Finding Fires - Ithaca

How did Tompkins County rise from the ashes? See the fires that blazed through these towns, and how they rose again.

Finding Fires - Ithaca

Ithaca, New York 14850, United States

Created By: Ithaca Heritage

Tour Information

**This tour was originally developed in 2021 for The History Center in Tompkins County's annual fundraiser Traverse Tompkins: Finding Fires**

The streets we walk on today would be unrecognizable to someone who walked the same street two hundred years ago. New buildings and modern growth are part of that change, but so is destruction- fires, floods, and disasters shape the landscapes on which we live.

On this walking tour of Ithaca, you’ll explore what used to stand in the place of your favorite restaurant or shop, and get a glimpse at the lives of the people who lived and worked here for the past two hundred years.

Because fires can be destructive, and result in the loss of property or life, some of these stories are painful to hear. For every fire that results in a bizarre, fun story, there is one that involves the loss of someone’s home, or a loved one. We hope that while you have fun exploring the history that lives all around you, and appreciate some of the truly weird episodes in Tompkins County’s history, we also hope that you can appreciate the significance of these events, and the courage and tenacity it took for the people who witnessed these tragedies to continue to grow and rebuild their communities. The lives and livelihoods that were lost in flames deserve to be remembered and respected.

Have fun exploring Tompkins County’s unique history, and tag us in pictures of your tour on social media @TompkinsHistory #FindingFires. We hope you have a great time exploring all the county has to offer!

The Finding Fires-Ithaca Tour is a subset of the Finding Fires-Tompkins County cycling or driving tour.


Total distance traveled: 5.51 miles

Intended to be a biking or driving tour.

A walking tour variation could include stops 9,10,11,12, and 1.

Cycling Trail details: Ithaca Trail (5.51 mi)- Suggested: - (Ithaca Strava File)

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Tour Map

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What You'll See on the Tour

Date: May 28, 1840 Location: 206 Owego Street (now East State Street), Ithaca Frank Atwater was the owner of a theater on Owego St. (now E. State St.) in the early nineteenth century. The theater was located behind a jewelry store, and neve... Read more
Date: April 14, 2015 Location: 400-402 Stewart Avenue, Ithaca The Chapter House and an adjacent apartment building (406 Stewart Ave) were consumed by a fire that began at approximately 4:30am. The bottom floor of the Chapter House was an ic... Read more
Date: December 7, 1906 Location: 810 University Avenue, Ithaca The fire at Jennie McGraw’s McGraw-Fiske Mansion, inhabited by the Chi Psi fraternity, was a tragedy that caught the attention of the state of New York and continued to live i... Read more
Date: February 13, 1916 Morse Hall, home to Cornell's chemistry department, burned down one day before the start of the spring term.The fire may have started at the top of the building in the studio of J. P. Troy, the university photographe... Read more
Date: April 1, 1970 Location: 320 Wait Avenue, Ithaca Around one in the morning, a circuit breaker at the Africana Studies and Research Center on Cornell's campus alerted the authorities to an ongoing fire. The fire, according to police, m... Read more
Date: May 9, 1957 Location: 1 Edgecliff Place, Ithaca Around six in the morning on May 9th, 1957, the 37 fraternity brothers at the Zeta Beta Tau Frat House woke up to a blaring fire alarm. The fire was said to have originated from a matt... Read more
Date: July 27, 1907 Location: South of Farley's Point on Cayuga Lake On a summers day in 1907, the new boilers on the steamboat Frontenac exploded and the boat went up in flames. Wind and rough waves prevented the Frontenac from stopping a... Read more
Date: February 3, 1970 Location: 200 Hancock Street Late at night on February 3rd, 1970, neighbors of A&P Grocery called the fire department to report an “explosion” that had shattered the front windows of the store. Shortly after ... Read more
Date: February 14, 1912 Location: 215 North Cayuga Street, Ithaca Early in the morning, a “laborer” passing by noticed smoke coming from the windows of the high school. He went to the police headquarters to raise the alarm, and soon af... Read more
Date: June 30, 1988 Location: 132-4 West State Street, Ithaca A fire that started at 6:00 am burned for nearly the whole day and destroyed the popular nightclub and bar Common Ground, at 132-134 W. State Street. Firefighters determined the ... Read more
Date: Location: 102 West State Street, Ithaca Few fires have a history as long and sordid, and filled with crime and superstition and vigilante justice as the fire at the Franklin House in 1845. The story begins back in 1818, when Luther Ge... Read more
The DeWitt Historical Society was formed in 1935 as a revival of two earlier historical societies (1863-64 and 1899-1905) based in Ithaca New York. The first, the Ithaca Historical & Scientific Society, was started by Ezra Cornell, and... Read more


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