Star-Gazette Highlights 150 Interesting Elmira Facts for City's Sesquicentennial

Posted April 7, 2014

150 interesting facts about Elmira on its 150th anniversary
By Ray Finger, The Star-Gazette, 4/7/14

Did you know that a president once spent the night in Elmira or that an Elmira native won two Academy Awards (and we’re not talking about Hal Roach)? There’s so much to know about the Queen City as it celebrates its 150th anniversary with events throughout the year, including a special re-enactment of the signing of the city charter on Monday, the city’s actual anniversary date. Take a look at these 150 facts — some are fun, some are sobering but all make up the history of a place where many of us work, play and live.

1. Elmira was officially chartered as a city April 7, 1864. In that year, the city’s population was fewer than 15,000. Around the time of its centennial, it was about 47,000, after peaking at about 50,000 in 1950. In 2012, Elmira’s population was about 29,000.

2. Elmira hosted the New York State Fair nine times from 1855 to 1889, either at East Water Street where Kennedy Valve is currently located or at the Maple Avenue Driving Park, now Dunn Field.

3. There were almost 60 hotels in Elmira in 1864.

4. Crime was out of control on Railroad Avenue around 1910, when the Elmira Advertiser and Star-Gazette reported a variety of crimes that included robberies, burglaries, drunkenness, disorderly conduct, prostitution and attempted murder. Of the original 92 buildings on the street, only two remain.

5. Elmira Centennial Day was held at the New York World’s Fair on Aug. 28, 1964.

6. Church Street was named after surveyor-engineer Philip Church, not for the numerous churches along its route.

7. New York City lawyer Lucius Robinson moved to Elmira in 1855. He was elected to the state Assembly and as state comptroller before becoming governor in 1876.

8. During Elmira’s centennial year, cashmere coats sold for $65.90 at the Gorton Coy.

9. In 1844, Chemung County’s first telegraph office was opened in Elmira. Connecting Elmira to Ithaca, it was one of the first telegraph lines in the United States.

10. Fluoridated water was introduced to Elmira in 1952.

11. Eldridge Park was originally a 200-acre wilderness when it was bought by Dr. Edwin Eldridge, an Elmira physician who developed the site into a sculpture garden until his death in 1876. The city bought the land in 1889.

12. The Elmira Country Club opened in 1897.

13. Founded in 1855, Elmira College was the first college in the country to offer women a degree program equal to that of men. The college went co-ed in 1969.

14. A total of 2,963 Confederate soldiers, almost 25 percent of those imprisoned at Elmira’s Civil War prison camp, died there during its one year of operation. Most were buried in Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira.

15. Mark Twain is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery with his wife, Elmira native Olivia Langdon, and their four children. Between 2,000 and 3,000 visitors are estimated to visit the grave every year.

16. On May 14, 1851, President Millard Fillmore and Daniel Webster stopped in Elmira for a banquet celebrating the completion of the Erie Railroad and stayed overnight.

17. In 1957, the Elmira City School District was formed with the consolidation of 29 districts in the southern part of Chemung County. That year also saw the end of one-room schoolhouses in the county.

18. On May 6, 1878, the Elmira Fire Department was reorganized from volunteer to paid status. Pay was $100 a year for horsemen (horses pulled the machines) and $150 for firemen.

19. Former astronaut Eileen Collins, an Elmira native, was the first female pilot and first female commander of a space shuttle.

20. Iszard’s sold a whistling tea kettle for $3.37 during Elmira’s centennial year.

21. Film editor William Henry Reynolds, an Elmira native, was nominated for an Academy Award seven times and won twice, for “The Sound of Music” and “The Sting.”

22. According to “A Report on the Vice Conditions in Elmira, New York 1913,” one particular saloon was “a flagrantly disorderly place,” where ladies of the evening solicited their services for $2 and $3.

23. The first book Mark Twain wrote in his study at Quarry Farm was “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” The octagonal study was donated to Elmira College in 1952.

24. On July 30, 1861, Elmira was designated as one of three military depots in New York state, along with New York City and Albany. In all, 20,796 men were processed through Elmira during the Civil War.

25. The Arctic League was formed in Elmira in 1912. The all-volunteer organization brings Christmas cheer to needy children and families in Chemung County.

26. In 1885, former Elmira Mayor David B. Hill was elected to a full term as governor of New York. Lieutenant governor under Grover Cleveland, Hill became governor when Cleveland was elected president in 1884.

27. After standing for 16 years, the Lake Street Bridge was badly damaged in the Great Fire of 1840. It was replaced with a covered bridge.

28. Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a famous orator and writer, visited Elmira on July 17, 1873, for a civil rights bill celebration.

29. Frank Gannett, who merged his Elmira Gazette with the competing Evening Star in 1907 to form the Star-Gazette, worked his way through Cornell University as a cub reporter for The Ithaca Journal. He started what today is the media giant Gannett Co. Inc.

30. John Philip Sousa presented a patriotic concert at Elmira’s Mozart Theater on Aug. 12, 1918. Sousa brought a band of 50 pieces, plus vocalists.

31. Francis Collingwood Jr. of Elmira was on the engineering staff of Washington Roebling, who built the Brooklyn Bridge after his father John, who began the project, died before construction started.

32. When Elmira’s first board of education was organized in 1859, there were five public schools and several private ones. The new school district had 16 teachers and 1,200 students ages 4 to 21.

33. The first mass-produced mustard was created by Elmira coffee, tea and spice merchant Robert Timothy French, who moved to New York City in 1880 and formed R.T. French & Sons with Elmira-born son George Jackson French. The mustard debuted at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

34. According to legend, Elmira’s name was inspired by a 5- or 6-year-old girl named Elmira Teall, the daughter of a tavern owner.

35. The first McDonald’s in Elmira opened on North Main Street in 1970.

36. Mark Twain was known to frequent an Elmira bar called Klapproth’s Tavern, where it’s said he often could be found after telling his wife that he was going off to do his banking.

37. Just before Elmira became a city, the village directory listed 10 churches. By 1925, there were 46 churches, representing all major denominations.

38. The midway at Eldridge Park that was revitalized in 2013 was first developed in 1900. It was replaced by a midway with an art deco design in 1939.

39. Brothers Ernest, Paul and William Schweizer moved their fledgling aviation operation from Peekskill to Elmira and created the Schweizer Aircraft Corp. in 1939. Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. purchased the business in 2004 and closed its operations here in 2013.

40. Houses in Elmira in April 1882 cost from $800 to $1,400 and rents cost from $8 to $16 a month.

41. United Elmira Day was celebrated on Oct. 25, 1934, marking the official reopening of Water and Church streets after the elevation of the railroad was completed.

42. Babe Ruth hit a home run, a triple and a single in an exhibition game at Dunn Field in Elmira on Oct. 17, 1928.

43. Elmira had 50 paid firemen in 1912, with 21 horses, 85 alarm boxes, 447 fire hydrants and five “fully equipped fire buildings.” At that time, there also were 40 policemen in the city with 27 patrol boxes, four substations and a bicycle squad.

44. Elmira native Jeanine Pirro became the first female district attorney and female county judge in Westchester County.

45. Ulysses S. Grant, a Civil War hero and two-term president, visited Elmira twice in 1880 to support the successful presidential campaign of James A. Garfield.

46. Zebulon Reed Brockway, recognized as the “father of prison reform” in America, established the first state reformatory for adult males in 1876 in Elmira.

47. The Brand Park Pool, designed to look like an upturned straw-brimmed hat, opened in 1927. The structure is one of only six surviving pools in the United States that were created by the Bintz Pool Corp.

48. Almost 2,500 Elmirans were employed by the railroads by 1929.

49. Former President William Howard Taft was the commencement speaker for Elmira College in 1919.

50. Mark Twain and Olivia Langdon were married Feb. 2, 1870, in the Langdon home at the corner of Main and Church streets in Elmira. In 1939, the city declined an offer to buy the property, and it was sold to a commercial developer, torn down and now the parcel is known as Langdon Plaza.

51. Tommy Hilfiger opened a clothing store called The People’s Place in Elmira in 1969, but the business failed and he declared bankruptcy in 1977. He then headed for New York City to pursue a career as a full-time fashion designer.

52. The first big-league team to play an exhibition game in Elmira was the New York Giants on Sept. 30, 1903.

53. From 2,200 to 2,600 carloads of rail freight per day passed through Elmira in October 1883.

54. Future President Ronald Reagan visited Elmira on Oct. 2, 1958, as guest speaker at a United Campaign dinner.

55. In the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the bank examiner who shows up to edit the books of Bailey Building and Loan says that he wants to “spend Christmas in Elmira with my family.”

56. The carousel at Eldridge Park in Elmira is more than twice as fast as the standard speed of a typical merry-go-round.

57. On July 7, 1914, members of Elmira’s Italian community protested the Colonial Theater’s policy of not allowing Italians to sit on the first floor.

58. Movie producer Hal Roach, who was born in Elmira on Jan. 14, 1892, and is buried here, is best known for his “Our Gang” and “Little Rascals” comedies and films featuring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

59. Elmira at a glance in 1912: four theaters, 45 religious institutions, two daily newspapers, one Sunday newspaper and about 10 other publications.

60. Don Zimmer, while playing for the Elmira Pioneers, married his high school sweetheart at home plate at Dunn Field in 1951.

61. Elmira’s Eldridge Park was so popular in the 1920s that a train station was needed to handle visitors by rail.

62. During World War II, the Remington Rand plant on Elmira’s Southside produced the top secret Norden bombsight that was used to determine the exact moment bombs had to be dropped to hit their target. The plant closed in 1972.

63. On the day of President Ulysses S. Grant’s funeral on Aug. 8, 1885, a memorial procession moved through Elmira to Hoffman Park, where a funeral service was held.

64. There was terror in the streets of Elmira in 1901 when a deadly gila monster escaped from its cage, according to a newspaper report.

65. During Elmira’s centennial year, chuck steaks sold for 39 cents a pound, a quart of Hellman’s Mayonnaise was 59 cents and 12 cans of Heinz tomato soup sold for 99 cents at the Walnut Super Food Market at Walnut and West Third streets.

66. Movie producer Hal Roach delivered newspapers as a child to Mark Twain at Quarry Farm.

67. Ely S. Parker, a Union general and advisor to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, received the Masonic degrees of Royal and Select Masters when he stopped in Elmira in 1855.

68. During World War II, scrap metal was collected at Woodlawn Cemetery.

69. Organ-builder William King established his firm in Elmira in 1865. The King Organ Factory closed in 1900 when the business went bankrupt. Among King’s largest organs were those for Elmira First Baptist Church and the Elmira Reformatory chapel.

70. Steele Memorial Library is named for scholar Joel Dorman Steele who, as principal of Elmira Free Academy in 1866, brought a whip into the classroom and announced a flogging awaited “the first pupil, girl or boy, who speaks aloud or leaves his or her seat.”

71. Elmira’s streets were first paved with pine and cedar blocks.

72. The Elmira Light and Railway Co. controlled transportation routes and water and electric light utilities in the early 1900s.

73. In 1905, when vote buying was a common practice, the Democratic and Republican parties accepted the Elmira Compact that outlawed vote buying, limited campaign expenditures to no more than $40 and sought prosecution for voter bribing.

74. The Frederick Douglas A.M.E. Zion Church was established by escaped slaves who found refuge in Elmira and were inspired by an anti-slavery lecture given in the city in 1840 by Douglass, also an escaped slave.

75. Elmira hosted an annual gathering of New York State Klansmen in July 1925. More than 6,000 people attended the event that included a parade down Church Street and a cross burning at the Chemung County Fairgrounds.

76. Elmira native Ross Marvin joined Admiral Robert E. Peary on two arctic expeditions. During the second in 1909, Marvin either drowned or was murdered.

77. The Chemung County Courthouse was constructed in 1862 in Elmira by architect Horatio Nelson White and builder David Wilcox.

78. Former slave and underground railroad conductor John W. Jones was paid $2.50 for each Confederate soldier he buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in 1864 and 1865.

79. Elmira’s Near Westside District contains the most Victorian homes per capita in North America — 480 structures within 30 blocks.

80. In addition to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Mark Twain also wrote in Elmira “Roughing It,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Prince and the Pauper,” “A Tramp Abroad,” “Life on the Mississippi” and “A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court.”

81. Elmira’s early industries included gristmills, sawmills and distilleries.

82. John Arnot came to Elmira in 1819 as a store clerk, later acquiring the store and building a fortune. He was the founder of the Chemung Canal Bank that opened in 1833, now known as Chemung Canal Trust Co.

83. Illuminating gas was introduced into Elmira in 1852. Electricity came in 1875 and the telephone in the late 1870s.

84. The Arnot Art Museum was built in in the 1830s as the home of John Arnot. When his son Matthias H. Arnot died in 1910, he bequeathed the building and grounds and his art collection to the public.

85. Elmira City Hall was designed by Pierce and Bickford Architects and built in 1896 for $118,000.

86. Elmira’s nickname in the 1800s was the Queen City.

87. Arnot Ogden Memorial Hospital opened Dec. 20, 1888, with 25 beds and three nurses. In its first year, there were 97 admissions and one birth. Some concerns were expressed at the time that the hospital was “so far out into the country.”

88. Prohibition came early in Elmira, closing the city’s 49 saloons in 1918. The rest of the country went dry in 1919.

89. Elmira’s first mayor was John Arnot Jr., who was elected April 8, 1864. The first common council of Elmira met on April 19, 1864.

90. Among attractions once featured at Eldridge Park: a concrete bear pit built in 1891. Its heyday was between 1907 and 1910.

91. D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” that was based on a novel romanticizing the Ku Klux Klan came to Elmira in 1915. After telling the Lyceum Theatre to cut particularly offensive scenes, the mayor was sued by the film’s producers.

92. The Elmira Humane Society was formed in 1891 to care for children and animals.

93. Businesses in Elmira first hosted Thomas Edison’s personal film viewers called kinetoscopes in September 1894.

94. Mary Pat Ciccariello was Elmira’s first female mayor in 1982 and 1983. Current Mayor Susan Skidmore is the second. Kimberlee Balok Middaugh became the city’s first female city manager on Feb. 11.

95. The last remaining volunteer fire companies were disbanded in the city in 1878 after more than 40 years of organizing, disbanding, re-organizing and sometimes fighting among themselves over who would put out fires or got the best spot in parades.

96. Of Elmira’s more than 12,000 estimated housing units, nearly two-thirds were built in 1939 or earlier.

97. One hundred years after Rosenbaum’s opened in 1864, it was selling wool skirts for $6.90 apiece. The store closed in January 1989 after filing for bankruptcy earlier.

98. The Village of Newtown, Elmira’s predecessor, was established in 1792. Its earliest streets were Sullivan, Water and Church.

99. Elmira’s first fire pumper, called “Old Gooseneck,” was delivered in 1835 for the price of $250.

100. When Elmira’s population peaked at about 50,000 in 1950, it represented 57 percent of Chemung County’s total population. Today, the city has about 30,000 residents, which represents 33 percent of the county’s total population.

101. Actor Alex Karras was in Elmira in 1991 for “The Street Corner Kids,” a movie filmed in the city. Four years later, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. starred in the movie “Street Corner Kids 2: A Place Called Elmira,” also filmed in the city.

102. Elmira’s incorporation papers are more than 100 pages long.

103. Water Street’s original name was River Street. Clemens Center Parkway was originally named State Street. Church Street’s name was changed from Second Street. College Avenue was originally named Mill Street and West Street. Grand Central Avenue was first named Benton Street.

104. The first Gamewell Alarm boxes were installed in the city in 1884 for fire calls. There were 41 boxes.

105. Kennedy Valve Manufacturing Co. started operations in 1907. It received three Maritime Commission awards in 1940 to manufacture 8 million valves for the Victory Fleet.

106. In 1961, Ernie Davis, who had played baseball, basketball and football at Elmira Free Academy, became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. Leukemia cut his life short at age 23.

107. From 1871 to 1985, American LaFrance produced fire trucks, hand-held fire extinguishers and other firefighting equipment on Elmira’s Southside.

108. A milk bottle invented by Dr. Hervey Dexter Thatcher of Potsdam, N.Y., led to the founding of the Thatcher Glass Manufacturing Co. The company was eventually sold to businessmen in Elmira, where it became the world’s largest producer of glass milk bottles.

109. In 1847, a plank road eased horse-drawn stagecoach travel for the eight-mile stretch between Elmira and the state line.

110. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the largest ethnic group in Elmira today is Irish (20.4 percent), followed by Italian (11.6 percent). The smallest ethnic group is a tie between Swiss and Lithuanian (0.1 percent each).

111. The shortest street in Elmira that isn’t an alley is Orchard Street, which is about 517 feet long.

112. The Erie and Lackawanna Railroad tracks were elevated through the city in 1933 and 1934.

113. The equipment roster of the Elmira Fire Department in 1893 included six steamers, three hose wagons, a ladder truck and a chemical engine, all pulled by a total of 16 horses.

114. NBC news anchor Brian Williams, who lived in Elmira as a boy, was the main speaker at the dedication ceremony for the restored carousel at Eldridge Park on May 27, 2006.

115. Chicken thieves were active in Elmira in 1916.

116. Many baseball greats played at Dunn Field during their minor league years, including Wade Boggs, Curt Schilling, Jim Palmer and Paul Blair.

117. Railroad Avenue had 24 cafes, six hotels and four barbershops in 1927.

118. The Harry B. Bentley Post 443, American Legion of Elmira, was granted a charter in 1919. The post was among the first American Legions to be chartered.

119. The first African-American firefighter in Elmira was Tom Reid in 1950. The first female firefighter was Patricia Lynch in 1981.

120. In 1901, the Elmira City Club had the first Ping Pong table in the city.

121. Brick Pond was originally the location of Weyer-Bauman Brick Works. One day while digging for clay near Sullivan Street, they went a little too deep and hit a vein of water from nearby Newtown Creek. The brick works moved, and ice was harvested there until the advent of the electric refrigerator.

122. From the 1850s to the 1870s, the Weiss Brewery made beer near what is today the northwest corner of East Washington Avenue and Clemens Center Parkway.

123. The first radio station broadcast in Elmira was in 1932 by WESG, now WENY.

124. The first trolley line in Chemung County opened Aug. 23, 1871, operated by the Elmira and Horseheads Railway Co. with horse-drawn cars. Rides within Elmira were 5 cents, while travel to and from Horseheads was 15 cents. City buses replaced trolley cars in 1939.

125. Parking meters came to Elmira in 1940.

126. The Remington Rand plant on South Main Street produced its 15 millionth typewriter in 1954.

127. The Elmira Armory was constructed in 1886. The building was vacated following the partial collapse of its facade on March 10, 2006. The Armory and rill hall behind were demolished in 2010.

128. The Lake Street Bridge was closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic on March 15, 2011, because of damage to concrete that supports steel and rubber expansion joints.

129. In July 2006, the city announced it had a $2.1 million operating deficit that auditors later discovered was actually $3 million. Following a host of changes in accounting, finances and operations, Elmira had a surplus of almost $500,000 by the end of 2007.

131. Elmira Little Theatre started in 1944 with 30 original members, presenting their first formal production, “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” in December 1944 at Elmira College. It became the resident theater company at the Clemens Center in 1977.

132. The Elmira Telegram published an interview with an optician in 1888 who said over-exertion of the jaw muscles (chewing gum) would eventually enfeeble the optic nerves and cause blindness.

133. Clarissa Thurston established a ladies’ seminary in 1847 on North Main Street where Weis Markets is located today.

134. Frank Bundy was a local businessman and politician who embezzled more than $30,000 of city funds to throw parties while serving as the city chamberlain from 1898 to 1900.

135. Lear Green was a slave owned by a Maryland man when she met and fell in love with William Adams, a free black man. She hid inside a steamer trunk when the couple escaped to Philadelphia on a steamship. They came to Elmira, married and settled down.

136. A St. Bernard named Colonel was among the most well-known celebrities in the country. As the Elmira Telegram’s mascot, he visited Manhattan in 1889, meeting hundreds of fans at the Astor House and mobbed by thousands more at the train station.

137. The Mark Twain Hotel opened on March 23, 1929, at West Gray and North Main streets with 250 rooms, five dining rooms, four restaurants, three elevators, convention facilities and a ballroom that could accommodate 350 guests.

138. When Woodlawn Cemetery was created in 1858, it was part of the rural cemetery movement that promoted the park-like design of cemeteries for outdoor activities.

139. The Kelley-Whitney Extract Co., operating in Elmira from 1901 to 1938, had a run-in with the USDA in 1912 for falsely claiming its concentrated lemon, orange and vanilla extracts were pure. The company was fined $25.

140. The home of the Elmira Jackals hockey team, Coach USA Center, now known as First Arena, opened in 2000.

141. The first product bar code scanners used in a city supermarket were at Tops Market on Lake Street in 1983.

142. Elmira boxer Art Sykes was knocked out by Joe Lewis in the eighth round in 1934.

143. Graves in the Wisner Burying Ground were moved in 1877 to Woodlawn Cemetery, and the burial ground became Wisner Park.

144. Elmira had a cat leash law from 1996 until 2008.

145. Due to high water in Painted Post, the Treaty of Painted Post was signed in 1791 where Madison Avenue is located today in Elmira. The treaty was intended to make the area safe for settlers.

146. The Erie Railroad began service to Elmira in 1849.

147. An earthquake on Sept. 25, 1881, was followed by a hurricane that blew the spire off Hedding Methodist Church, deposited about two tons of brick in the organ of another church and blew holes through several brick buildings.

148. The first post office opened in Newtown in 1801. Mail service took four days by horseback to Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

149. A fight between bears in 1906 in the bear pit at Eldridge Park left a female grizzly dead and a male without a mate.

150. St. Joseph’s Hospital was established in 1908 in a modest three-story building on East Market Street. Proceeds from an exhibition baseball game that year were used to buy surgical instruments and improve facilities.

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