Monday, February 1, 2016

Life Line of the Fleet: USS Chemung

by Erin Doane, curator

The museum has recently received a couple objects related to the USS Chemung. Many people are familiar with the Navy tanker that served through World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War but I will admit that I had never heard of it until I started working here. The ship has a long, interesting history of tragedy and triumph. The Chemung was one of the largest, fastest tankers afloat during the Second World War, it was the first tanker to ever circumnavigate the globe, and, for a time, it was blamed for causing the deaths of 225 sailors aboard the USS Ingraham.

USS Chemung AO-30 – Displacement: 7,295; Length: 553’;
Beam: 45’; Draft: 32’4”; Speed: 18.5 knots; Compliment: 304;
Class: Cimarron
The tanker was first launched in 1939 by Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey. It was christened ESSO Annapolis. In 1941, the U.S. Navy commissioned the ship to join its tanker fleet and renamed it USS Chemung. Navy tankers are traditionally named after rivers and this one was named for the river that runs right through our county. In the beginning it was used to transport fuel oil between Texas and Louisiana oil ports and east coast ports but within months it was making trans-Atlantic deliveries.

Flag that flew on the USS Chemung during World War II
The main duty of the Chemung was refueling aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers, and battleships while they were at sea. William M’Gaffin, Special Correspondent to The Chicago Daily Times during World War II described such a refueling operation: 
     A big essex class carrier is selected and the tanker pulls alongside. A light line is shot across, then a messenger, and finally a rope to which is tied the pythonlike hose. A destroyer comes along on the other side, hoses are sent across to her, then telephone lines to the hose station, while the other wires connect the bridge with hers.
     The ships continue moving at fast clip through the sea, in the direction of the enemy.
     “We’re ready,” comes the word over the telephone. “Start your pumps.” “The pumps are started,” goes back the answer.
     The thick, black oil begins to flow through the hoses as the three ships proceed through the water. Keen-eyed helmsmen, the key men in the operation, keep the ships steady, even distances from each other.
     The fuel gurgles swiftly now through the snaky hoses, suspended limply on curved wooden saddles tied to booms projecting over the water. They are tended by hand on the big ships, by winch on the tankers. They are paid in and out gradually to compensate for the occasional widening and narrowing of the distances between. Three or four destroyers are re-fueled while the carrier’s thirsty innards are being filled.”

The Chemung refueling an aircraft carrier
The Chemung crossed the submarine-infested waters of the Atlantic Ocean 28 times during World War II but it did not come through the “Battle of the Atlantic” unscathed. On August 20, 1942 the tanker departed from New York with a convoy bound for the United Kingdom. Two days later, it collided with the destroyer USS Ingraham. The Ingraham was in the process of trying to recover survivors from the USS Buck which had just had its stern sliced off. The depth charges in the stern of the destroyer exploded and it sank almost immediately. All but 16 of the 241 men aboard the Ingraham were lost. The Chemung lost 30 feet of its bow and caught fire. Despite having a full load of fuel, it did not explode and the fire was extinguished without any loss of life. The tanker reached Boston on August 26 for repairs. For years, the Chemung was blamed for causing the collision but a confidential inquiry eventually absolved the Chemung of responsibility.

Pieces of shrapnel from the USS Ingraham
After repairs were completed, the Chemung went back into service. It took part in the North African invasion and was attached to the task force that invaded Sicily, Anzio, and Southern France. It even fueled Roosevelt’s convoy to Yalta in 1942. In 1945, the Chemung became the first tanker to circumnavigate the globe. It left Norfolk on July 18 and passed through the Panama Canal for service at Okinawa. In October it left to return to the United States, this time passing through the Cape of Good Hope. It finally arrived back at Norfolk on December 6. Over the course of the war, the Chemung pumped 174.3 million gallons of gas, logged 250 million sailing miles over 10 seas and oceans, and earned the nickname “Life Line of the Fleet.”


The Chemung operated with the Atlantic Fleet from November 12, 1948 until March 17, 1950 when it sailed for San Diego. It was decommissioned in July of that year and placed in reserve. It was recommissioned in 1950 for service in the Korean War and continued as part of the tanker fleet through the Vietnam War. The “Mighty Mung” received two battle stars for its World War II service and four for its service in the Korean War. The tanker was finally decommissioned on September 18, 1970 and scrapped. CCHS has a large collection of objects from the USS Chemung including ashtrays made from shell casings from the tanker’s guns, commemorative lighters, playing cards, and hats, and a sweater from the on-board basketball team. We also have a ceremonial plaque from the tanker that was presented to the museum in 1971 by the U.S. Navy through the Horseheads Naval Reserve.

Ceremonial plaque presented to CCHS in 1971
Ashtray made from spent shell casing
Lighter recently donated to CCHS
Commemorative playing cards
USS Chemung hats worn by veterans
Recently-donated sweater worn by a member of the
basketball team aboard the USS Chemung

Monday, January 25, 2016

Soap Sculpture in Elmira: How You Can Be a Part of Its History!

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

The Chemung County Historical Society is hosting a soap carving contest to celebrate our new exhibit, Clean. It’s free and open to all ages and you can find out how to participate here: http://www.chemungvalleymuseum.org/soap-contest

But, why soap carving, you might be thinking?  It’s a pretty obscure art form to us now, but in the 1920s and 1930s it was wildly popular here and across the country.  It really took off when Proctor and Gamble promoted national soap carving contests in an attempt to sell more of their product, Ivory soap.  Soap carving was touted as an activity that was accessible for people of all ages and abilities.  It was supposed to provide a wholesome outlet for children’s energy and also serve as a low-cost medium for amateur adult artists.
If our amateur artist staff at the museum can do it, so can you.
Beginning in the mid-1920s, the Arnot Art Museum periodically displayed soap sculptures, and the popularity of such exhibits led people to call for local contests.  In 1926, the Elmira Community Service provided 100 free instructional booklets to children interested in learning soap carving.  In 1945, the Arnot Art Museum displayed sculptures created by 7th and 8th grade students at Elmira’s George Washington School.  The entries were then to be entered in the National Soap Sculpture Contest in New York City.  
William Lavris and Marjorie Kolb inspect entries in the 1945 Arnot Art Museum display.
Even local businesses got in on the craze: this advertisement from The Junior Shop in 1929 tells of a soap display and contest hosted at boys’ clothing store.

So now, I encourage you to help us revive this once popular art form.  You don’t need to have any artistic background or special ability.  It can be done with a basic kitchen butter knife or you can come to the museum and use our special carving tools during our open carving workshop hours (see here for those times: http://www.chemungvalleymuseum.org/soap-contest).  Your work will be on display at the museum and you could even win a prize.  And it’s free.  Give it a try and you might just uncover a secret talent you never knew you had!


Monday, January 18, 2016

Our Gang

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

One of the latest additions to our collection in 2016 is the book Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals by Julia Lee.  In it, Lee places the Our Gang series in its historical racial context and explores how it helped to change that context.  The book is interesting and well-written, using research conducted all over the country, including right here in at the Chemung County Historical Society.
The book in question.
The story Hal Roach (1892-1992) liked to tell was that he came up with the Little Rascals in 1921 after watching a group of kids play in a lumber yard, but the idea could have just as easily come from his own youth.  Growing up on Elmira’s near-Westside at the turn of the 20th century, Roach was a scamp of the Tom Sawyer variety.  He and his friends ran around the neighborhood, paying games, staging photoplays, and scandalized old ladies by skinny dipping in the Chemung.  He took a series of odd jobs throughout his childhood, including one delivering groceries to the Reformatory.  Roach got sacked after he was caught smuggling tobacco to the inmates.  He was a cut-up at school too.  By the time he quit schooling altogether after being expelled from EFA, he had already been thrown out of half-dozen public and private schools throughout the city.

Big rascal Hal Roach and little rascals Allen "Farina" Hoskins and Joe Cobb, ca. 1928

In the same way Roach’s youthful exploits informed the series’ plot, his childhood experiences with race likely influenced his choice to have a diverse cast.  By the time Roach was ten, Elmira had a population of approximately 35,000, including a moderately-sized black community.  The core of the community was centered around Fourth and Dickinson Streets on the Eastside, but there was also a cluster of black families living on Elmira’s Southside and many of those employed as domestic servants lived with their employers throughout the city.  Although few blacks lived in Roach’s neighborhood on Columbia Street, he almost certainly attended classes with black students.  He was also probably familiar with the Industrial School, which offered integrated recreational spaces and vocational training to the city’s poorer children.

Elmira Public School No. 1, class of 1895

When the first Our Gang shorts with their racially integrated cast came out, the public reaction was decidedly mixed.  Many blacks, including influential members of the press and the head of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), felt that it might be a vehicle for racial uplift and help to wear down old prejudice.  Others felt that the shorts simply recycled old minstrel show tropes and that the characters were, in effect, black children in blackface.  Whites too had mixed reactions.  In the Jim Crow South, where separate-but-equal kept black and white kids in different schools, theatres and theater-goers praised the series’ minstrel-like characterization even as they protested the integrated gang.  Northern whites also expressed certain racial anxieties over the films, but held no protests against them, unlike their southern brethren.

Lantern slide used to advertise "School Begins" (1928) in a local theater.  Note the integrated classroom with a side order of racism. 
 Of course, I’ve only discussed America’s initial reaction to the Our Gang films.  There were nearly 200 Our Gang films made between 1922 and 1944, and then those shorts were later re-cut and re-released for television syndication from the 1950s through the 1980s.  As American’s views about race and race relations changed, so too did their views on the series.  If you’re interested in learning more about this, I suggest you do what I did:  read Julia Lee’s book.   
Label for an "Our Gang" doll of George "Freckles" Warde, ca. 1922

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Exploding Vault

by Erin Doane, curator

Visitors often ask us about the big, black metal door in the museum’s bank gallery. A lot of children think it must be a jail cell because there are bars behind the door. We tell them that no, it is not a jail cell. It is the Exploding Vault. In 1884, an explosion in that very vault led to the death of John Arnot, Jr.

The "Exploding Vault" with the door closed (l) and the door open (r)
John Arnot Jr. was born in Elmira on March 11, 1831. He was the second son of entrepreneur and businessman John Arnot. In 1852, when his father took over control of the Chemung Canal Bank, he became cashier. Upon his father’s death, he became president of the bank. His duties at the bank were what eventually led to his untimely death.

The Chemung Canal Bank, c. 1900
On the morning of Monday, October 20, 1884, Arnot went to work at the Chemung Canal Bank. He and several clerks began getting ready for the day’s business. At about 9:00am he went into the vault to open the inside safe. He stuck a match to light the gas lamp inside. A massive fireball instantly erupted. The explosion blew Arnot across the room and he struck a cashier’s desk. His clothes were torn from his body, his face was burned black, and his whiskers and hair were completely burned off. He was still conscious, however. When a clerk told him they were sending for a doctor, Arnot said there was no need. The clerk called for one anyway. Arnot had severe burns on his hands and face. The doctor feared that he might lose the sight in one if not both eyes. He also feared that Arnot has suffered severe internal injuries.


The explosions was so immense that nearly every window in the bank was shattered by the concussion. In some cases, the window sashes were completely blown out. It twisted the vault door and tore off the locks. The banking apartments upstairs were even damaged. The blast could be heard and felt for blocks around the bank. People gathered around the building that morning to try to learn what had happened. Reports of the explosion appeared in dozens of newspapers throughout the state and country. The most accepted theory as to the cause of the explosion was that someone left a small gas jet burning in the vault when the bank closed on Saturday afternoon. As soon as the air in the vault was exhausted, the flame went out but gas continued to escape. When Arnot lit a match on Monday morning, the accumulated gas instantly ignited.

John Arnot, Jr.
Arnot was slow to recover from the explosion. Though his injuries were severe, he did not lose his sight. After a time, he was able to return to his seat in Congress. Not only was Arnot a millionaire banker. He was also involved in politics. He served as president of the village of Elmira in 1859, 1860, and 1861 and became the city’s first mayor in 1863. He held that position in 1870 and 1874 as well. In 1882 he was somewhat reluctantly nominated as a candidate for the 28th congressional district. He was asked twice before he finally accepted. Although he was a member of the Democratic Party in a Republican district he was easily elected. He was reelected in 1884 with little opposition.

John Arnot's letter accepting the nomination for congress, 1882

Arnot returned to his duties in congress but the lingering shock from the accident left him weak and unwell. His fellow congressman notice the change. Congressman Wilkins of Ohio commented, “When he returned to his seat in the first session of the Forty-ninth Congress it was a subject of common remark he was not the same John Arnot as before. At times during this session he would rally and seem to grow stronger, encouraging the hope for his ultimate restoration to health, but for months prior to his death his rapidly failing strength gave unmistakable evidence the end was near.”


Memorial Addresses on the Life and
Character of John Arnot, Jr. Delivered
in the House of Representatives and in
the Senate, February 8, 1887
Ultimately, the injuries he received in the explosion were too great. John Arnot, Jr. died at his home in Elmira on November 20, 1886. His death was announced in the U.S. House of Representatives on December 6 and he was eulogizes by nine of his fellow congressmen on the house floor on February 8, 1887. Locally, he was remembered as one of the most popular and respected men in Elmira. He was known for his kindness and generosity. His contributions to charity helped countless people in the region and were sorely missed after his passing.

Congressman Timothy J. Campbell of New York recounted an incident following Arnot’s death: A very old and poverty-stricken couple, the husband more than eighty years of age and blind and the wife closely approaching the same period of life, froze to death within a few days of Mr. Arnot’s demise—he by the wayside in the midst of a severe snow-storm while out seeking something to provide warmth and food, and she while awaiting in her home his return. It was then ascertained for the first time that for years they had been the constant and regular recipients of the bounty of our friend. The hand and good heart that had protected and provided for them had been too suddenly withdrawn. No one can tell into how many households where there was want, sickness, and the disabled distress entered, although it is to be hoped not in such terrible shape as this, when our friend died.