Monday, February 29, 2016

This Train is Bound for Glory

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

On August 1, 1851, R.W. Thompson, a black barber from Owego, New York, purchased a first class ticket to travel to Seneca Lake on the New York and Erie Railroad along with his wife and sister-in-law.  Upon reaching Elmira, they were approached by the conductor, John McWilliams, and asked to move to the colored section of the train car.  Thompson refused and that’s when the story got complicated.  According to the Owego Gazette, Mr. Thompson was tackled by 8 or 10 railroad employees and forcibly thrown off the train while Mrs. Thompson was locked out on the platform of the rear car until the train reached Horseheads.  The Elmira Gazette, however, reported that Thompson was forcibly moved to the colored car and then chose to remove himself from the train in protest.  Within a week, Thompson and his attorney George Sidney Camp, Esq. had filed suit against McWilliams and the railroad.  I was unable to find any record of who won.

The press coverage of the incident was, unsurprisingly, painfully racist, even the stuff which supported Thompson.  Here are some choice examples:

Owego Gazette, August 7, 1851.  This is an example of what modern civil rights activists call "respectability politics."
Elmira Gazette, August 14, 1851.  Why bother fighting racism when it's just so upsetting and inconvenient for everyone involved?

In 1890, Louisiana became the first state to mandate that railroad companies have separate cars for blacks and whites with the infamous Separate Car Act.  The act was wildly unpopular with both blacks, who thought it was racist, and the railroad companies, who thought it was too expensive to implement.   On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, a mix-race civil rights activist working with the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens), boarded a whites-only train car on the East Louisiana Railroad in deliberate defiance of that state’s Separate Car Act.  Plessy and the Comité des Citoyens, along with the railroad company, had arranged to have Plessy arrested specifically so they could challenge the constitutionality of the law under the grounds that it violated the Thirteenth and Fourteen Amendments to the Constitution.  Unfortunately, the plan backfired.  Badly.  After losing at every level of the courts, Plessy brought to case to the Supreme Court of the United States where, on May 18, 1896, the court upheld the law in a 7-1 decision establishing ‘separate but equal’ as the law of the land.  It was not until Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) when the court realized that separate was inherently unequal.  Even then, it took the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to officially prohibit segregation. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Baby It's Cold Outside

by Erin Doane, curator
Child in fur-lined coat and hat, 1880s
From pretty much the beginning of human existence, we have been wearing fur to stay warm. The museum has a fairly large collection of items made with fur, from coats and stoles to muffs and fur-lined boots. Some pieces were made for functionality, like the coat and mittens Ross Marvin wore on his first Arctic expedition, while others were obviously made only for fashion, like this hat decorated with ermine tails.
Hat decorated with ermine tails and veil, 1950
In the Victorian era, fur was used on all sorts of clothing and accessories. Both winter and summer dresses were decorated with fur trim. Coats and capes with fur cuffs and collars were popular with both men and women. Wide fur stoles and plush muffs provided warmth and style.

Voided velvet cape with fur trim, 1880
Fur-lined carriage boots, 1890s
Woman wearing a wide fur stole, 1860s
Over the years, nearly every type of fur has been used in fashionable clothing and accessories. Furs from mink, sable, and fox never go out of fashion while furs from monkeys, dogs, and skunks were only trendy for short periods of time. Perhaps one of the most disturbing furs that seems to stay in fashion is known as astrakhan. The beautiful tight, curly fur is taken from fetal karakul lambs.
Astrakhan and velveteen muff, 1910s
The “modern fur coat,” with fur worn on the outside rather than as a lining, first appeared in the mid-19th century but did not gain popularity until the early 20th century. In the 1920s, people wore large, full fur coats to stay warm while traveling in open motorcars. Similarly, college men wore raccoon coats while attending football games. By the middle of the century, new techniques of processing and dying furs made it possible for more people than ever before to own fur coats.

Man's fur coat, late 19th-early 20th century
Ladies in fur coats, 1946
The museum has collected many pieces of fur, not only because they are examples of historic fashion but also because of the stories they tell. The coat pictured below was made by Jesse Green Furrier, Elmira. The donor told the story of how his wife took pelts that were trapped-locally to Jesse Green to have them made into a coat.  He remembered her traveling several times to Elmira for fittings while it was being made. Then she came home with the truly one-of-a-kind, hand-made fur coat.

Front and back views of coat made by Jesse Green Furrier
One other fur in our collection has a very interesting story that I just learned several weeks ago. This fur pelt brings us back to arctic explorer, Ross Marvin. The museum has many of his items including clothing and personal souvenirs from his voyage. Among his things is what I assumed to be a wolf’s pelt, as there was little documentation in our records. A short time ago, Kelli came across a 1931 Elmira Star-Gazette article about Marvin’s collection with a list of items. On that list was “one Eskimo dog skin (taken from a dog eaten by Marvin on his first expedition to keep from starving.)”

Eskimo dog skin brought back by Ross Marvin, 1905

Monday, February 15, 2016

That Time Grover Cleveland Was Assaulted By An Elmiran

by Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

When I wrote the blog post about a mob assaulting Governor Theodore Roosevelt on the streets of Elmira, I figured that it was a singular incident.  I was wrong.  In 1884 (16 years before the Roosevelt assault), an Elmira man assaulted then-Governor Grover Cleveland in Albany.  It turns out that while peaceful political disagreement hasn't always been our strong suit, assaulting future presidents has.

On the morning of October 20, 1884, Samuel T. Boom of Elmira hid and waited for Governor Cleveland to make his way to his Executive Chamber in Albany.  When Cleveland made it to the intersection of Lancaster and Eagle Streets, Boom rushed him and attempted to punch the Governor twice.  When Cleveland deflected those blows, Boom went to pick up a paving stone but was stopped by a bystander. At some point in the brawl, Cleveland received a minor cut behind the ear. In the ensuing chaos, Boom ran away to his boarding house, where he was promptly arrested.  According to the press, Cleveland laughed about the attack and the news noted that Boom was "a small, delicate man." 
This sign is talking about a different type of retaliation than what Mr. Boom had planned.
Boom later acknowledged that the attack was a mistake and the complicated back story of the incident emerged.  Allegedly, Mrs. Boom had been seeking a pardon for her imprisoned brother from the Governor and his lack of a response had supposedly exacerbated her preexisting illness to the point that she was near death.  Mrs. Boom had first asked the Governor for a pardon during his visit to Elmira several weeks before the Albany assault. The Booms later went to Albany to follow-up with Cleveland and in a meeting in the Executive Chambers a few days before the assault, Cleveland told the family he hadn't gotten to examine their case yet because of the large number of other requests her received.  He did, however, tell them that the pardon was unlikely to be granted because of the opposition of the District Attorney and the Elmira police.  Boom was enraged and threatened to find out if the Governor was responsible for this and "slap his chops."  A few days after that, Mrs. Boom returned and had to be removed from the Chambers because she was in hysterics.  Mr. Boom thought that the bruises on his wife's arms were made by Cleveland.  Boom began stalking Cleveland, learning the route he took to work, as he plotted his revenge, which led to the assault.

Hat featuring Grover Cleveland on the interior. Worn by a supporter, unlike Boom.
Apparently, the Governor and the Albany police found Boom to be a rather pathetic case, because the papers reported, "The crank who assaulted Gov. Cleveland was discharged without punishment."

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Last Trolley

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

In the spring of 1932, Chemung County’s trolleys were doomed.  On April 27, the Elmira Water, Light & Railroad Company which ran the system became the Elmira Light, Heat and Power Corporation, a subsidiary of Associated Gas & Electric Company (later NYSEG).  Primarily a utility, the company had little use for trolleys.  Over the next few years, the company let the county’s once robust trolley system fall into disrepair.  Cars were run until their motors burned out and replaced with buses.  In 1938, the company requested permission from the Elmira City Council to abandon the trolleys and transition entirely to buses.  On December 30, 1938, they received their permission and got to work dismantling Chemung County’s trolley system. 

At the time, there were 30 miles of trolley tracks which ran throughout Elmira, the Heights, Horseheads, Big Flats, and Millport.  Despite their request, NYSEG did not actually have enough buses to cover all the routes.   Luckily, the Council had given them 90 days to finish making the substitutions.  On January 30, 1939, the area was hit by a heavy storm and NYSEG used to opportunity to switch out trolleys for buses on most city routes as well as the Horseheads run.  The last day of trolley service in Elmira Heights was on February 11.  The Southside service along Maple Avenue was the last to be switched over to buses on March 10, 1939.  Workers from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) started pulling up the tracks as soon as the transition was complete.
WPA Workers taking up tracks on Water Street, 1939
 On March 11, 1939, the city threw a parade to celebration the decommissioning of Elmira’s last trolley.  Hundreds of people lined the street as the trolley, ‘pulled’ by a team of horses, made one last circuit from City Hall through downtown to the car barn on Fifth Street.   As the trolley approached the car barn, the various dignitaries who had been aboard for the parade began to strip it for souvenirs.  One enterprising soul managed to remove the fuse to the air brakes.  After reaching the car bar and switching off the power, the motorman and passengers were alarmed when trolley began to roll backwards as they scrambled to get off. 
Last Trolley parade, March 11, 1939
Ralph Denmark, motorman on the final run, March 11, 1939
 At precisely 4:16 pm, A.C. Jordan, electrical superintendent of NYSEG Elmira Division, ordered the power shut off along the entire system.  The switch was flipped by Fred B. Reynolds, the man who had turned on Elmira’s first electric trolley 46 years earlier. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Life Line of the Fleet: USS Chemung

by Erin Doane, curator

The museum has recently received a couple objects related to the USS Chemung. Many people are familiar with the Navy tanker that served through World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War but I will admit that I had never heard of it until I started working here. The ship has a long, interesting history of tragedy and triumph. The Chemung was one of the largest, fastest tankers afloat during the Second World War, it was the first tanker to ever circumnavigate the globe, and, for a time, it was blamed for causing the deaths of 225 sailors aboard the USS Ingraham.

USS Chemung AO-30 – Displacement: 7,295; Length: 553’;
Beam: 45’; Draft: 32’4”; Speed: 18.5 knots; Compliment: 304;
Class: Cimarron
The tanker was first launched in 1939 by Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey. It was christened ESSO Annapolis. In 1941, the U.S. Navy commissioned the ship to join its tanker fleet and renamed it USS Chemung. Navy tankers are traditionally named after rivers and this one was named for the river that runs right through our county. In the beginning it was used to transport fuel oil between Texas and Louisiana oil ports and east coast ports but within months it was making trans-Atlantic deliveries.

Flag that flew on the USS Chemung during World War II
The main duty of the Chemung was refueling aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers, and battleships while they were at sea. William M’Gaffin, Special Correspondent to The Chicago Daily Times during World War II described such a refueling operation: 
     A big essex class carrier is selected and the tanker pulls alongside. A light line is shot across, then a messenger, and finally a rope to which is tied the pythonlike hose. A destroyer comes along on the other side, hoses are sent across to her, then telephone lines to the hose station, while the other wires connect the bridge with hers.
     The ships continue moving at fast clip through the sea, in the direction of the enemy.
     “We’re ready,” comes the word over the telephone. “Start your pumps.” “The pumps are started,” goes back the answer.
     The thick, black oil begins to flow through the hoses as the three ships proceed through the water. Keen-eyed helmsmen, the key men in the operation, keep the ships steady, even distances from each other.
     The fuel gurgles swiftly now through the snaky hoses, suspended limply on curved wooden saddles tied to booms projecting over the water. They are tended by hand on the big ships, by winch on the tankers. They are paid in and out gradually to compensate for the occasional widening and narrowing of the distances between. Three or four destroyers are re-fueled while the carrier’s thirsty innards are being filled.”

The Chemung refueling an aircraft carrier
The Chemung crossed the submarine-infested waters of the Atlantic Ocean 28 times during World War II but it did not come through the “Battle of the Atlantic” unscathed. On August 20, 1942 the tanker departed from New York with a convoy bound for the United Kingdom. Two days later, it collided with the destroyer USS Ingraham. The Ingraham was in the process of trying to recover survivors from the USS Buck which had just had its stern sliced off. The depth charges in the stern of the destroyer exploded and it sank almost immediately. All but 16 of the 241 men aboard the Ingraham were lost. The Chemung lost 30 feet of its bow and caught fire. Despite having a full load of fuel, it did not explode and the fire was extinguished without any loss of life. The tanker reached Boston on August 26 for repairs. For years, the Chemung was blamed for causing the collision but a confidential inquiry eventually absolved the Chemung of responsibility.

Pieces of shrapnel from the USS Ingraham
After repairs were completed, the Chemung went back into service. It took part in the North African invasion and was attached to the task force that invaded Sicily, Anzio, and Southern France. It even fueled Roosevelt’s convoy to Yalta in 1942. In 1945, the Chemung became the first tanker to circumnavigate the globe. It left Norfolk on July 18 and passed through the Panama Canal for service at Okinawa. In October it left to return to the United States, this time passing through the Cape of Good Hope. It finally arrived back at Norfolk on December 6. Over the course of the war, the Chemung pumped 174.3 million gallons of gas, logged 250 million sailing miles over 10 seas and oceans, and earned the nickname “Life Line of the Fleet.”

The Chemung operated with the Atlantic Fleet from November 12, 1948 until March 17, 1950 when it sailed for San Diego. It was decommissioned in July of that year and placed in reserve. It was recommissioned in 1950 for service in the Korean War and continued as part of the tanker fleet through the Vietnam War. The “Mighty Mung” received two battle stars for its World War II service and four for its service in the Korean War. The tanker was finally decommissioned on September 18, 1970 and scrapped. CCHS has a large collection of objects from the USS Chemung including ashtrays made from shell casings from the tanker’s guns, commemorative lighters, playing cards, and hats, and a sweater from the on-board basketball team. We also have a ceremonial plaque from the tanker that was presented to the museum in 1971 by the U.S. Navy through the Horseheads Naval Reserve.

Ceremonial plaque presented to CCHS in 1971
Ashtray made from spent shell casing
Lighter recently donated to CCHS
Commemorative playing cards
USS Chemung hats worn by veterans
Recently-donated sweater worn by a member of the
basketball team aboard the USS Chemung