ITHACA, N.Y. — Long before he made a fortune and helped found the Ivy League university here, Ezra Cornell assembled a crew that used gunpowder to blast through the wall of a gorge. Cornell, who was 23 at the time, led the men in the summer of 1830 as they burrowed through 200 feet of rock next to a towering waterfall.
A dam was built to divert a stream and water gushed through the cavern, helping to power the mills that once lined the gorge. But with the dam crumbling and the mills long gone, the tunnel has run dry and these days Cornell University students and others cascade through the secluded cavern known as Ezra’s Tunnel, which lies just off campus.
On warm days, visitors emerge from the tunnel a stone’s throw from a 15-story drop over Ithaca Falls and a short walk downstream from Forest Falls, a 25-foot waterfall that flows into a picturesque, rocky pool where swimming is popular, but illegal and dangerous.
In the past seven years, two Cornell students have drowned in the water near the tunnel, most recently a teenager from the Bronx who died in August. Now the 187-year-old tunnel is the subject of a heated debate with opinions as pronounced as the cavern’s jagged shale edges.
Cornell officials have proposed installing a steel gate at the opening of the tunnel — blocking the only entrance to a section of Fall Creek Gorge stretching from the top of Ithaca Falls to the swimming area below Forest Falls — and the City Council is scheduled to vote on the proposal on Wednesday.
Todd Bittner, Cornell’s director of natural areas, has implemented a host of safety initiatives at other swimming areas where students have died, and the university warns students of the dangers of the gorges during orientation and throughout the year, steering them toward safe trails and monitored swimming sites at state parks.
Since 2012, fewer people have been spotted illegally swimming or trespassing in dangerous gorge areas on campus, according to information provided by Cornell.
But little, if anything, has been done at Ezra’s Tunnel, which sits on city land and remains a challenge for Cornell. The university owns half of the gorge area where the tunnel leads, including Forest Falls and the swimming hole, where strong currents swirl beneath the surface. Unlike other gorge access points on and near campus, where signs show frightening illustrations of young swimmers unable to evade a current, there are no warnings there.
It is legal to pass through Ezra’s Tunnel and walk around the gorge, but swimming is outlawed and carries a fine of up to $250, although Ithaca’s Police Department has struggled to enforce the rule. The Ithaca Fire Department has rescued five people from the gorge over the last two summers. Both the police and the fire departments back the proposed gate.
Bittner said the gorge is “one of the most dangerous places in the entire Finger Lakes region.” He also worries that the aging tunnel will lose a chunk of its ceiling while students are passing underneath. Cornell has forbidden its gorge safety stewards — student employees who monitor gorges and sometimes call the Cornell police to report scofflaws — from going inside the tunnel.
“The safety programs that we put in place really aren’t able to be effectively used in this area like they have been in the others,” Bittner said.
Kendrick Castro, 22, an information science major at Cornell from Reston, Virginia, drowned the day after he received his diploma in 2011, swept downstream as he waded toward Forest Falls. Winston S. Perez Ventura, 17, an incoming architecture student from the Bronx, was sucked underwater at the swimming hole on Aug. 5 during the final weekend of Cornell’s pre-freshman program.
The university’s effort to bar access to the tunnel has faced opposition from critics who say blocking off a gorge is antithetical to the identity of a city known for them.
“I’m very cautious, but I feel safe here,” said Zoya Kaufmann, a natural resources major at Cornell and a former president of Friends of the Gorge, a student group that promotes safety in natural areas.
Steve Farrand, 58, who has lived in and around Ithaca his entire life, said he felt “just like a bird” as he crisscrossed the crumbling dam using a broomstick for balance, adding that students would find a more dangerous path to the gorge if the tunnel is blocked.
To Perez Ventura’s mother, Agnelli Gutierrez, who lives in the Bronx, the barrier is an obvious first step toward what she has made her mission: preventing the gorges from claiming another victim.
“After you lose somebody in your life, you don’t want that pain to go to another family,” she said.
Gutierrez said that her son did not take risks and must not have known how treacherous the area could be. “We never learned of the gorge as far as its dangers,” she said. “We knew it was there, we knew it was a part of campus, we knew it was beautiful.”
The mayor of Ithaca, Svante L. Myrick, a 2009 Cornell graduate, said he believed that the city’s 10-member Common Council would approve the gate, although he did not know how he would vote to break a tie if the council deadlocks.
“Unfettered access to the natural world is one of the perks of living in Ithaca,” he said. “But this is an attractive nuisance — a danger that is too cleverly disguised.”
One council member, Cynthia Brock, said the city should add signs to the tunnel, not close it. “Any city, small town or village in the world would fight to create a sense of wonder within its boundaries, and we have this in abundance,” Brock said. “We need to make a choice: Is this who we are, or is this not who we are?”
Jeanne Grace, the Ithaca city forester, favors the gate because she said a relatively small number of irresponsible visitors were staining Ezra’s Tunnel with sloppy graffiti and lining its interior with trash.
“I would rather keep people out of that area, preserve it, and be able to enjoy it from a distance,” Grace said. “Maybe that’s what we have to do, wall it off so that we can still enjoy it in its natural state.”
Another member of the Common Council, George McGonigal, said that the swimming hole was “nothing to be trifled with” when its waters ran high, but that he would find a way to swim under Forest Falls regardless of how his colleagues vote.
“I bet $100 that Common Council is going to vote to put up the gate, but I will vote against it,” he said, “and I will find a way to get there anyway.”