Monday, July 27, 2015

Sue Your Way to Freedom

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

When the Fugitive Slave Act was signed into law in 1850 it angered many northerners.  The law required that all law enforcement officials throughout the country (even in free states) arrest anyone accused of being a runaway slave and imposed a $1,000 fine (approximately $28,000 in present-day value) for any who refused to do so.  Suspected slaves received no trails and had no recourse for appeals, putting free-born blacks in serious danger of being kidnapped and taken south under false pretenses.  Any civilians who aided escaped slaves could face 6 months in prison and a $1,000 fine.  There was, however, a loophole: it only applied to slaves who entered free states and territories without their masters’ permission. 

On August 11, 1853, Jervis Langdon, Jared Arnold, and their attorney Mr. Woods petitioned the court of behalf of Miss Juda Barber, a 20-year-old slave.  Miss Barber was owned by a Mr. Barber of Missouri and had been lent to a Mr. Warner to act as a lady’s maid for his wife on their trip to Horseheads, New York.  Before they left, she had promised her master that she would return, but once she was here she decided to seek her freedom.  Woods argued that New York was a free state and Miss Barber was being illegally held against her will.  After hearing the case, Judge Arial Thurston, an avowed abolitionist and Underground Railroad supporter, declared her a free woman.  Miss Barber left the courtroom with Sandy Brandt and John Jones and vanished into history.

Jervis Langdon was an abolitionist and financial supporter of the Underground Railroad.  He helped to pay for Miss Barber's lawsuit.
Judge Arial Thurston was a personal friend of Underground Railroad conductor John Jones and had sheltered fugitives in his own home.  His ruling in the Barber case was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
The interesting thing about the case is that it was neither the first nor the last time a slave transported to a free state sued for freedom.  The last such case was, in fact, the famous Dred Scott v. Sandford heard by the Supreme Court in 1857.  Like Juda Barber, the slave Dred Scott had been transported by his master to a free state and sued for his freedom.  Scott lost his initial case and appealed to the higher court which not only upheld the lower court’s ruling but also held that blacks, whether slave or free, could not be citizens and thus had no right to sue at all.  The ruling was later nullified by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution which granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States.  Today the Dred Scott decision is widely regarded as the worst decision ever made by the Supreme Court. 
Dred Scott unsuccessfully sued for his freedom along with that of his wife and 2 daughters in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857).  The ruling against him is widely regarded as the worst Supreme Court decision ever. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

How Did a Lake Disappear?

by Erin Doane, Curator

On the morning of April 7, 1990, the Chemung County Sheriff’s Department received an odd telephone call. They were told that the lake behind the Sullivanville Dam had disappeared. They thought it was an April fool’s joke until they saw that the 26-acre lake was, indeed, dry. This strange occurrence brought up a whole host of questions. How was the lake drained? Who emptied it? Why did they do it? And, most importantly, would the lake be refilled by May 26 when the $4.7 million dam project was scheduled to be dedicated?

Panorama of Sullivanville Dam, July 15, 2015
 The Sullivanville Dam was a highly debated project that suffered many delays before its eventual construction. In the late 1960s, Chemung County, the federal government, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) began plans for flood control in the Newtown-Hoffman Creek Watershed. The project included the Marsh Dam east of Breesport, the Park Station Dam in Erin, the Hoffman Dam on Elmira’s north side, and the Sullivanville Dam in Horseheads. The Sullivanville Dam is the largest in the Newtown-Hoffman network. The earthen dam is 70 feet high, 450-feet wide, and 2,400-feet long with a 26-acre surface area. It reduced the risk of flooding in Horseheads and the east side of Elmira by an estimated 80 percent and provided protection to 530 people, 151 homes, and 73 commercial, industrial and public buildings when it was completed in 1988. But it was almost never built.

In 1979 the U.S. Soil Conservation Service declared that no more flood control projects in the Newtown-Hoffman Creek Watershed program should be built because the cost of the projects, including the Sullivanville Dam, could not be justified by flood control benefits. While it was estimated that the Sullivanville Dam would significantly reduce flooding in Elmira and Horseheads, the $4.5 million cost would only result in an estimated benefit of $3.3 million.

There was also local opposition to the Sullivanville Dam. When the project moved forward again in 1984 local legislators argued that it was not cost-effective. For the project, Chemung County had to acquire a total of 230 acres of private land made up of 32 properties in the towns of Horseheads and Veteran including eight family homes. Several homeowner did not want to give up their homes and land, delaying the project further. Even as the bulldozers were starting to move earth in 1988, protesters were seeking a federal court injunction to stop construction. The project also forced a portion of Route 13 to be rerouted.

On May 31, 1988, after nearly 25 years of arguments and delays, a contingent of local, state, and federal officials ceremoniously dug the first shovelfuls of dirt. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service designed the dam and paid the Cold Spring Construction Co. of Akron, New York $4.73 million to construct it. Less than two years later, the dam was finished. Its official dedication was held on May 26, 1990 and, yes, the lake had refilled with water by then. Natural runoff and snow in the watershed refilled the lake in less than a week.

Sullivanvilled Dam when it was completed, 1990
It took at least two strong people to break into the valve mechanism on top of the dam to drain the lake. They used a hacksaw to cut the lock on the manhole and a pry bar to lift the lid and access the valves. Fortunately, whoever perpetrated this prank/crime did not damage the valves. Once opened, the valves released a slow but steady stream of water from the lake. It is thought that the valves may have been opened on Thursday night or Friday morning and that the water level dropped so slowly that no one noticed until Saturday morning.

Manhole on the top of the dam
I never found a report of who emptied the lake or even if anyone had been caught. For some time before the Dam’s dedication there had been requests for the sheriff to increase patrols of the area. Neighbors had complained of cars drag racing on the closed stretch of Route 13 and people holding wild parties. Perhaps it was thoughtless vandals who opened the dam’s valves. Perhaps it was done as a continued protest against the construction of the dam.

July 15, 2015
Today, you can fish and hike at the Sullivanville Dam. It is one of 73 parks within Chemung County. This summer CCHS is celebrating public green spaces, like the Sullivanville Dam, with the exhibit Parks and Recreation and the Parks and Recreation Contest. By offering prizes like wristbands and backpacks, we hope to encourage people to visit all parts of the county and enjoy some of the wide variety of parks this area has to offer. Click here for more information about the contest

Monday, July 13, 2015

Chemung County's Famous Train and Trolley-Riding Dogs

by Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

I spent part of this last week putting together a conference proposal about Railroad Jack, a train-riding dog based out of Albany, NY, who was nationally famous in the 1880s and 1890s.  When I'm not busy researching Chemung County for our exhibits, blog posts, and programs, my work focuses on the rise of canine celebrity in the late 19th century.  Fortunately, these two intersect occasionally and I can sometimes write about famous Chemung County dogs.  In this post, I'll tell you about some of Chemung County's trolley and train dogs.

In the late 19th century, there was a trend of dogs gaining recognition for their train-riding prowess.  The most famous example is the United States Post Office's Owney, a terrier mutt who road the mail trains out of Albany.  He is still remembered today and his taxidermied body is on display at the US Postal Museum.  However, Owney was only one of many dogs who lived in rail yards, road trains, and befriended rail workers.   The exploits of train dogs, even those who were less famous, were published in newspapers and magazines throughout the country.  These tales are often heavily embellished, but still indicate that many dogs closely associated themselves with trains.  This is likely for several reasons: strays found attention and food at rail yards and stations and some dogs probably enjoyed the movement of trains (like dogs in cars today).

Chemung County played host to travelling dogs, including Railroad Jack.  In 1890, Jack came to Elmira and the railroad workers brought him to the Elmira Telegram office to have a play date with the newspaper's famous dog mascot, Colonel.  
Drawing of Railroad Jack clipped from a newspaper.  This is in our collection in the scrapbook of Elmira Police Chief Levi Little.  The scrapbook is primarily clippings about crimes, but Little clipped an occasional pop culture piece.  Railroad Jack was one of those few non-crime stories that Little cared enough about to add to his scrapbook.
But the county's homegrown travelling dogs are pretty interesting, too. For example, in 1894, the papers reported that an Erie yard switchman brought his black and tan dog with him to work.  The dog reportedly was fond of quickly ducking under and out from moving train cars, riding on the steps of the engine and in the cab, chasing off tramps and other dogs, and then eating his dinner in the switch shanty.

Elmira also had trolley dogs.  The image below shows a trolley line car, probably in the late 19th century.  If you look closely at the road on the far right side of the image, you'll see a small, fuzzy image of a collie.  On the back of the image, someone noted that the dog always followed the line cars. 
The dog is on the far right side of the image.  On an unrelated note, I'm glad I didn't have to use that rickety-looking line car!
Elmira even had its own Railroad Jack (this was an exceptionally common name for rail dogs).  In the early 1900s, a bulldog named Jack gained local fame for chasing the trolley from Horseheads and Elmira Heights down the line to Elmira.  He did this, reportedly, everyday for years, earning the admiration of the linemen.  In August of 1906, he was falsely reported to have been killed in a trolley accident, but it evidently had been an "imposter."  In September of 1906, however, Jack retired.  One day he was chasing the trolley as usual, but he became tired around the Reformatory and stopped to lay down by the tracks.  This was the first time Jack ever stopped chasing the moving trolley.  He walked over to the nearby Stearns silk mill where the employees fed him.  Apparently he decided this was a more favorable arrangement, and he was adopted as the Stearns mascot.  Jack's trolley-chasing job was apparently taken over by a deaf dog named Dummy.  However, the train workers didn't respect him as much because he would ride the trolley when he got tired, which was something Jack wouldn't do.
Train dogs still got some attention a few decades later, but the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the height of the train dog craze.  In 1937, a dog named Jack the Bum, who was based out of Scranton, PA, was shot and killed.  Jack was famous for riding the trains on the Lackawanna line and was a frequent visitor to Elmira.  George E. Griffis, an engineer from Elmira who took many trips with Jack in the engine, memorialized him in the newspaper.  He said that he would ride with his head out of the windows and "that dog would brush cinders from his eyes with his paws, same as any man."

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Farewell Archie Kieffer

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

Back when I first started working here, County Historian Archie Kieffer was the only man in an office full of women.  None of us ladies were locals so any time we had a question we just went down the hall to his office because he always knew the answer.  Archie was free with hugs and life advice too.  He called us his girls.  We called him our grandpa and we loved him.
Archie and his 'girls': Casey Lewis, Amy Wilson, Archie Kieffer, Rachel Dworkin, Kerry Lippincott & Peggy Malorzo

J. Arthur Kieffer (1921-2015) was born and raised in Elmira.  In his youth, Archie was a ladies’ man and dance hall Romeo who seriously considered a career as a pro-golfer before his father set him straight.  During World War II, he served first as a dog trainer on Long Island and then in as a tail gunner in the 459 Bomb Group in the U.S. Army Air Corp.  It was while he was serving on Long Island that he met his wife Sophie at a USO dance.  After the war, Archie worked for Streeter Associates as a mason foreman and then as superintendent of County Buildings and Grounds from 1966 to 1983.  We used to joke that there wasn’t anything built after 1950 that he hadn’t had a hand in.
Archie and his WWII B24 bomber crew.  Archie is the one posing front and center.
While construction was his work, history was his passion, or at least one of them (the other being dahlias).  He served as the chairman of the Chemung County Bicentennial Commission in 1976.  He became Chemung County Historian in 1991 and served until his retirement in 2013.  Archie was the author of The Junction Canal as well as his own autobiography.  He also penned dozens of lectures and articles in the Chemung Historical Journal.   
Archie as chairman of the Chemung County Bicentennial Commission, 1976
During his 94 years, Archie touched a lot of lives.  He served on the Chemung County Board of Supervisors and was actively involved in every club and association from the American Legion to the Veteran Historical Society.  He was the sort of man who made friends where ever he went.  Archie was my friend and I will miss him.

Archie and me