Monday, July 1, 2019

Steaming Up the Chemung

by Erin Doane, Curator

In the 1890s, a steam-powered sternwheeler named Bertha Taylor would cruise up and down the Chemung River ferrying passengers from a small dock at the foot of Columbia Street in Elmira to Rorick’s Glen and Hoffman Island. On July 4, 1891, the boat made the trip every two hours starting at 9 o’clock in the morning. The cost of the roundtrip fare was just 20 cents.

The steamer Bertha Taylor on the Chemung River
Bertha Taylor was owned and operated by Isaac Rood Taylor (b. April 16, 1851 - d. December 2, 1921). He named the steamer after his oldest daughter, Bertha, who was born around 1883. It was not a very large boat at only 20 feet long, but the shallow river would not have been able to accommodate a bigger craft. Taylor was captain, purser, engineer, mate, and pilot of the boat, and was fondly referred to as “Captain Taylor,” “Admiral Taylor,” and even “Commodore Taylor.” 

Bertha Taylor just below Mount Zoar’s Mosquito Glen
The little steamer was mentioned in the Star-Gazette on July 23, 1892. A party of about 15 young men and women had planned to take a moonlight cruise up the river, but when they arrived at the dock to board the boat, storm clouds were rolling in. Instead of going out on the river, they decided to hop on the local electric streetcar and take a ride. At about 9 o’clock in the evening, the storm came crashing down on them with lightning and torrential rain. It knocked out the power to the trolley line and the young people found themselves stranded near Eldridge Park for nearly an hour. Their mothers, thinking they were out on the Bertha Taylor during the tremendous storm, “suffered all the terrible suspense that only mothers can experience.”

Bertha Taylor towing a line of flat-bottomed boats
Bertha Taylor made it into the newspaper again on September 16, 1892. This time, it was reported that the steamer had sunk in about five feet of water between Columbia and Davis Streets. It was easy enough to salvage the small boat from the shallow river, but the limited depth of the water was sometimes a problem for Taylor. When the weather was particularly dry, his boat would occasionally get stuck. The men on board would either have to climb out and wade to the shore or help push the small craft into deeper waters. 

Bertha Taylor
Taylor kept operating his steamer on the Chemung River until the enterprise stopped being profitable. Then it is said that he “gave the boat to a man he had a grudge against.” I wasn’t able to find the exact date that he stopped running the Bertha Taylor, but by 1910, an article in the Star-Gazette was asking if people remembered when Rood Taylor had his small boat on the river.

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