Biking and Exploring History
Despite it’s steep hills, Ithaca, NY has had a robust and colorful railroad history. From its nascent beginnings in 1834 when the Ithaca & Owego Railroad used horses to tow rail cars up the steep grades of South Hill; to the Lehigh Valley Railroad’s famous flagship passenger train: the Black Diamond Express, rail transportation in the area was challenging and an interesting chapter in the town's history.
A family reunion in 2014 brought me back to the area where I had spent my college days. Fond memories of the hippie-infused town and it’s wonderful parks and waterfalls were always enticing me for a return visit. After a quick online search of bike riding opportunities in the area traversing the old railroad right-of-ways, I set aside a full weekend for the adventure.
The Rail Trails
There are three sets of rail trails to check out and numerous abandoned ROWs to explore as well, as the maps below indicate.
South Hill Recreation Way
- The South Hill Recreation Way rail bed was first constructed in 1834 by the Ithaca & Owego RR, using horsepower to tow rail cars up the steep grades, and was the second railroad chartered in New York State and the third railroad built in North America! In 1843 it became the Cayuga & Susquehanna RR until 1855 when it was purchased by the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western RR and operated until 1956 when its was finally abandoned. By means of a zigzag or switchback, it reached the top of South Hill. The switchback line was turned into the South Hill Recreation Way in the 1980s. The middle part of the switchback is missing, though, substituting a steep connector between the upper and lower portions.
East Ithaca Recreation Way
- The East Ithaca Recreation Way on East Hill is primarily built upon the rail bed of the old Ithaca & Cortland RR, which later became part of the Lehigh Valley RR.
Black Diamond Trail
- This trail follows the former Lehigh Valley Railroad passenger line from Ithaca to Geneva, New York, popularly known as the "Route of the Black Diamond" from the name of the Lehigh Valley's premier passenger train, which last ran in 1959. This line stretches along the western shore of Cayuga Lake from Cass Park to Taughannock Falls State Park and Trumansburg, New York, steadily rising from lake level to 840 feet (260 m) above sea level at the bridge across Taughannock Creek.
Further Trail Info
Ithaca Rail Trails
- The Black Diamond Trail - Trail Link | GPS (including elevation) | Photos
- South Hill Recreation Way - Trail Link
- East Ithaca Recreation Way - Trail Link
The Lehigh Valley Railroad had a strong presence in the area and the south hill climb was an interesting challenge to overcome. Be sure to check the historical railroad info below.
1 - 1900 Topo Map
2 - Courtesy of Scott Lawrence - New York State Railroad Maps