Monday, March 31, 2014

In the Bear Pit: Violent Entertainment at Eldridge Park

by Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

Update: You can read more about the bear pit in my book Curiosities of Elmira.

One of the cool things about history is that you get to see how much things change (and also stay the same).  As a historian, one of my favorite subjects to study is popular entertainment in the Gilded Age.  Many of their past times are quite recognizable to us 21st century folk: this was the genesis of baseball, circuses, places like Coney Island, and more.  However, there are some that are a little more foreign to most of us (often for good reason).  One such amusement was the bear pit.

A bear pit is exactly what it sounds like: people construct a concrete-lined hole in the ground and put bears in it.  Surrounding the pit is typically railing or fencing of some sort so spectators can peer down at the bears from a safe distance.  Bear pits were popular both in the US and abroad.  Bern, Switzerland's famous B√§rengraben (bear pit) is still a major feature of that city today, although it has been greatly expanded from a pit into a park.  19th century Elmirans were right on trend, having two bear pits: one in Eldridge Park and another at Rorrick's Glen.
Stereoscope card showing the Eldridge Park bear pit and its two Grizzly bears (likely Bruin and Queen)
The Eldridge Park bear pit is what I'm going to focus on here because it was better known and because it is the one for which we have the most source material.  The pit was constructed in 1891 and was filled with a male and female Grizzly bear and a female Cinnamon bear.  The 50 x 20 foot brick and stone structure cost an estimated $3,000 and was tangled up in some political hullabaloo from the get-go.  In addition to controversy over the expense,  a Telegram reporter used the pit as a metaphor for a local election, with a human-faced, Fassett-supporting sea serpent emerging near the bear pit while a bear responded by saying, "Wow! I hate you...I'm for Flood." 

Park Commissioner T. McCarthy Fennell was no supporter of the early bear pit and called for it to be replaced with iron cages to prevent the possibility of children falling into the pit.  The paper commented,  "It will be remembered that this bear pit has caused more bitterness in local politics than all other things combined, and Mr. Fennell is certainly a daring commissioner to even hinting at its removal, desecration or substitution."

Although Fennell's changes don't appear to have been instituted, his fears were not unwarranted.  In 1891, a boy nearly fell in the pit, but "was rescued with the loss of his hat, and while the Ursus Americani made tatters of his head-gear, he was led away, meek-eyed and shame-faced, but prayerfully thankful that the bears had nothing more animate than a twenty-five cent hat to exercise their jaws upon." Also, by the early 1900s people lamented the condition of the pit, noting its corroding railings and foul odor.  

Stereoscope card showing bears in the pit.  The construction date, 1891, is shown above the door.

Dangers to people aside, the pit also wasn't a great place for the bears.  A group of 4th of July revelers were broken up after they were discovered throwing peanuts and firecrackers into the pit.  The bears normal hibernation patterns were also interrupted as they were kept in the pit year round. 

The biggest danger to the bears, however, came from fights.  There was apparently an annual spring bear fight in the pit.  Bear fights and bear-baiting have a long, violent history as popular entertainment throughout the world, and they were apparently enjoyed here, as well.  The 1906 fight left the female Grizzly dead and left the male, Bruin, with "no wife to growl at or mate to fight... If it was a family jar, it probably resulted from a bear hug."  The year before, the female Grizzly, Queen, killed the smaller Cinnamon bear and had to be beaten off her victim with iron poles.     
A bear in a show from an unidentified location (possibly not related to the bear pit)
I'm not sure how long the bear pit remained at Eldridge Park, but we have architectural drawings showing planned renovations to the pit as late as 1937.   
Plans for renovations to the bear pit, 1937
 The bear pit is a violent part of our local history, but one that is worth remembering.  Bears have since been and are still used for entertainment, often abusively.  However, views on animal welfare have fortunately changed in recent decades, so hopefully bear pit culture is behind us. 

Bear in a show, 20th century.


  1. Dog fights, cock fights, and such are still popular in some isolated cultures, but bear fights, right here in Elmira as late as 80 or 90 years ago?