The Cornell University Airport

15 02 2011

It generally goes without saying that Cornell has had a dramatic impact on the way Ithaca and Tompkins County have developed over the past 150 years. In some respects, Cornell’s influence has been indirect – for example, the development of the Collegetown neighborhood to meet the desires of Cornell students, or the development of Cornell Heights and Cayuga Heights to provide faculty a leafy respite from their academic duties. In some ways, Cornell’s influence has been more direct, such as the Seneca Place building downtown or…owning the airport.

The first airport in the county was actually down where Cass Park is today. For those who live under an ivy-covered rock, Cass Park is just up Route 89 from the city, across the inlet from the Farmer’s Market:

The first airport (which the airport website claims was the second airport to be created within the state), which was called the Ithaca Municipal Airport, was built in 1912. It wasn’t much; a simple hangar and a rundown dirt strip were built initially, and the facilities were expanded somewhat by the Thomas “Aeroplane Factory” which was built next to the airport in 1914 (Turback 29). Three years later, the company merged with Morse Chain to become one of the largest employers in the county. Apart from the testing of military planes, and some leisure flights (the airport was the home base of aerial photographer and future airline pioneer Cecil Robinson), there wasn’t much in the way of air traffic.

By the 1940s, passenger planes began to catch on with (wealthy echelons of) the public, and it became clear that the municipal airport wasn’t going to cut it. For one, it was prone to fog banks from the lake and flooding – a major flood back in 1935 wiped out much of the airport. Space was inadequate, and as planes were growing in size and speed, expanding the facility was neigh near impossible because it abutted the city, the lake, and the slopes of West Hill. The farmland to the north of Cornell was recognized as the prime site for a future airport (Bishop 553), and the city of Ithaca was very interested in building a new airport on that land, but there was one very big and still relevant issue – getting taxpayers to cough over their hard-earned tax dollars to buy the land and build another airport outside of the city was nothing short of political suicide.

Enter Cornell.

Cornell, in trying to meet the needs of its elite faculty, alumni and connections, knew the importance of having a larger, modern airport. Although a bit financially strapped at the time, Cornell noticed the large number of lots being sold off to make the first suburban homesteads and sought to act before the land values could increase any further in that area. On September 9, 1944, the trustees authorized the university to seek options on the land, and within three months had obtained 1,146 acres of land at the price of about $202,000 (about $2.5 million today – a relative bargain). The purchase was strongly debated and led to some sharp criticisms of the Day administration during the 1940s (Bishop 560). The construction of the facility itself was wedged in with many of Cornell’s other post-war projects, but the need of a new airport was not nearly as acute as the need for veteran’s housing or new academic space. The airport was not completed until 1948,  and ownership was transferred to the county in 1956. In the meanwhile, there were two airports in Ithaca – the old rundown one downtown, and the new one on East Hill. The transfer of ownership may have been influenced by a shift in focus from Cornell’s aeronautical program in Ithaca to the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, which operated as a division of the university from the late 1940s to the early 1970s next to the Buffalo Airport (it was later spun off as a private enterprise called Calspan Labs that at last check operates as part of Veridian Corporation). CAL’s heyday was from about 1955-1965 — when Cornell decided that having its own airport 200 miles from its recently donated aeronautical lab wasn’t such a hot idea. But mostly, it was a matter of finance – their were issues with the local passenger airline’s use of the airport, severe enough that if one of their planes landed on Cornell’s property, the pilot would be arrested (Bishop 561). The first six months the Cornell airport was open it incurred a $103,000 loss. The University invested $300,000 to build up the property and was hardly getting any return out of it – the trustees voted to prohibit further funding to the airport in June 1949. Although relations with Robinson Airlines were patched up by 1952, the airport limped along in financial hell until Cornell finally had a decent opportunity to unload it onto Tompkins County.

The county airport has operated since, and was renovated and expanded in 1994. Robinson Airlines was renamed Mohawk Airlines in late 1952, moved to Utica six years later, and was absorbed by another company in the 1970s, which after several mergers and acquisitions, is now an ancestor of USAir. As for the old airport, it closed in the 1950s, but the main hangar was renovated in 1975 to house the  Hangar Theatre, which has seen several renovations and expansions since then.The rest of the property was absorbed into Cass Park in the 1960s.

I doubt Harvard ever owned its own airport.



2 responses

28 01 2014
The Cornell Safety Car | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] Center, run by John O. Moore at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory in Buffalo (previously briefed here), and built in 1956 with funding from Liberty Mutual Insurance. We take for granted the safety […]

3 03 2019
Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport Construction Update, 2/2019 | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] for the long version. I did a long-form history of airports in Tompkins County back in 2011 here. Ithaca had an aiport down around Taber Street in the 1910s, and a few years later it relocated to […]

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