. In 1819, the Ithaca Paper Company Mill was built and remained in operation until 1954. In 1821 Ithaca, with a population of about 1,000 residents, was incorporated as a village.
In 1834, the Ithaca-Oswego Railroad's first horse-drawn train began service and in 1834 Ithaca's Village Hall was built. A major flood in 1857 left the city under water for several weeks. Four years later, as the Civil War began, local troops were sent off to fight for the Union cause.
In 1868, Ezra Cornell founded what is now Cornell University, along with his friend Andrew D. White, who later became its first president. In 1874 Ithaca's first local public high school opened. By 1880, when the Ithaca Gun Company was founded, the city population had reached 9,105 people.
In 1888, Ithaca was incorporated and became the twenty-ninth city in the state of New York. Civic development continued with arrangements for streets, water, lighting, streetcars, traffic regulation, and social service programs.
In 1892, W. Grant Egbert founded the Ithaca Conservatory of Music, which later became Ithaca College. The year 1898 marked the incorporation of the Moore Chain Company, later to become part of the Borg-Warner Corporation, an important local employer. In 1899–1900, the first horseless carriage appeared in Ithaca and a trolley car connected downtown Ithaca to the Cornell campus. When the steamer Frontenac burned about that time, boat transportation came to an end in the area.
By 1900 Ithaca's population stood at 13,136 people. Twelve years later Ithaca's municipal airport was built at the south end of Cayuga Lake. In 1914, the Wharton brothers, who were film makers, set up a motion picture studio in the city, but the venture only lasted until the early 1920s. During that time, the films Dear Old Girl of Mine and Exploits of Elaine were filmed with Ithaca and Cornell University serving as backgrounds.
The city's population reached 20,708 people in 1930. The next year, Ithaca Conservatory of Music was reorganized and renamed Ithaca College, which in time expanded to specialize in drama and physical education as well as music. The next year, the Tompkins County Courthouse was built in Ithaca. In 1935, disaster struck the Ithaca area, which received more than eight inches of rain in less than twelve hours. As Cayuga Lake rose four and one-half feet above its normal level, a terrible flood ravaged Tompkins County, leaving eleven people dead. Ithaca's airport, golf course, and major parks and fairgrounds were submerged.
In 1941, as the United States entered World War II, Ithaca's population stood at about 20,000 people. With the coming of war, Ithaca made civil defense plans. Air raid drills were held in the local schools and highway speeds were reduced to 40 miles per hour to conserve gasoline. By the time the war ended in 1945, 174 military men from Tompkins County had met their deaths.
The end of World War II ushered in a new era of development. In 1947 air passenger service started up, linking Ithaca to New York City. By 1950, the city's population stood at 29,257 people. In 1956 42 suburban school districts merged with the Ithaca City School District. In 1960, Ithaca High School opened a new nine-building campus, and from 1960 through 1965, Ithaca College constructed an entirely new campus in the city's South Hill area.
In 1961 Ithaca saw its last passenger train service as the Lehigh Valley Railroad discontinued service to the city. The next year, Mohawk Airlines, later to become part of USAir, brought jet service to the Ithaca area. In 1966, the preservationist society, Historic Ithaca, was formed and two years later a new county public library was constructed.
Ithaca began the 1970s with a population of 26,226 people. The year 1974 saw the opening of the Ithaca Commons pedestrian mall. During that decade, Pyramid Mall Ithaca was constructed and Tompkins County Hospital, later to become known as Cayuga Medical Center, opened a new building.
In 1988, Cornell opened its new Center for Theatre Arts and the Ithaca/Tompkins County Convention & Visitors Bureau became operational. By 1990 the city population stood at 29,541 people. The next decade saw the construction of the state-of-the-art Ithaca College Science Building, a new U.S. Post Office, the Sciencenter, a hands-on museum, and a new $11 million terminal at Tompkins County Airport.
USA Today ranked Ithaca number one in its list of "Emerging Cities" in March 2004. Education and tourism continue to be focal points of the Ithaca area; viniculture and technology have also emerged as local industries. It should be noted that "Ithaca" refers to two separate entities: Ithaca city is completely surrounded by, but separate from, Ithaca township. The possibility of a merger between the two entities is being discussed.
Historical Information: The DeWitt Historical Society of Tompkins County Library & Archive, 401 E. State St., Ithaca, NY 14850; telephone (607)273-8284; fax (607)273-6107