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Water World

A look at the past, present, and future of CU’s iconic Beebe Lake—which, like the University itself, traces its roots to Ezra

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Yellow fall foliage frames Beebe lake

Beebe in fallAlena Kozyrava’Kolkina

If you’ve ever wondered what the swath of East Hill that’s now Beebe Lake looked like before human intervention, just glance into the marshy woods below Forest Home Drive, a few yards off the trail on the lake’s southeast side. “Before the dam was built, this area was heavily forested, with a creek and a bunch of backwater wetlands,” says Todd Bittner, director of natural areas for Cornell Botanic Gardens, which has stewardship of the lake. “So this was kind of a forested swamp.”

It’s a brilliant morning in July, and Bittner is hiking around the lake with CAM, offering lessons on its history and ecology. Even though it’s the height of summer—campus’s slow season—there’s a fair amount of activity. Joggers run along the pathways; neophyte canoers practice their paddling skills; staffers from Cornell Outdoor Education set up ropes across the small gorge at the lake’s eastern end, creating a sort of miniature zipline for CAU teen adventure campers. And humans aren’t the only ones out and about. In addition to the several dogs circumnavigating the lake with their owners, two great blue herons repeatedly swoop along the water in search of breakfast. “The lake is amazing for wildlife,” Bittner says. “There’s also a pair of osprey that have a nest near the soccer fields off Game Farm Road, and they’re over here fishing all the time.”

Bittner notes that the Botanic Gardens (formerly called Cornell Plantations) has been updating and expanding signage around the lake in recent years, including adding interpretive displays and numbered markers, so people can report their precise location in case of emergency. Another change: replacing signs that said “WARNING: NATURAL AREA”—which, he says with a laugh, “is so counter to our message”—with ones that say “WELCOME” instead. “Take a moment and look around,” he says. “What college campus could you be standing in the middle of, and be in a place like this?”

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Jeremiah BeebeHistory Center in Tompkins County

Water, Bittner points out, was a major factor in shaping Ithaca’s destiny; in the early nineteenth century, industry was drawn to the area by the availability of Fall Creek—Cayuga Lake’s largest tributary—as a power source. Another prominent shaper of the city’s future, of course, was Ezra Cornell. Both came together in Beebe Lake’s origin story. A mucky pond was initially formed on the site in 1838, when Ezra built a stone dam to power plaster and flour mills owned by his boss, Jeremiah Beebe. A concrete structure, ten feet higher, replaced it in the 1890s. “The stream above the dam had been a tangled muddy growth of trees and brush,” Morris Bishop 1914, PhD ’26, wrote in A History of Cornell. “This area was now submerged to impound 53,000,000 gallons of water. And thus our Beebe Lake was created, for bathing, boating, skating, and tobogganing.”

Since then, the lake has served myriad practical purposes, from hosting paddling classes and hockey games to informing the study of hydraulics. Thanks to a hydroelectric plant located under the Suspension Bridge and fed via a five-foot-wide pipe that’s a third of a mile long, Beebe generates about 2 percent of the campus’s power; in the University’s early days, it even supplied ice and drinking water. While the Lake Source Cooling system has been using Cayuga’s waters to cool campus since 2000, for the preceding three decades, a much smaller version used Beebe for similar purposes (albeit less successfully and with more environmental concerns, given the lake’s shallow depth).

But Beebe’s greatest value may be intangible—as an oasis in the midst of a bustling, world-class institution of higher learning. “The lake is a place of relaxation and respite—getting away from things without really getting away,” says Botanic Gardens director Christopher Dunn. “You can just take a walk and be in a completely different environment. You can sit and watch the geese, or take a canoe out there, and just let your troubles flow away with the water.”

Blades of Glory

Archival photo of a hockey game played on Beebe Lake, with spectators ringing the players

Official hockey games began on the lake in 1907.RMC

Before Lynah Rink opened in 1957, both ice skaters and hockey players pursued their pastime on Beebe’s frozen surface. Skating on the lake became formalized around the turn of the century, when legendary Cornell winter sports aficionado Johnny Parson 1899—then a professor of mechanical drawing in the Engineering college—established a subscription fund to underwrite snow removal. “Professor Parson became Cornell hockey’s first patron by reserving a section of ice for the rink and encouraging Cornellians to form a team,” University Archivist Emeritus Gould Colman ’51, PhD ’62, wrote in CAM in 1999. According to Forever Faithful, a history of Big Red hockey by Jim Roberts ’71, Beebe’s first official rink was laid out in 1907. As the groundskeeper responsible for maintaining the rink in its early days once recalled in CAM (back when it was known as the Cornell Alumni News): “We would go to the lake and paint lines on the ice, and chances were it would thaw the next day. You never knew from one day to the next if you had skating.”

Carnival Atmosphere

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A sled advertising an ice carnival in the early 1900sThe History Center in Tompkins County

Cornell’s bygone tradition of “Junior Week” began on East Hill in the early 1890s—and at one point, notes Elaine Engst, MA ’72, the University’s archivist emerita, this series of concerts, balls, and other events grew so popular that the administration had to tone it down, because “people stopped going to classes.” Around the turn of the century, an ice carnival on Beebe became part of the festivities, which were held each January. “The traditional event usually included choreographed skating, ice sculpture contests, music, games, sideshows, and more,” Cornell history expert Corey Earle ’07 wrote in Ezra magazine in 2014. “Unfortunately, the unpredictability of Ithaca weather meant it was often postponed or canceled. After a hiatus during World War II, the Ice Carnival made a brief comeback, but then faded away in the next few years along with Junior Week itself.”

Water streams over the Beebe lake dam

Beebe dam in fallLindsay France/UREL

In the Swim

Just below Sackett Bridge—the stone structure spanning the small gorge at the east end of Beebe—are two iron supports, all that remains of a pair of diving boards. While swimming in the lake has been officially forbidden for many decades—though precisely when it became off-limits isn’t entirely clear—in the University’s earlier days it was not only allowed but formally sanctioned, at least in the relatively deep water under the bridge. “The swimming pool of Beebe Lake officially opens today for the first time this year, but several hundred students didn’t wait for the announcement,” the Daily Sun reported on May 21, 1934. “The waters of Beebe have been warm enough for swimming for quite a while, and hundreds of warm and weary students have already learned it.”

Archival photo of dozens of students swimming in Beebe; some jump off the bridge.

Once upon a time, swimming was allowed in Beebe—but it’s been forbidden for decades.RMC

Gone with the Flow

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The Hydraulic Laboratory in its heydayThe History Center in Tompkins County

On a February day in 2009, Cornellians woke to find that a bit of campus history had tumbled into Fall Creek gorge. Completed in 1898, the Hydraulic Laboratory had been used to test ship models and study water flow under various conditions. “Built of the same gray stone as the rock wall, it makes no ugly disharmony,” Bishop wrote. “Indeed, it adds to the picturesqueness of the cascades, especially when giant streams burst forth from unexpected orifices.”

As Colman observed in CAM—in an article on Beebe Lake entitled “The Best Place by a Dam Site”—thanks to the lab, “Cornell was among the finest places in the United States for studying what moving water could accomplish.” But by the Sixties, it had fallen into disuse and become what Colman called “an unstabilized ruin.” Then came that fateful February. “There were unseasonably warm days, and then it got super cold,” recalls Bittner, who’d previously been in the habit of venturing out onto the lab’s roof to census butterwort, a rare plant that grows on the cliff face. “I think the moisture got into too many spots in the masonry, and then there was expansion from the ice freezing too fast—one day, it was like, ‘There’s a pile of rubble in the bottom of the gorge!’ ” For health and safety reasons, the University removed the debris; all that remains is the lab’s foundation slab and a single pipe.

A Late, Lamented Lodge

Archival photo of Japes

Japes in its original formRMC

Earlier this year, the University demolished the final remnants of the Johnny Parson’s Club, a once-beloved lodge at the western end of Beebe. Opened in 1922, the Tudor-style structure—which provided ice skaters with food, drink, and a place to warm up—was nicknamed Japes, after Parson’s initials. (“To many former soldiers on campus, Japes resembled chalets seen in wartime Bavaria,” Colman observed.) But once Lynah opened in the Fifties, the University demolished the top two stories of the building rather than doing needed repairs, leaving only the basement. The decapitated Japes served as a home and equipment storage facility for the Cornell Outing Club until 2012, when it was deemed structurally unsound and shut down.

Slip-Sliding Away

A small building on Forest Home Drive that now houses meeting and office space has an intriguing name and a storied history. Toboggan Lodge was once the home base for a bygone thrill ride: a slide that ran diagonally down the slope toward Beebe, sending riders careening out onto the frozen lake. “What with the weather’s caprices, the varying water level in the lake, and the frequent accidents,” Bishop observed, “the toboggan slide caused the administration winter-long worries.” Opened in 1902, the slide was originally made of wood; it was replaced by a steel version in 1912, and ceased operations in the Forties. “Not limited to students, the very first toboggan to use the slide allegedly included Dean ‘Tee Fee’ Crane and then-President Jacob Gould Schurman among its passengers,” Earle wrote in Ezra. “The slide was eventually dismantled, in part because of the various serious injuries it caused (seven fractured vertebrae reported in 1940 alone), but also because of gradually decreasing activity on Beebe Lake as skiing and other alternatives became more popular.” The slide’s concrete supports can still be seen on the wooded slope on the lake’s south side.

Archival photo of students tumbling off of a 6-man tobaggon.

Tumbling off the toboggan slideThe History Center in Tompkins County

Snow covers a frozen Beebe lake

Beebe in winterMark Vorreuter


Happy Accident

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Ren Hongjun 1916

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Hu Shih 1914

What does Beebe Lake have to do with a dramatic overhaul of the Chinese language? As the story goes, in July 1915 two Chinese-born Cornellians, Hu Shih 1914 and Ren Hongjun 1916, were boating on the lake when they capsized. Afterward, Ren wrote a poem about the experience in classical Chinese—prompting Hu to challenge his use of a “dead” language. Their debate widened to encompass other scholars and Chinese speakers, ultimately inspiring Hu (who’d go on to become his nation’s ambassador to the U.S. and president of Peking University, among other laurels) to spearhead the adoption of a modern, vernacular writing system. “In this sense,” says a guide to Chinese history on the Cornell campus, “Beebe Lake was the cradle of the New Chinese Culture Movement.”

Lake Source Wooing

Barbara Everson sits on the bridge for her photo.

Barbara Everson after becoming engaged on Sackett BridgeProvided

As the legend goes: if a couple walks hand in hand around Beebe Lake, they’re destined to get married someday. For Bob Everson ’61 and his wife, Barbara Ballweg Everson ’61, that particular fairy tale came true. As Bob recalls, the couple met in freshman English during their first semester on the Hill. “She used to come in from women’s sports just before, with her tennis racquet,” he says. “I would be sitting in the back row and she would look at me, and I would look at her.” He was from Staten Island; her parents owned a bakery in downtown Ithaca. Their first official date was the following February, when Bob summoned up the nerve to ask her to a track meet. “We went to that, and I never had so much fun in my life,” he says. “Just being with her. Her exuberance, her personality. I had gone out with girls in high school, but nothing like this.”

Profile photo of Bob Everson

Bob Everson after becoming engaged. Provided

By the spring of junior year, Bob had asked his mother for an engagement ring that was a family heirloom. He proposed to Barbara during a walk around Beebe, stopping on Sackett Bridge to pop the question. (“It’s an old ring,” says Barbara, who still wears it today, “but it’s good.”) There was no one around to take their picture together, so they snapped photos of each other. Their wedding took place at a Lutheran church in Collegetown in June 1961, just hours after they graduated and he was commissioned as a U.S. Navy officer. At their 50th Reunion, the couple returned to pose for a picture at the same altar—half a century, almost to the hour, after they exchanged their vows.

Dredging It Up

It’s a matter of physics and geography: the fast-moving water of Fall Creek enters Beebe Lake, slows down, and drops its load of sediment. The University has dealt with that reality for decades, periodically dredging the lake—sometimes relocating the proceeds to other parts of East Hill, including during the original development of North Campus. By the 1980s, Bittner says, the situation had gotten particularly dire: the lake “was so filled in that it was mostly a cattail marsh.” A large-scale project dredged Beebe and built Werly Island on its southeastern side, with the aim of creating channels to keep Fall Creek moving and prevent sediment deposits. “In 1988, Beebe Lake’s ‘restoration’ was celebrated with five hours of fun for 200 people who had contributed to the project,” Colman wrote. “The event also celebrated the 150th anniversary of what Ezra Cornell had done there, with a floating birthday cake that released a barrage of balloons.” Another major dredging was done in summer 2000, and sediment in Beebe remains an ongoing issue.

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Beebe during remediation efforts in the Eighties, when it had partly reverted to a cattail marshFrank Perry

Building a Better Beebe

The newly renovated Tang Welcome Center—formerly Noyes Lodge—offers campus tour-goers a dramatic introduction to Cornell, with a large outdoor deck and floor-to-ceiling windows offering commanding views of Beebe. Ultimately, Bittner says, the Botanic Gardens hopes to leverage the new facility’s status as the nexus for campus visitors by reconfiguring the nearby pathway to create a more inviting—and clearer—gateway to the lake trail. “If you’re new here,” he points out, “you see there’s a path, but you don’t know where it goes or what it is.”

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The new campus welcome center, which boasts an outdoor deckUP

That change is just one of the improvements that Bittner and his colleagues have in mind. They also want to build a seasonal floating dock—which would offer easier launching for canoes and kayaks and be ADA compliant—on the lake’s west side. In response to student demand, they aim to install a campfire pit, to be used for approved events. And ultimately, they hope to reconfigure parts of the mile-long trail that goes around Beebe. In some places, they’d raise the pathway to prevent the flood damage that has necessitated repeated repairs in recent years; in others, they’d build a new trail so the path runs all the way around the lake’s edge. (Currently, you have to veer away from the water on the south side and go up along Forest Home Drive.) “I love that so many people use the lake, how much they appreciate and enjoy it,” Bittner says. “I see staff out here having walking meetings, exercising with their colleagues. I see students out here just having some R&R. It’s universally loved, and central in so many ways—both metaphorically and on the physical landscape. It’s a shared experience. Every Cornellian has a Beebe Lake story.”


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6 thoughts on “Water World

  1. 1961

    First- Thank you for the honor of representing all the Cornellian couples who walked around Beebe and were married and enjoying wedding bliss. A toast to you all.

    Second- Barb moved up from Queens in the Summer of ’57. Her younger brother made the cake with only the top two tiers being edible.

    Finally- we were able to comply with another tradition- that to do with the old Suspension Bridge. In our day, if you walked your date across the bridge and stopped in the middle and asked for a kiss; if she declined, the bridge would fall. Let the record show that during our tenure the bridge never fell. Oh to be 20 and back at Cornell.

  2. 2004

    As a free range child of a busy Cornell Engineering professor, during the 1980’s and 90’s I frequently (several times per week) would walk from our house in Cornell Heights to Beebe lake in order to swim and fish with many other teenage friends, almost all of whom lived nearby and were Cornell professor’s kids. I remember actively avoiding the Cornell police when they started to crack down on swimmers in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. I was in great shape and could climb the gorge cliffs quickly. Never got caught 🙂 Now fishing is apparently banned on the lake, but people still do it. It is sad that a few irresponsible people combined with the threat and cost of litigation in this country has effectively eliminated opportunities for my own children to enjoy Beebe lake like I did. I guess it doesn’t matter since most kids these days prefer to just stare at screens.

    https://youtu.be/8i6LA-7mi9M

  3. 1981, MS 1983

    Somewhere in the forgotten history of Beebe Lake is a group of well-meaning Ecology House residents who took on restoration of the trails and banks around the lake one warm spring day/weekend in 1978. We moved a lot of rocks, gravel and stone to rebuild some eroded parts of the paths and to shore up the launching pad of the Outing Club’s building in the corner near the dam. A look at the site via google maps shows some of those boulders we moved might still be there, unless the site was re-done again during the 1980’s dredging and clean-up. I think my wife may still have her tee-shirt and pin that was designed for all the volunteers (and maybe sold to help fund some of the materials?) tucked away in a drawer somewhere. If so, I’ll dig it out and send a photo. Thanks for the memories!

  4. CALS 1977

    I really enjoyed reading this. I was in Clara Dickson Hall all 4 years during my Cornell career (CALS 77) and I loved Beebe Lake. I was an entomology major and several courses had collection requirements, and Beebe Lake at its surroundings provided me with a wealth of material. I could combine an enjoyable walk around the trail with work; in other words, goof off with justification! I never knew (or if I did, I forgot) that the lovely stone bridge at the end was called Sackett Bridge. But I certainly remember Cornell Plantations, as it was called in the 70s, the Johnny Parson Club (but never knew who Johnny Parson actually was until I read this) and Noyes Lodge. Even in the 70s the lake was full of cattails and water lilies, so I’m not at all surprised that dredging was required.

  5. 1959

    When I arrived on campus in 1955, Saturday of Spring Weekend included elaborately decorated floats on Beebe lake. This soon devolved into inter-float battles to see whose float would be the last floating, leaving the lake a mess. Sometime around 1957, the University banned the floats. The brothers of Alpha Chi Sigma (the “Chem House”) decided to protest the ban. Doug Stevenson, whose father worked for DuPont, got us 20 pounds of fluoroscein, which we dumped into the upstream end of Beebe lake early on Saturday morning, turning the whole lake a bright green. This too was banned after several years.

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