Published in Trumansburg Free Press March 9, 2005

Land & People
Trumansburg Creek

by Bill Chaisson

Trumansburg Creek is about 8 miles long and falls about 950 feet from its source to its mouth, or about 119 feet/mile. The creek heads up 0.3 mile northeast of the intersection of Burdick and East Bates Roads out in Covert. Two seasonal tributaries come together just below East Bates between Burdick and Extension Roads and it is a perennial stream through the rest of its course. The headwater is just below 1340 feet above sea level and rises in forested land. The other tributary flows out of a gravel pit.

I havenít been there yet, but I learned all this by looking at a US Geological Survey 7.5 minute topographic map (Trumansburg quadrangle), which hasn't been updated since 1970. The topography was established by measurements made from aerial photographs taken in 1942 (during World War II) and field checked later that year. New aerial photographs were taken in 1969 and they were field checked in 1970.

So the gravel pit might not be active anymore and there is probably more forest out there than there was in 1970. Land covered with trees is indicated by green polygons on a 'topo map'. Seasonal streams are indicated by blue lines interrupted at regular intervals by three blue dots.

Elevation above sea level is indicated by 'contour lines', which are brown on USGS maps. To visualize what contour lines represent, imagine cutting up cardboard into smaller and smaller ovals and then stacking them, creating an egg-shaped 'hill' of cardboard. Look down on it from directly overhead; the edges of each layer of cardboard are equivalent to a line around the edge of a plane of equal elevation. A contour line is where this imaginary plane meets the surface of the land.

The Keuka Lake Outlet falls 270 feet in 5 miles (54 feet/mile) and is considered excellent white-water kayaking territory. Trumansburg Creek is steeper.  Between its source and the village it falls 440 feet in 6 miles (73.3 feet/mile), but for the two remaining miles and it drops 518 feet down to Cayuga Lake. It is essentially one long cascade, falling 259 feet/mile.

The contour lines are bunched very tightly through this passage; a series of sharp brown 'Vs' pointing emphatically upstream.

It is no accident then, that the village is located exactly where the creek changes grade from steep to very steep. When Abner Treman arrived here in 1792 with his extended family in tow, he could see that the land that he had been awarded for his military service had economic potential. He built a dam and a sawmill, and proceeded to cut down trees. The site of his first cabin, marked by a historical sign on East Main Street, is next to the First Presbyterian Church. Out of his back door he would have looked down into the creek valley just where the stream really begins to dive down to the lake.

A steep stream is helpful to drive mills, but steady stream flow is important.  Anyone who has looked over the railing of the bridge next to Gimme! Coffee on an August morning knows that Trumansburg Creek would be unlikely to drive any mills in the late summer. Even the larger Taughannock Creek is quite unimpressive at that time of year.

Several factors may have made these low flow periods tolerable through the 19th century. One factor would have been that the rhythms of Nature were more likely to be incorporated into the cost of doing business back then, rather than circumvented, as they are now. Another factor is the 'flashiness' of the local streams.  The exposed bedrock that contributes to their natural beauty lines much of the stream courses and is just below the surface over much of the watersheds. Consequently these drainages react rapidly to rainfall; when it rains the water runs off quickly. Regional white-water kayakers monitor stream flow on Fall Creek on the internet. When it rains in the morning, they grab their paddles and go when the river rises in the afternoon. You can imagine Mr. Treman looking outside in 1800 and thinking, "Looks the mill will run today."

But the pace of the economy quickened in the late 19th century and Trumansburg Creek didnít fill up any more often. So Trumansburg is still about the same size it was at the end of the Civil War and Ithaca, with the relative might of Fall, Cascadilla and Six Mile Creeks in its midst, grew larger.

Hibernian Weather Channel Productions

Last revised:  May 11, 2005