Once Upon a Time, Beebe Was a Wonderland for Frozen Fun

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Carnivals, hockey, skating, and the famed—but feared—toboggan slide were highlights of the Hill’s chilly season

By Joe Wilensky

Did you know that Beebe Lake—long a favorite locale for activities on and around the water—used to be its own campus playground in the wintertime?

More than a century ago, the lake was a veritable hub of below-freezing recreation—hosting ice carnivals, public skating, hockey games, and a toboggan slide that was popular even with Cornell’s president.

A frozen Beebe Lake on a typical winter day in the early 20th century, filled with ice skaters. The Johnny Parson Club is at left and North Campus and Balch Hall is in the background
A typical winter day in the early 20th century. The Johnny Parson Club is at left; North Campus and Balch Hall are in the background.

First, a quick history:

Today’s 17-acre Beebe Lake was once a forested swampland along Fall Creek, which meandered westward toward Triphammer Falls. In 1838, Ezra Cornell himself built the first dam above those falls to source hydropower for the plaster and flour mills belonging to Jeremiah Beebe, transforming the swamp into more of a pond.

A second, higher dam was built in 1898, creating a 53-million-gallon reservoir—the lake—to supply water to the growing campus and power for a hydroelectric plant in the gorge below.

A (terrifying) toboggan slide

The first slide, made of wood and assembled with bolts, was 200 feet long with a double track and a 30% grade. Opened in 1903, it sent riders speeding out onto the south shore of Beebe at thrillingly high speeds.

“Chief among the features of the toboggan was the bump at the bottom,” the Daily Sun reported two decades later, looking back at the slide’s inception, “but even its violence failed to dampen the enthusiasm of ardent toboggan fans.”

Riders descend the toboggan slide in the early 1900s
Riders descend in the early 1900s.

A new steel slide opened in 1913, with a 250-foot base and a (slightly tamer) 25% grade.

Additional improvements included concrete pilings and adjustable supports, so the slide could be raised and lowered to accommodate the varying ice levels.

For many years, the first ride of the season was reserved for President Jacob Gould Schurman, an experienced skater and winter sports enthusiast. He was often joined on the inaugural run by Arts & Sciences Dean “Tee Fee” Crane (of “Give My Regards to Davy” fame).

The long queue for the toboggan slide during its heyday
During its heyday, the slide drew a long queue.

Injuries were common from the start, noted Morris Bishop 1913, PhD 1926, in A History of Cornell: “What with the weather’s caprices, the varying water level in the lake, and the frequent accidents, the toboggan slide caused the administration winter-long worries.”

Finally, when riders amassed 21 injuries (seven of them fractured vertebrae) in the winter of 1939–40 alone, the structure was closed down and “quietly abandoned,” Bishop reported. Meanwhile, competition from a wider variety of winter activities, like cross-country skiing, were becoming more accessible and popular for Cornellians.

A 1949 Daily Sun editorial looked back wistfully: “The disappearance of the toboggan slide over Beebe Lake, practical though it may be, will sadden many who used to feel chills run down their spines just from looking at the thing.”

A chilly photo album

Hockey—before Lynah

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The first rink was laid out on Beebe in 1900, and by 1907, the nascent Big Red hockey team marked its first home victory there (a whopping 7-0) that February against the University of Rochester.

For the next decade, the team played there inconsistently—“owing,” Bishop noted, “to Beebe Lake’s habit of melting before a scheduled contest.”

An early hockey game on Beebe Lake, with spectators standing behind the low wooden rink walls
An early hockey game.

In Good Sports: A History of Cornell Athletics, R. Davis “Dave” Cutting ’48 recalled playing on the lake:

“There were ten-inch-wide wooden sideboards around the perimeter of the rink. We piled snow closely outside to cushion the falls when we were body-checked along the boards. There were usually wide cracks in the ice surface. Thaws melted the ice every so often, and the boards would float away and we would have to retrieve them and nail them back together to await the next freeze.”

Following several unseasonably warm winters that rendered Beebe unsuitable even for practice—not to mention a winless 1947–48 season—the team was disbanded for a decade. Lynah Rink was completed in 1957, in time to revive hockey for the season.

Carnival on ice!

An annual ice carnival flourished on Beebe in 1905–09, and again from 1936 through the mid-40s.

During Junior Week (as the January break between semesters was once called), a midway was built on the frozen lake, complete with lights and a bandstand.

Daily Sun ad for the 1905 ice carnival

The annual celebration featured skating, ice sculptures, a parade of floats, games, sideshows, and a bonfire. As a 1905 ad in the Daily Sun proclaimed: “Illumination, music, all kinds of stunt races, and ice sports / Toboggan slide to be uniquely decorated / Grand parade of floats and toboggans / Everybody to be in fancy costumes.”

Hundreds would attend the carnivals to skate, hear bands, and enjoy refreshments in the warming sheds.

Rink for ice carnival being finished on Beebe Lake in the early 1900s
Preparations for an early carnival, including a horse-drawn “Zamboni.”

But weather challenges—which often delayed or canceled the festivities, due to either too-warm or too-harsh conditions—ultimately ended the tradition.

Officially sanctioned skating on Beebe continued into the 1960s—but the seasons kept getting shorter, and the lake froze less and less reliably.

RIP, Johnny Parson Club

Parson, an engineering instructor on the Hill for four decades, was one of the earliest advocates for Beebe as a winter theme park for both Cornellians and the local community. A vigorous proponent of winter sports, he secured the funds, machinery, and staff to clear snow from the lake, arranged for public skating, and proposed building the toboggan slide.

A warming house and eatery for skaters, named in his honor, opened in January 1923. The Tudor-style building eventually became Japes Lodge, which housed the Outing Club until 2012, when the then-dilapidated structure was declared unsafe. It was demolished in 2018.

Editor's note: For more about the lake and its natural surroundings, watch “Beebe Lake: Past, Present, and Future,” hosted by Corey Earle ’07 and Todd Bittner, director of natural areas for the Botanic Gardens.

(Top video and all photos by Rare and Manuscript Collections.)

Published February 21, 2023


  1. GEORGIAN LEONARD, Class of 1950

    I loved the historic article and photos. I knew only a bit of the history of Beebe Lake and would like more. What about the beautiful bridge area across both sides of the lake used as the great swimming hole? I have seen photos of swimmers in that area. Thank you

  2. Tilly Garnett, Class of 1982

    I actually have one of the original toboggans from the Beebe slide. My grandfather acquired it in the 1930’s. That thing is HEAVY!

  3. Jacob (Jack) Martin, Class of 1954

    My Mother, Mary Hershey 1922, showed my sister, Mary Martin 1956 and me the toboggan slide around 1946 and said she broke her nose on the head of the person in front of her on one of her rides. All but the foundation was gone when I arrived on campus in 1950. I did a lot of swimming around the bridge at the head of the lake and diving and jumping off the bridge and adjacent cliffs was very popular.

    • Glenn Wise

      Jack, Your comment brings back memories of long drafty rides to and from Cornell and Lancaster in a Jeep wagon. I also saw you and Mary posted in alumni news recently. Glad you are both doing well. My wife Ann and I are in Naples, FL where she recently entered memory care with alzheimers. I am fortunate to still enjoy tennis and golf. Would like to hear what you two have been doing since Manheim Township and Cornell.
      Second cousin Glenn

  4. Douglas McIlroy, Class of 1954

    As faculty brats in the late 1940s, I and other Ithaca High students regularly came up to Beebe Lake after school to skate until dusk. Strauss waltzes and other skating rhythms blared from Johnny Parson’s. We challenged each other to try fancy footwork, which I continued to practice right up to my 90th birthday. Alas, in the interim, global warming and the lure of glassy Zamboni ice have quashed the exhilaration of outdoor skating.

  5. Judy Winter Burger, Class of 1952

    I remember skating on Beebe Lake and enjoying the warmth of hot cocoa in Japes, while defrosting the toes.
    It was fab!

    • Patricia Hurley, Class of 1959

      This brought back vivid memories of taking study breaks to skate on winter nights. I was devastated to learn that Japes had been demolished.

      • Glenn Wise

        Don’t recall ever doing that. Probably because I was a wobbly skater.

        Will call tonight if convenient for you.

      • alan r newhouse, Class of 1959

        Sadly nothing lasts forever except our memories

  6. Michael+(Tim)+Graves, Class of 1964

    Sorry about Toboggan Lodge. It was a great place for social gatherings in a rustic setting. We held some fraternity events there while our house was being renovated.

  7. Roz Grinberg Aronson, Class of 1956

    Wonderful memories, 1952-55, skating, bonfires, hot chocolate, help getting your skates on and tightened and again getting them off. A favorite, especially when I lived in nearby dorms, freshman and sophomore years.

    • Kirsten Bates

      What a fascinating picture of Cornell history! Our son graduated in 2021 and we have friends who attended in the 60’s I suppose. What I wouldn’t give to have been a student there myself!

  8. Francis Rauh, Class of 1976

    article says past present and future. .
    When was the lake shut down and what is going to become of it?

    Just curious

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