The Renwick Wildwood: Inception, 1913-1914 (Part One)

- By Jane Graves, Historian

(See also Parts Two and Three, and Fuertes Sanctuary Parts One and Two

The first challenge faced by the Cayuga Bird Club after its formation in late fall 1913 was the news of the decision by the Board of Public Works at its December 10 meeting to vote an appropriation of $300 to clear and clean up the 36-acre plot of land owned by the city adjacent to Fall Creek. One of the commissioners stated that “in its present condition the property resembles a wilderness.” The work to be done was to consist of removal of trees and other changes.” (Ithaca Journal, Dec. 11, 1913).

This plot of land was the Renwick Woods, which was described by Louis A. Fuertes in his article for the 1916 New York State Museum Bulletin as "the last bit of virgin bottom-forest left in this vicinity. It is watered by Fall creek and its bayous; one can go all around in it in a canoe. I believe it contains about 30 or 40 acres, and is solid forest, composed of enormous sycamores along the streams, giant water elms (two-thirds of the timber), a large amount of silver maple, swamp white oak, butternut, walnut and ash, with a few tulip trees; no evergreens and rather Carolinian in its nature; great willows, too, abound around the edges and along the streams. The lower growth is very interesting: quantities of benzoin, considerable winterberry (Ilex), a little prickly ash, and any amount of Rubus of various species where the sun gets in. Large cat-tail marshes adjoin on both sides, though the biggest have been filled for factory sites, etc..... Enormous vines of wild grape and Virginia creeper descend from the crowns of the biggest trees; much poison ivy and other climbing vegetation adds to the natural beauty of the place."

It is likely that the birding community was aware of this impending destruction, since the bird club had scheduled a public meeting for the evening of December 12, which featured a resolution presented by Cornell professor, director of the Cornell Biological Field Station at the head of Cayuga Lake, and CBC director James J. Needham, which reads as follows: "The Cayuga Bird Club, informed by the public press that the land owned by the city along Fall Creek is soon to be cleared, desires to express to the Board of Public Works the hope that the natural beauties and fine wild life of the place as it today exists be not needlessly sacrificed in the clearing process. We would call attention to the fact that the bit of wild wood is the largest single area that functions as a bird reserve in the city. Ithaca birds have certain vested rights there, rights to abundant food supply among the berry bearing bushes, rights to shelter and nesting sites among the beautiful wild vines. In the interest of the preservation of things of natural beauty in general and of bird life in particular, we beg to request that before any cutting is done a representative of our club be invited to confer with those in charge of the clearing." (Ithaca Journal, Dec. 13, 1913).

By the February 11, 1914 meeting of the Executive Committee of the CBC, Fuertes reported "considerable progress in the Renwick matters–a letter from Mr. Taylor, President of the Business Association expressing the willingness of the Association to cooperate with the Club in establishing the Renwick Woods as a Natural Park & Bird Refuge [and] a letter to Mayor Tree from Jared Newman suggesting the establishment of a Natural Park at Renwick. And a letter from Newman to Fuertes containing another letter which Newman suggested should be sent by the Club to the Mayor. Read, seconded and carried that this letter with such minor changes as Fuertes should see fit to make be submitted to the Mayor from the Club. (From Executive Committee Minutes, Kroch Library)

Louis A Fuertes

Shortly thereafter, the Common Council at its February 18 meeting recommended to the Board of Public Works that "the tract of woods in the Renwick Park, Fall Creek section, be set aside as a city park" and that it "be leased or loaned to the Cayuga Bird Club as a reserve." (Ithaca Journal, Feb. 19, 1914). Following this recommendation, the Ithaca Journal wrote an editorial on February 21 in support of this action. At its February 25 meeting, the Board of Public Works did not approve the recommendation, but did refer it to the Park Committee for investigation and report (Ithaca Journal, Feb. 26).

There followed two public lectures, the first by Professor Needham on March 20, entitled "The Natural Beauties and Richness of Plant and Animal Life of the Renwick Woods." In this lecture he presented "a simple plan for the development of a few paths and bridges and for a circuitous walk between the north end of Cayuga street and Willow avenue and made a plea for the preservation of the natural lagoon to the south of Fall Creek." (Ithaca Journal, March 21). The second talk was by Fuertes on May 8 and was entitled "The Birds of Renwick." In it he described the various habitats in the woods and surrounding marshes and their associated birdlife (Ithaca Journal, May 9).

Around this time, the Renwick Wildwood was designated as a city park and signs were posted forbidding shooting in or toward it as well as building fires. The Cayuga Bird Club prepared, paid for, and posted the signs, with the signature of the city Park Commissioners (Ithaca Journal, May 11). Although few trails were available during this first spring, the CBC did have some morning bird walks in the Wildwood, culminating on May 16 with its first Field Day, especially for children. The Ithaca Journal reported in its evening edition that about 100 children participated and saw about sixty different species of birds.

Next (Part 2): The Renwick Wildwood: 1915