Monday, November 27, 2017

Elmira’s True Rival City

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator
What town or city would you say is Elmira’s “rival”? You’d probably say Corning, right? Well, if you asked an Elmiran in the 19th and early 20th century, they would probably have said Binghamton without hesitation. And it makes sense when you think about it. For a good chunk of our history, Binghamton has been the nearest, similarly industrial city. Elmira and Binghamton have had the typical political, sports, and school rivalries, but over the years, residents of both cities have found even weirder things to fight about.

Let’s go back to 1888 for an example. The Elmira press lamented that Binghamton, “a rival city in all respects,” held a far better 4th of July celebration. Elmirans fled their city to go to Binghamton, leaving Elmira temporarily a ghost town. Of their own city, the reporter claimed, “Elmira is behind the age. It lacks all those things which give life and growth to a place. This may be an ugly statement but it is a true one.”

In 1893, the Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press published an article, “Elmira and Bingo,” in response to a Binghamton Herald report comparing the two cities. That Binghamton article charged that Elmira disproportionately benefited from increased prominence after the Civil War and from the Erie Railroad. But despite those early advantages, Binghamton was catching up and fast surpassing Elmira. They cited the following statistics: Binghamton had 132 factories employing 15,000; Elmira had 86 employing 3,000. The reporter stated Binghamton had better architecture and infrastructure. They claimed governmental superiority, writing, “politically, Elmira is rotten.” 

The rivalry exploded on October 26, 1894, when the Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press ran the headline “RESENT THIS!” “A New York Newspaper attacks Elmira and this valley. A Dastardly Canard.” Two days earlier, the New York Tribune had published the following:

“Elmira, with dirty streets, bad water and signs of stagnation and shabbiness on every hand, presents a melancholy contrast to the prosperity and beauty of its commercial rival, Binghamton, once inferior in wealth and populations, but now outstripping its handicapped competitor with enormous strides. The county, too, with its exhausted tobacco fields and declining population, exhibits the same symptoms of neglect and retrogression. In a county with such a floating and corruptible vote no safe estimates can ever be made of results at the polls.”

The defense printed in the Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press was scathing: “Fie! For shame upon the scoundrels who would ruin the reputation of our valley! All hail those who will stand up and defend it against the onslaughts of a cowardly enemy!” The reporter went on to challenge many of the accusations levied by the Tribune and defended the city’s sanitation and the county’s fertile agricultural land. However, one must assume, that one of the biggest dents from the article to local civic pride, was the unfavorable comparison to Binghamton.

After that, the rivalry typically played out in smaller scale, such as high school sports or debates. It did sometimes get petty, though. In 1907, an Elmira newspaper printed the following: “The monthly meteorological summary for Binghamton for March shows that our rival city had only five clear days out of 31. Looks rather dark and gloomy for Binghamton, doesn’t it?”

In 1921, a Binghamton critic wrote an article tearing Elmira apart. Interestingly, the Elmira press used this as an opportunity for self-reflection, writing, “The river side of Water street is a disgrace. There is no denying that fact” and praising Binghamton’s municipal garbage disposal.
Program from Binghamton North High School vs. Elmira Southside High School football game, October 22, 1949
Over the years, particularly with the growth of Corning, the Elmira-Binghamton rivalry has cooled. By the mid-twentieth century, it was a matter of discussion, but didn’t seem to rile people like it did in the 1880s and 1890s. In fact, sometimes the rivalry could be downright charming. In 1920, the Elmira Kiwianis went to Binghamton for a meeting and reported, “the only rivalry discoverable anywhere was to see whether host of guest could be more friendly, sociable and heartily agreeable, and the net result of such rivalry is worth while.”

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