Monday, April 27, 2020

The Smallpox Epidemic at the Elmira Prison Camp

By Gary Emerson
Speaker in 2020 CCHS Civil War Speaker Series
Schuyler County Historian
PhD candidate in American History at Binghamton University

(Mr. Emerson has recorded his Civil War talk for us to post on our video page of Facebook on 4/30, this timely blog highlights some of the topic he will cover.)

 The smallpox epidemic that struck the Elmira Prison Camp during the Civil War provides a didactic message for the present. With the proper precautions, the epidemic could have been managed with a minimal loss of life, but without the preventative steps or proper social distancing the virus spread and became the third leading killer at the prison camp. 

Elmira Prison Camp
Smallpox was a feared disease in the 19th century. Before the rise of germ theory, medical science did not know what caused smallpox and had no cure for it. To this day, there is no cure. The only available tool was prevention. Isolation, vaccination, and inoculation were the main methods of smallpox prevention, and they were applied too late at Elmira. 



All Civil War prison camps were visited by smallpox, with most experiencing similar problems in bringing it under control, even though the means for preventing it were widely known. The spread of crowd diseases, like smallpox, became one of the unintended consequences of the decision to establish military prison camps during the war, as nature and the environment became another enemy to battle with.


The presence of smallpox in the prison camp presented the possibility that it could spread to the civilian population in Elmira. By good fortune it did not, but the city leaders took the precaution of establishing a pest house to allow for the isolation of any cases that should crop up. The Elmira pest house was maintained into the early 20th century as a first line of defense whenever smallpox or any other contagious disease visited the area.



Today, we must defend against a new virus that threatens our well-being. Many of the lessons applicable in 1865 are still important in our current response to covid-19. Let us hope that people heed those lessons well to lessen the impact of the illness, while we wait for a vaccine to bolster our arsenal against it.

Join our Facebook page on Thursday April 30th at 7 pm for a recorded talk by Gary Emerson.


Friday, April 17, 2020

Typhoid and Thatcher Glass Manufacturing Company

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

The other day, I watched an interesting YouTube video on the long-term cultural and political impact of the Bubonic Plague in Western Europe. At this point, it’s too early in the game to speculate about the fallout from COVID-19, but you would be surprised at just how much earlier diseases have impacted our local economy. Let’s talk typhoid.

Typhoid is an infection caused by the bacteria Salmonella enterica entrica. Symptoms include high fever, body ache, abdominal pain, rash, and vomiting. It is contracted by consuming food or drink contaminated with feces from an infected person. Today, it is perfectly treatable with antibiotics, but, before their invention in the 1940s, it was often fatal. During the Civil War, for example, some 80,000 soldiers died of it. While there are still the occasional outbreaks throughout the developing world, typhoid is incredibly rare within the United States and one local company is part of the reason why.

During the 1880s, there were a series of typhoid outbreaks across upstate New York. Dr. Harvey D. Thatcher of Potsdam, New York, was convinced contaminated milk was the culprit and began devising a way to fight the spread. In those days, the collecting of milk was extremely unsanitary. Cows were milked into open pails in barns filled with dust and dung, often by farmers who had not washed their hands. In 1883, he patented a device he called the milk protector which allowed the milk to flow into a covered container without human hands coming in contact with either the milk or the cow. It was a step in the right direction, but it still wasn’t enough for Thatcher.

Dr. Harvey Thatcher
At the time, the milkman would come around with a large can from which he would ladle a customer’s milk into a vessel of their choice. In the spring of 1884, Thatcher was horrified to witness a little girl dropping her rag doll into an open can of milk, only for the milkman to fish it out and continue serving her mother. For the next two years, Thatcher worked on perfecting a sealable, reusable glass milk bottle to prevent such contamination. In 1886, he obtained a patent and began having his bottles hand blown by a company in New Jersey. Throughout the 1880s, he made a series of improvements to his designs to make them easier to seal and manufacture.

Thatcher's first bottle design

In 1898, Elmira lawyer and businessman Francis Baldwin met Dr. Thatcher and soon purchased the company. Hand blowing the bottles was slow going and he wanted to try making them on the Owens vacuum machine, which would allow for fully automated manufacturing. Over the next decade, he opened plants in Kane, Pennsylvania (1906); Streeter, Illinois (1909); and Elmira, New York (1913).

Throughout the 1900s and 1910s, the company campaigned hard to get dairy farmers to see their sealed, reusable glass bottles as a more sanitary and economical alternative to the old milk cans. By the 1930s, states and municipalities across the country had laws requiring the use of milk bottles for distribution. As series of competitors sprang up across the country, producing bottles for local their dairies.

The Elmira plant was located just north of Eldridge Park. At the time, it was the largest milk bottle manufacturing plant in the world at 86,000 square feet with three furnaces capable of producing 500 bottles a day. The plant continued to expand. During its heyday, it was making 1.25 million bottles a day. In 1957, they employed 1,350 people locally with an annual payroll of over $6 million. Although the company had half-a-dozen plants across the country, Elmira was the corporate headquarters. In 1962, they constructed a research center in Big Flats on the corner of Colonial Drive and County Road 35.

Aerial view of the Elmira plant, ca. 1960s

Thatcher Glass Manufacturing Company became a subdivision of Dart Industries in 1966. In 1985, they were acquired by Diamond-Bathurst which then went bust in 1987. Today the site is the home of Anchor Glass, which still uses it to make bottles. Between 1913 and now, literally thousands of Chemung County residents have had jobs, all thanks to one man’s quest to stop the spread of typhoid.

Monday, April 13, 2020

It’s a Twister! A Twister!

by Erin Doane, Curator

Reading Susan’s post last week about the “Welcome to Elmira” sign on West Church Street reminded me that we also had a welcome sign on West Water Street up until 2012. On July 26 of that year, a tornado swept through Elmira, and that welcome sign was one of the casualties.

Google Street View of the Welcome to Elmira sign on
West Water Street near Kennedy Valve from May 2012
New York is not particularly tornado-prone, but there have been more than 400 recorded tornadoes in the state since 1950. The earliest reference to a tornado in Chemung County that I found was on September 25, 1881. American Architect and Architecture, a publication by J.R. Osgood & Company, reported that year that:
A terrible hurricane struck Elmira, N.Y., at 4:30 p.m. accompanied by a severe storm of rain. A vast amount of damage was done in about two minutes, the duration of the storm. Entire roofs, with their heavy timbers, were blown hundreds of feet; the Rathbun house was unroofed, and the spire of Hedding Methodist Church was blown across the street into a yard. About two tons of bricks were deposited in the organ of the First Presbyterian Church. Several brick buildings had holes blown clear through them. The storm was preceded by an earthquake.
While the publication called it a “hurricane,” a contemporaneous newspaper report called it a “cyclone,” and it is clear from the description that it was a tornado.

Jumping forward 131 years, Elmira was once again struck by a tornado. The twister touched down at Harris Hill Manor off Route 352 just before 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, July 26, 2012. It traveled east through West Elmira then into the city, crossing the Clemens Center Parkway near Water Street and continuing to Jerusalem Hill. The EF-1 tornado with 105-110 mph winds was on the ground for nearly nine miles, and left $10 million of destruction in its wake. It knocked out power to about 24,000 homes and businesses, dropped trees on building and vehicles, and blew off the roof over the ladies room at Dunn Field, but there were, surprisingly, no injuries reported.

Aerial view of damage in an Elmira-area neighborhood from the 2012
tornado, Star-Gazette, July 28, 2012, photo by David Wivell
The 2012 tornado was just one of several to have hit Chemung County over the last few years. Just a year earlier on April 28, 2011, and EF-2 tornado with winds up to 135 mph touched down in the Town of Erin. The twister was about a quarter mile wide, and was on the ground for nearly three quarters of a mile. It was part of a massive storm system with high winds (though not a tornado) that caused significant damage at the Millport Cemetery. Two other funnels that were part of the storm touched down in the towns of Danby and Ithaca in Tompkins County. The one that hit Erin destroyed houses and barns. In one case, it picked up an 11,000 pound camper, and threw it over a five-foot tall fence into a neighboring property. Despite all the destruction, no major injuries were report.

Star-Gazette headline, April 29, 2011
On Tuesday, September 2, 2014, an EF-1 tornado touched down in the Town of Baldwin at around 7:10 p.m. It was on the ground for about 5-10 minutes on a six-mile-long track from just east of Elston Hollow Road, across Breesport-North Chemung Road to Federal Road. It damaged homes, ripped up trees, completely destroyed at least one barn, and threw a pickup truck about 12 feet, but, again, there were no reported injuries.

Photo of tornado damage in Baldwin, Star-Gazette, September 4, 2014
There were several injuries when a tornado tore through parts of Chemung and Tioga Counties in New York and Tioga County, Pennsylvania back in 1983. The most severe damage happened in the Town of Chemung. The twister reached the intersection of Hilliker Road and Rotary Extension in Chemung at around 8:00 p.m. on Monday, May 2 on its 15-mile path through the three counties. There were actually two funnels that touched down in the town. They caused extensive property damage, including the destruction of nine house trailers. Six people were injured, and $1.2 million in damage was done in Chemung alone.

Path of the 1983 tornado, Star-Gazette, May 4, 1983
Many harrowing stories from the 1983 tornado appeared in the Star-Gazette in the days that followed. Frank Olmstead and his wife Pat were at home on Dry Brook Road with their two children when the tornado struck. Their 12-year-old son Shawn, who was standing by the door, was caught by the wind and whipped out of the house. Pat chases him into the yard and jumped on top of him to shield him from the swirling winds and flying debris. In another home, 19-month-old Ricky Bellows was sleeping peacefully as his house trailer was torn apart around him. He was found, still sound asleep, under a collapsed wall that had protected him from the storm.

Do you have any stories to tell about local tornadoes? Share them here in the comments, and we’ll add them to the museum’s archive!

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Seven Muses of Elmira


by Susan Zehnder, Education Director 

Traveling west on Church Street, drivers pass a large welcome sign with larger-than-life images of seven people connected with Elmira’s history.




The slogan “Welcome to Elmira: Honoring the Past and Building the Future” is at the bottom, and behind the figures is an image of Samuel Clemens’s distinctive octagon study now located on the Elmira College campus. This slogan was selected from a contest that had over 600 entries, and is a combination of three of those submissions. They were sent in by Marlin B. Stewart from Elmira, Alan and Barbara Hutchinson from Elmira, and James M. Lloyd of Horseheads.

Installed in February 2004, the $40,000 sign replaced a more generic welcome sign. That sign had a stylized glider, road and hills. It had been originally installed in 1986, and refurbished in 1994.


The current sign puts a face on Elmira by honoring famous people in the city’s history. They’re not identified on the sign, and today not all visitors, newcomers, or children know who they are, and what they represent.

In the back row, left to right:

  • Brian Williams-TV Journalist Williams arrived in Elmira as a young boy. He made a name for himself in broadcast news.
  • Ernie Davis-Athlete and scholar Davis arrived in Elmira as a youngster. His local athletic accomplishments earned him a football scholarship to Syracuse where he excelled at football and graduated with an Economics degree. Elected as the first African American Heisman Trophy winner, his career was cut short by illness. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
  • John W. Jones-Civil War hero Jones arrived in Elmira and became a key leader in the local Underground Railroad and at Woodlawn National Cemetery. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.

In the front row, left to right:

  • Hal Roach-Movie producer Roach was born in Elmira. He is best known for popular films featuring comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. He is buried in nearby Woodlawn Cemetery.
  • Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain-Writer and humorist Twain married an Elmira native and for twenty years spent summers in the area, writing many of his well-known stories.
  • Eileen Collins-Astronaut Collins was born and grew up in Elmira. Collins was the first female pilot and first female commander of a space shuttle.
  •  Tommy Hilfiger-Fashion Designer Hilfiger was born and grew up in Elmira. He opened a clothing store here in 1969 called “The People’s Place.” When it closed, he moved operations to New York City.
In 2015, a controversy arose around the sign when newscaster Brian Williams, the figure on the far left, was discovered to have fabricated some of his own history. People in the area questioned his suitability on the sign as a person Elmira would or should be proud of.

NBC suspended Williams without pay for six months, relieving him from his position as Managing Editor and Anchor of NBS’s Nightly News. In June of that year, he was demoted to breaking news anchor for MSNBC. Two months later he was promoted to be MSNBC’s chief anchor, and today he set to co-anchor the network’s coverage of the upcoming 2020 United States Presidential election.

It was determined that editing Williams off the sign would just damage it. Addressing the controversy, Elmira’s mayor in 2015 responded "After examining our sign in its entirety, I find that it is showing its age. So it is possible that the whole sign may come down for that reason only." Five years later, the 3,000 lb. sign remains as it was originally installed. 

In August 2019, local news reported that Elmira’s City Manager was aware the sign was showing signs of wear.