ITHACA, N.Y. — The large, heavy steel gate that stands at the mouth of Ezra’s Tunnel, a historic former sluiceway that leads to a popular swimming hole, was built to last — and it lasted short of three years.
The 16-foot fixture was built by Cornell University in 2018 with approval from the city after two students drowned less than a decade apart.
The university’s proposal to close the tunnel was the subject of heated debate that garnered national attention. The 6-3 decision to close the tunnel finally came after Common Council discussed the matter for more than an hour at their meeting in December 2017.
Designed for durability and strength, the original blockade cost about $40,000 to construct, said Gary Stewart, an associate vice president at Cornell. Dan McClure, the Cornell construction manager who built the gate, said in an interview with The Cornell Daily Sun that the design was impossible to climb over and resistant to bolt cutters or other devices.
Now, Ezra’s Tunnel is open once again with a thick layer of blue paint obscuring the no-entry sign, and has apparently remained so for months, allowing anyone to walk straight through.
It is unclear who was behind the breach or how the gate broke open. No clear evidence indicates how the 3-foot-wide and 8-foot-tall rectangular gap came to be in the middle of the steel lattice panel that is otherwise intact.
Data collected by the Cornell Gorge Stewards, a university group that patrols the gorges around campus every summer, suggest that the word of the breached gate spread quickly. The group reported a surge in the number of people trespassing on the prohibited area accessible by the tunnel this summer.
Mark Holton, the co-director of Cornell Outdoor Education who leads the patrolling effort, said that his group found during its regular patrols from May to September 184 people illegally visiting that area, a large increase from the zero from the two previous summers. The count from the summer before Cornell installed the fence was 229.
The group’s data also show that the vast majority of the visitors that the group found in the illegal areas around the tunnel this year were there after mid-July, suggesting that the gate may have busted open some time before the end of September or that returning students began to tell their classmates about the breach between the middle of July and the end of September.
All but four of the 184 people that the Cornell Gorge Stewards found trespassing on the prohibited areas around the tunnel between May and September were after July 18, Holton said.
City officials said that they were made aware of the breach and had plans for a contractor who specializes in metal fabrication to restore it at the beginning of November. Because of delays related to the coronavirus, the city expects to reclose the tunnel before Christmas.
“The plan is to replace the gate, hopefully more securely than it was previously,” City Chief of Staff Dan Cogan said.
According to Cogan, the replacement is estimated to cost about $15,000.
Discussions about the breach and replacing the gate appear to have involved only a few people working in the city government, which Cogan said is typical for matters of infrastructure maintenance.
Alderperson Donna Fleming, who serves the 3rd ward, said there was a brief mention of the breach in a Cornell-City working group meeting. Aside from that, members of Common Council said that they were not aware of the breach or had very little information.
“This is all news to me,” said Alderperson Duscon Nguyen, who serves the 2nd ward. Deb Mohlenhoff, the 5th ward alderperson, also said that she had not heard about the breach.
News about the breach also did not reach any of the city’s commissions, as none of them have been meeting during the pandemic. This includes the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Commission, which Common Council originally tasked to review whether the tunnel could reopen at any time and explore what structural improvements could ensure the safety of those who may visit the gorge, if it reopens.
The city and the Ithaca Police Department did not respond to requests for additional information, including when the breach became known, when exactly the repair will be completed or whether there have been any incidents in the area around the tunnel following the breach.