Monday, September 17, 2018

Thank You and Good Luck!

by Bruce Whitmarsh, Director

On August 20, our Education Coordinator Kelli Huggins let you all know that she had taken a new position at the Catskills Interpretive Center and would be leaving CCHS. Well, the day has come and gone and she has made the move. And, we at the CCHS could not be more proud of her.

What Kelli modestly did not tell you in her goodbye post was that she also won two statewide awards from the Museum Association of New York, one recognizing her as an up and coming museum professional and another recognizing The History They Didn’t Teach You in School as an intriguing and cutting edge program. She also did not mention that the many thousands of schoolchildren she reached were because of her hard work developing relationships with teachers and principals, creating programming to match classroom needs and then delivering much of that programming herself. And while you know that she managed to write a book in her time here she also found the time to serve as an adjunct professor at Elmira College, sharing her love of history with yet another group of students.
I have no doubt that the Catskills Interpretive Center is already benefiting from her knowledge, energy and enthusiasm.

The CCHS has started the process of looking for a new person to take on the role of Educator, but we know that whoever winds up with the position will not be replacing Kelli. They will, however, be building on a great foundation.

So Kelli, thank you for five very successful years. Thank you for being a part of CCHS, for making us laugh and do some silly things. I know that you will do great things in your new position and, just in case you see this, remember that it will all work out.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Lady and the Tigers

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

In September of 1941, Ethel Nichols was on a mission, and so were the 300 men of the American Volunteer Group (AVG). Ethel, an Elmira native and member of the Southside Baptist Church, was headed for Gauhati, India, where she would be in charge of the Satri Bari Girls’ School for the next twenty years. She had joined the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society in 1920 after graduating from Elmira College and had been working in India ever since. She was headed back to her work after a visit home when she met an unusual group of men on her voyage across the Pacific.

They, like Ethel, were classified as civilian missionaries according to their passports, but their mission was far less spiritual. In the spring of 1941, retired U.S. Army Air Corps officer Claire L. Chennault assembled a team of 100 pilots from the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army Air Corps, along with 200 ground crew personnel to help the Chinese fight the Japanese. He did so with the supplies, funding, and blessing of the United States government.
AVG personnel were transported across the Pacific in small batches. There were thirty-eight of them on Ethel’s ship. Ethel described them in her letter of September 10, 1941: 

I mentioned a group on board. Guess I can tell you about them now. They are 38 young men, aviators and engineers, on a secret mission. We can guess that they will be on the Burma Road. They were listed as “missionaries”—part of the secret I suppose. That’s why we ran out of beer or low on it. My partner, “Twisty” is one of the “38.” We always speak of them as the “the 38” or sometimes the “38 missionaries.” We are about divided into thirds.: 1/3 missionaries, 1/3 businessmen, and 1/3 the “38.”

So much for secrecy. 

Ethel's letter of September 10, 1941

In his autobiography Baa Baa Black Sheep, Gregory Boyington, an AVG pilot described his own trip across the Pacific aboard the Dutch ship Bosch Fontein with 26 other pilots. They managed to blow their cover the first night. 

Of course it took very little time before these genuine missionaries realized that we were traveling under false colors and weren’t missionaries at all. But the manner by which they let us know that they knew was done rather cleverly…One day one of the real missionaries came up and asked if I would give the sermon for next Sunday’s services, explaining that the duty rotated. I had to decline the invitation to lead the services…As it was, the same missionary invited me to next Sunday services aboard ship. He was one of the younger missionaries, and he himself gave the sermon. But as he did so (I was seated in one of the front rows) he seemed to direct the entire sermon at me and the group I represented.  His point was how horrible it was for people to fight for money. 

Gregory Boyington's autobiography
Nicknamed the Flying Tigers, the AVG proved vital in delaying the fall of Rangoon and preventing the Japanese from advancing into China beyond the west bank of the upper Salween River. Their combat record was exemplary with a kill ratio better than any Allied unit in the Pacific theater. They were disbanded on July 4, 1942 and the surviving members were integrated back into the regular U.S. military. 

Ethel Nichols continued to work in North East India until her retirement in May 1961. In addition to running Satri Bari Girls’ School, she was established training classes to teach rural girls about basic health care and Christian life. After her retirement, the Council of Baptist Churches in North East India established the Nichols English School in her honor.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Elmira’s First Bridge

by Erin Doane, Curator

The Lake Street Bridge closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic in March 2011. I started working here at CCHS in May 2011, so I never had the chance to go over the bridge that is just across the street from the museum. It was announced recently that work would start next summer to repair the bridge and open it to pedestrians. This is just the newest chapter in the history of this river crossing.

The first bridge across the Chemung River in Elmira was completed at the foot of Lake Street in 1824. Before that, one needed a ferry to cross the river. The wooden bridge was constructed by the Elmira and Southport Bridge Company. It had three piers, one in the center of each channel and another on the island in the middle of the river. Some years after it was built, the spans began to sag considerably. Once, a drove of cattle crossing the bridge, broke through the first span during high water and timbers and cows went floating down the river. In 1840, the bridge was badly damaged in the “great fire” of that year. A new covered bridge was erected on the spot with J.H. Gallagher supervising construction.

Covered bridge built after the fire of 1840
The covered bridge burned in 1850 when the tannery at its south end caught fire. It was replaced by a wooden truss structure. This new bridge was open at the top except for some crossing timbers. This allowed the snow to fall through onto the roadway during the winter so that sleighs could more easily cross. A considerable part of this bridge was washed away during the St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1865. The bridge’s only stone pier was undermined and most of the southern span dropped out and washed down the river. The bridge was repaired and remained in used until 1869.

Wooden bridge, 1864
By 1869, there were two bridges over the Chemung, at Lake Street and Main Street. Both were toll bridges. Businessmen on the north side of the river did not like that people had to pay tolls to cross. Customers from the plank road district and other parts of Southport were reluctant to cross the bridge to do businesses. Farmers didn’t want to pay a toll to sell their produce so they went south to Troy, Pennsylvania instead of to Elmira.

Early in 1869, the city passed a legislative act authorizing it to purchase both bridges for $25,000 (around $460,000 today). They dropped the tolls and used taxpayer funds to maintain the structures. Three years later, another act was passed authorizing the building of new bridges at both locations. The Main Street bridge was replaced first, then the Lake Street bridge was completed in 1874. The new Lake Street bridge was made of iron with three spans of 182 feet each and trusses that were 26 feet high. The piers were made of limestone. It cost $65,000 (about $1.4 million).

Lake Street bridge, c. 1890
The Lake Street bridge was replaced again by a new steel bridge in 1905. While the work was being done, a temporary wooden pedestrian bridge was erected next to it so that people could still move across the river.

Bridge under construction, with pedestrian bridge alongside, 1905
In June, 1959, City Manager Angus T. Johnson reported to the Elmira City Council that the Lake Street bridge was in desperate need of repair. The bridge supports were weakened, the metal fixtures were corroded, and rivets were missing from some joints. Salt used on the roads during the winter caused much of the deterioration. The Council closed the bridge to both all traffic and plans were made to replace the structure.

Lake Street bridge, c. 1950s
On June 21, 1961, between 1,200 and 1,500 Elmirans gathered in the rain for the official opening of the new Lake Street bridge. The bridge had been closed for two years but construction had finished two weeks ahead of schedule. The cost of demolition of the old bridge and construction of the new was $473,270 (just under $4 million today). 

In 1972, flood waters rose all the way to the bridge’s deck but it survived largely unscathed. Eleven years later, in 1983, it was closed for two months while new expansion joints were installed, the structural steel was scraped and repainted, and the roadway was resurfaced with a new membrane liner to help preserved the concrete deck.

Lake Street bridge, 1970s
Regular maintenance was not enough to keep the bridge from deteriorating. Winters can be hard here in the northeast and, despite yearly washing, salt used to treat the roads damaged the bridge’s concrete supports and rubber expansion joints. In March 2011, the Lake Street bridge was declared unsafe and closed to vehicles and pedestrians. At the time, it had the lowest traffic count of all the city’s five bridges over the Chemung River. As early as May 2011, there were reports that the bridge would be repaired for pedestrian use only. Next summer, some eight years later, the project may finally get underway.

View of Lake Street Bridge from third floor of CCHS, August 31, 2018

Monday, August 27, 2018

Foundations of the NAACP Elmira-Corning Branch

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

For the last 100 years, the Elmira-Corning Branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) has worked to improve the lives of African Americans within our community. The local chapter recently donated their history collection to the Chemung County Historical Society in order to ensure that the stories of the men and women involved in their struggle are accessible to the wider community.  Over the coming months, CCHS will be sharing some of those stories here and in an up-coming on-line exhibit. Stay tuned. The entire collection is available for viewing during our regular research hours.

Mrs. Cordelia F. Stewart Matthews, daughter of Thomas Stewart, was the local branch of the NAACP’s first president in 1917, as well as its fourth in 1925. Heavily involved in politics, she served as the Republican Committeewoman for Elmira’s First District, Fourth Ward. She was not only the first Black woman in the county to serve in such a role, she was the first Black person to do so. An active member in the A.M.E. Zion Church, she often represented the Christian Endeavor both regionally and nationally. 

Mrs. Cordelia F. Stewart Matthews

Locally, she worked hard to help uplift the Black community. In 1918, she was involved in a lawsuit against a real estate company which refused to rent or sell property to “colored people or undesirable foreigners.” In order to obtain an official charter from the national organization, the local NAACP needed 100 members. Matthews arranged for Mrs. Addie W. Hutton, an NAACP leader from New York City, to come and give a presentation on the organization and its aims at the Bethal A.M.E. Zion Church. Although few people attended, they were able to get the membership they needed to be chartered in 1918. 

Elmira Star-Gazette, November 4, 1924
The woman could not stop founding clubs. On February 14, 1924, she established the Nannie Borroughs Club at the local YWCA. Named for a nationally known Black activist and educator who was apparently a personal friend of Matthews, the club was intended to be a safe space for Black girls to socialize and discuss the issues of the day. A few years later, she established the CFM women’s book club, also at the YWCA. The CFM Club lasted well into the 1950s, twenty years after Cordelia Matthews’ death in 1936. The Nannie Borroughs Club eventually became more of a women’s support group before ending in the late 2000s.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Time for a Change

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

I have a big, bittersweet announcement to make: I have accepted a new job as a Visitor Experience Coordinator at the Catskill Interpretive Center in Mount Tremper, NY and I will be leaving my position at CCHS on August 31. This is an exciting opportunity for me professionally and personally, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have any sadness about leaving. Please accept this rambling farewell letter to all of you--our readers, friends, and visitors--as my final CCHS blog post.
My new stomping grounds
I have been at CCHS for over 5 years now and moved to Elmira having never been here before. I know this region has its struggles and people tend to dismiss it, but as a newcomer, I found incredible opportunity. As a historian, I marvel every day at how rich this county’s history is (and will continue to be far into the future). As an educator, I’ve had the fortune to work with thousands of local children and have seen how smart, empathetic, and interested in history they can be. Please embrace these positives.
Just look at these smart 2nd graders learning about gold panning in their westward expansion unit!
I’m grateful to everyone out there who read one of my blog posts, attended a program at CCHS, or bought my book. As you may have noticed, I’m not a historian who is interested in the “big” popular stories. Sure, they’re fine and all, but I like the weird stuff, the small tales that normally get lost when we look at the past. My favorite kind of history is infused with humor. I’m particularly proud of Curiosities of Elmira and would be remiss if I didn’t take one more opportunity to shamelessly promote it.

I’ve worked hard to bring our local history to you in new and novel ways, with our History They Didn’t Teach You in School series being my favorite of our successes (don’t forget to sign up for Joy! in December). Thanks to everyone who attended these programs, let us be totally silly, and threw things at Bruce (you’ll understand what that means if you’ve been to the programs…). You always made it fun for me to lead those tours. I also can't leave this blog post without mentioning my alter-ego Mark the Mammoth. I hope you follow him on Twitter. Having built his account from nothing to mini-celebrity, he is strangely one of the parts of this job I will have the most trouble letting go of.

Is it weird that Mark is one of the things I'll miss most about this job?
I won’t go on and wax poetic here for much longer. As you know, my coworkers, Bruce, Erin, Christine, and Rachel are fantastic and smart. I’ve been lucky to have a chance to spend the last 5 years learning from them. They’ll be stuck picking up the slack while they wait to hire my replacement, so please be extra nice to them in this transition period as they add even more work to their busy schedules. And please be as nice to the new educator as you all were to me. If you find yourself in the Catskills, please feel free to say hi!