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.