Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Saving for the Future

by Erin Doane, curator

The building that now houses the Chemung County Historical Society was once the original Chemung Canal bank. It opened in 1833 as the first bank in Elmira. Amman Beardsley designed and built the two and a half story brick structure, combining elements of Greek Revival and Federal styles.  The brick construction was unusual because most buildings in Elmira were made of wood at that time.

Chemung Canal Trust Co., c. 1905
In 1868, a third floor was added.  The new windows and cornice were done in the Italianate style. The banking facilities were located on the first floor, business tenants occupied the second floor, and the new third floor had rental apartments for single young men. Noted architects Pierce and Bickford renovated the building in 1903. At that time, decorative features such as mahogany counters and terrazzo flooring were added as well as two more vaults. Visitors can see the large vaults in our main gallery.

Bank Vaults at the museum
The Chemung Canal Bank was originally chartered in the 1860s as publically owned company. The Arnot family took over ownership of the bank in 1857 and ran it as a private business until 1903 when it returned to public ownership. In 1920, the bank moved to new headquarters at the corner of State and Water Streets. For many years after that this building housed law offices and apartments. The Chemung County Historical Society purchased the building and it opened as a museum in 1982.

Many features of the banking floor remain 
in the museum gallery including the wood 
columns, terrazzo flooring, and tin ceiling.
People deposited their savings here when it was still an active bank. Money was kept safe in the formidable steel and concrete vaults. Many people also kept a stash of cash and change at home. The museum has a great collection of small savings banks ranging from the 1870s through the 1980s. We have wooden, metal, and plastic banks and even a couple mechanical banks. Here are a few examples:

The Tammany Bank of 1873 is a mechanical bank. 
When “Boss” Tweed is handed a coin he puts it into his pocket.

The Union Bank, made by Kenton Brand 
around 1905, has a combination lock.

Traditional piggy bank that is also a souvenir of Elmira, early 20th century

Cast iron camel, rabbit, and elephant banks, early 20th century

A generic Bank bank from the early 20th century

Wooden Presbyterian Church bank “used to 
House Money and to Pay Off Mortgage,” 1930s

The Uncle Sam’s Register bank from the 1930s 
records change as it is deposited and has an 
added security feature – the bank will lock 
when the first $.25 is added and it will stay 
locked until it reaches $10.00.

These banks from Mechanics Savings Bank of Elmira and Elmira Bank & 
Trust Co. from the 1940s record the amount of change as it is deposited.

The plastic Tarco Juke Bank, made around 1948, lights up when a coin is deposited.

Chemung Canal bank produced for its 150th anniversary in 1983.


  1. Really great! A perfect building for such a great repository of historical treasures!
    Any chance there is a photo of the building pre-1868 when it was two-stories?

    1. Thank you. Unfortunately we don't have an image of the building from then. We wish we did!

  2. I am sure that those who are collecting toy banks would really enjoy this article and it is a neat thing to find out where our Chemung County Historical Society came to be located and how it was the original place of the Chemung Canal Bank

  3. I have a rabbit bank just like the one in your picture,it was given to me back in the 50's from my Grandmother who lived in Mn. I wish I had more information about the bank.