A Brief History of Stewart Park
Before the North American continent had been settled by Europeans, the indigenous peoples of Cayuga Lake founded the village of Neodakheat in the area where Stewart Park is now located. In the late 1790s, Andrew Moodie received Military Lot No. 88, land purchased by the U.S. government from the Cayuga peoples, as part of his land grant after service in the Revolutionary War. James Renwick, a prominent American architect, bought part of this grant.
1890s – Renwick Park
In the early 1890s, the Cascadilla School purchased forty acres of land to develop athletic facilities, leading to the construction of the Cascadilla Boathouse. A trolley line to the lake was constructed by the Cayuga Lake Electric Railway Company, who then created an amusement park by the lakeside. These forty acres, including Port Renwick, opened to the general public in 1894 and became known as Renwick Park.
After years of declining interest in the park and the trolley, the Cayuga Lake Electric Railway Company was dissolved and the Renwick Park and Traffic Association was formed to replace it. The Renwick Park and Traffic Association then privately leased the park to the Wharton brothers to use as a film studio in 1915, around the same time that trolley access to the park was discontinued. The studio was also sublet by other film studios, including International Films and Grossman Studios.
1920s – Stewart Park
The newly elected mayor of Ithaca, Mayor Edwin C. Stewart, expressed interest in making the area into a municipal park. By this time, Ithaca’s population had doubled since 1890, but few recreational resources were available for residents. Overwhelming support to create this lakeside park came from the Journal, Rotarians, Boy Scouts of America, the Campfire Girls, and other Ithaca residents. It wasn’t until 1921 that the City of Ithaca purchased the park from the Renwick Park and Traffic Association. Initial renovations included beach cleanups, removal of trolley tracks, and the refurbishing of the bandstand to be used for concerts. One month before the park’s formal opening on the Fourth of July, Mayor Stewart died and the park was renamed Stewart Park in his honor.
After the opening of Stewart Park, efforts to improve the park continued. The Cascadilla Boathouse became part of the park in 1923 after its purchase from the Cascadilla School, and in 1927, a flagpole was erected south of the pavilion complex as a permanent memorial of Mayor Stewart and his efforts. During this time, much of the work in Stewart Park involved projects to raise the level of the park and stabilize its shoreline.
Major improvements to the park in the 30’s include the addition of tennis courts on the eastern range, the creation of the Newman Municipal Golf Course, and the acquisition of the Cornell Biological Station. In 1934, a stone observation platform was constructed near the Cascadilla Boathouse, and the area surrounding the platform was renamed the “Fuertes Bird Sanctuary” in honor of former Cayuga Bird Club President, Louis A. Fuertes, after his death in 1927.
Stewart Park was home to a small zoo that featured animals such as peacocks and deer. Swimming was a popular summer activity, and there was ice skating in winter. Though these activities eventually proved unsustainable for safety and ecological reasons, they provided fond memories for all who participated. The carousel that was installed in 1951 is still running today.
Today, Stewart Park is a regionally active park with several facilities including tennis courts, a playground with several play structures including a carousel, athletic fields, a duck pond, a spray pool, a municipal golf course, and a bird sanctuary. Swimming is no longer allowed due to pollution and turbidity. An initiative led by a coalition of area partners including the Friends of Stewart Park, the Cayuga Waterfront Trail Initiative and the City of Ithaca has updated some of the existing facilities and completed a section of the Cayuga Waterfront Trail through Stewart Park in fall 2010.