Danby State Forest

History along the Finger Lakes Trail - Eastern Region

Danby State Forest

Ithaca, New York 14850, United States

Created By: Diane Lebo Wallace


Danby State Forest is located on the Allegheny Plateau, which is made of sedimentary bedrock that formed some 350 million years ago when the region was covered by an ancient saltwater sea. Geologists believe that the plateau was created during a collision of the North American and African continents 250 to 330 million years ago. The collision lifted the bedrock, which has since been shaped by continual weathering and the advance and retreat of continental ice sheets (glaciers). The glaciers created the 'U' shaped valleys of the region and the Finger Lakes.

Tompkins County was originally home to members of the Iroquois Confederation or Haudenosaunee, specifically the Cayuga Nation. The Haudenosaunee was established in circa 1570 under the influence of Hiawatha. It was a bond between five nations: the Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, Mohawk, and the Onondaga. In 1715, the Tuscarora nation was added making it a league of six nations. The Cayugas, who were the main inhabitants of the Tompkins County area, did not use the land heavily. They had semi-permanent dwellings placed near freshwater sources which enabled them to hunt and transport game, as well as irrigate their crops without causing great stress to the land.

FLT Map 17

Early European settlers and Revolutionary War Veterans referred to the area as "Dark Forest" because the forest was so dense that only small traces of light penetrated through the forest canopy. The new settlers had many forest superstitions and little or no experience in producing forest goods. They therefore decided to clear the area almost entirely for use as farmland. The timber that was not used for carpentry was burned, becoming a valuable by-product known as potash. This process continued until almost the entire land was converted from dense forest to open fields.

As time progressed, it became apparent that the soils had major limitations for intensive crop production, including a seasonally high water table, low fertility, moderate to high acidity, and steep slopes. Early farmers quickly learned that the long harsh winters and thin, fine textured upland soils of the area would not support intensive agriculture. As such, many of the farmlands were abandoned as farmers sought deeper and more productive soils in the Midwest.

Originally part of the Watkins and Flint Purchase, Danby State Forest lands were added to the state forest system from 1933 to 1997. The most significant acquisition took place in January of 1956 when about 6,200 acres were added to the state forest from the federal government. Chiefly former farms, the federal lands were acquired as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal under what was then called the federal sub marginal land purchase program. In total, about 50 farms were acquired under the sub marginal land purchase program, with an average land parcel size of about 150 acres. The lands that comprise the Danby State Forest were once rural farming communities. Before federal and state ownership, four schoolhouses and five cemeteries were established on Danby State Forest lands. The 1860 Historical and Statistical Gazetteer of New York State lists grain, butter, apples, and potatoes as the top agricultural and dairy products produced in the town of Danby.

Evidence of the Bald Hill farming community can be found today. Family cemeteries on Danby State Forest include: the Fisher Settlement Cemetery (Ward/Theron Family), the Grant Farm Cemetery, the Green and Mettler Cemetery, the Larue Hill Farm Burying Ground (Bogert/McGowen Family) and the Ryant Family Burial Ground (also called the McFall Family Burial Ground). Burials in these cemeteries took place from as early as 1821 to as late as 1918. The Friends of Bald Hill volunteers have extensively researched the rich history of Bald Hill. In the past several years, the group has located and mapped many of the former farm buildings, sawmill locations, and school foundations on the State Forest.

Danby State Forest has a history of forest fires. On November 10, 1931, a serious forest fire broke out and burned over 2,000 acres of the "wildest sections of Bald Hill." An article from the Ithaca Journal reports that over 200 volunteers, county workers and State Troopers battled the fire which burned mostly second growth timber. On November 12, 1931 an article in the Elmira Advertiser stated that "already the fire had licked up thousands of young pine and elm trees in one of the richest strips of tree country in the Southern Tier." Reports indicated that the fire may have started from careless hunters or from the railroad as it passed through West Danby at the base of Bald Hill.

From 1934 to 1967, Civilian Conservation Corp crew members and Camp MacCormick members planted about 1.1 million trees on Danby State Forest. Most of the trees planted were softwoods such as eastern white pine, red pine, Japanese larch and Norway spruce. However, some hardwood trees were planted as well. In 1934, about 38,000 northern red oaks were planted.

Danby State Forest is a working State Forest that is sustainably managed to provide recreational services, diverse wildlife habitat, and products. These values, products, and services include: locally grown firewood and sawtimber, jobs, carbon storage, clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, hunting, hiking, trapping, Nordic skiing, rustic camping, and snowmobiling and biking opportunities.

Info from NYS DEC

Also see the history of New York's state forests.

FLT Map M17

This point of interest is part of the tour: History along the Finger Lakes Trail - Eastern Region


Leave a Comment



Download the App

Download the PocketSights Tour Guide mobile app to take this self-guided tour on your GPS-enabled mobile device.

iOS Tour Guide Android Tour Guide



Updates and Corrections

Please send change requests to changerequest@pocketsights.com.