Local History Spotlight

Volume 1: Elephants come to Ithaca

On a clear, warm, summer afternoon they came: large, majestic creatures that shook the ground and raised a cloud of dust as they lumbered down Meadow Street, with trunks outstretched in anticipation of hundreds of curious Ithacans. It was the coming of the elephants, which marked the beginning of a long tradition of circuses that came to Ithaca in the 1800’s. The elephants not only performed for delighted Ithacans, they also helped raise giant tent poles in preparation of the grand event.

Elephants Come to Ithaca

The circus was a highly celebrated event in Tompkins County, luring many residents away from their homes and families to the glamorous life of big-top showbiz. A few area residents who joined the circus include Ithaca strong man James Robinson (1811-1908), animal trainer Henry J. Rockwell (?-1849) of Utica, and circus mogul Alexander Robinson (1812-1887), of Schenectady, NY.

Aerial View of Circus Grounds

Ithaca’s circus history is highlighted in Sara Gruen’s latest novel, Water for Elephants. Gruen’s fictional tale is that of a young man who is forced to leave his veterinary studies at Cornell  University during the post-depression era. He joins a traveling circus where he meets an elephant who ultimately changes the course of his life.


Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, 1933 at Ithaca, New York.  J. V. Leonard Collection. Circus Historical Society. Web.  9 Sept. 2010.

Roehl, Harvey. Cornell & Ithaca in Postcards: A History With Recollections by Harvey N. Vestal, New York:  Vestal Publishing 1986. Print photo.

Page last modified May 3, 2012