Friday, August 31, 2018

Elmira’s First Bridge

by Erin Doane, Curator

The Lake Street Bridge closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic in March 2011. I started working here at CCHS in May 2011, so I never had the chance to go over the bridge that is just across the street from the museum. It was announced recently that work would start next summer to repair the bridge and open it to pedestrians. This is just the newest chapter in the history of this river crossing.

The first bridge across the Chemung River in Elmira was completed at the foot of Lake Street in 1824. Before that, one needed a ferry to cross the river. The wooden bridge was constructed by the Elmira and Southport Bridge Company. It had three piers, one in the center of each channel and another on the island in the middle of the river. Some years after it was built, the spans began to sag considerably. Once, a drove of cattle crossing the bridge, broke through the first span during high water and timbers and cows went floating down the river. In 1840, the bridge was badly damaged in the “great fire” of that year. A new covered bridge was erected on the spot with J.H. Gallagher supervising construction.

Covered bridge built after the fire of 1840
The covered bridge burned in 1850 when the tannery at its south end caught fire. It was replaced by a wooden truss structure. This new bridge was open at the top except for some crossing timbers. This allowed the snow to fall through onto the roadway during the winter so that sleighs could more easily cross. A considerable part of this bridge was washed away during the St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1865. The bridge’s only stone pier was undermined and most of the southern span dropped out and washed down the river. The bridge was repaired and remained in used until 1869.

Wooden bridge, 1864
By 1869, there were two bridges over the Chemung, at Lake Street and Main Street. Both were toll bridges. Businessmen on the north side of the river did not like that people had to pay tolls to cross. Customers from the plank road district and other parts of Southport were reluctant to cross the bridge to do businesses. Farmers didn’t want to pay a toll to sell their produce so they went south to Troy, Pennsylvania instead of to Elmira.

Early in 1869, the city passed a legislative act authorizing it to purchase both bridges for $25,000 (around $460,000 today). They dropped the tolls and used taxpayer funds to maintain the structures. Three years later, another act was passed authorizing the building of new bridges at both locations. The Main Street bridge was replaced first, then the Lake Street bridge was completed in 1874. The new Lake Street bridge was made of iron with three spans of 182 feet each and trusses that were 26 feet high. The piers were made of limestone. It cost $65,000 (about $1.4 million).

Lake Street bridge, c. 1890
The Lake Street bridge was replaced again by a new steel bridge in 1905. While the work was being done, a temporary wooden pedestrian bridge was erected next to it so that people could still move across the river.

Bridge under construction, with pedestrian bridge alongside, 1905
In June, 1959, City Manager Angus T. Johnson reported to the Elmira City Council that the Lake Street bridge was in desperate need of repair. The bridge supports were weakened, the metal fixtures were corroded, and rivets were missing from some joints. Salt used on the roads during the winter caused much of the deterioration. The Council closed the bridge to both all traffic and plans were made to replace the structure.

Lake Street bridge, c. 1950s
On June 21, 1961, between 1,200 and 1,500 Elmirans gathered in the rain for the official opening of the new Lake Street bridge. The bridge had been closed for two years but construction had finished two weeks ahead of schedule. The cost of demolition of the old bridge and construction of the new was $473,270 (just under $4 million today). 

In 1972, flood waters rose all the way to the bridge’s deck but it survived largely unscathed. Eleven years later, in 1983, it was closed for two months while new expansion joints were installed, the structural steel was scraped and repainted, and the roadway was resurfaced with a new membrane liner to help preserved the concrete deck.

Lake Street bridge, 1970s
Regular maintenance was not enough to keep the bridge from deteriorating. Winters can be hard here in the northeast and, despite yearly washing, salt used to treat the roads damaged the bridge’s concrete supports and rubber expansion joints. In March 2011, the Lake Street bridge was declared unsafe and closed to vehicles and pedestrians. At the time, it had the lowest traffic count of all the city’s five bridges over the Chemung River. As early as May 2011, there were reports that the bridge would be repaired for pedestrian use only. Next summer, some eight years later, the project may finally get underway.

View of Lake Street Bridge from third floor of CCHS, August 31, 2018

Monday, August 27, 2018

Foundations of the NAACP Elmira-Corning Branch

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

For the last 100 years, the Elmira-Corning Branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) has worked to improve the lives of African Americans within our community. The local chapter recently donated their history collection to the Chemung County Historical Society in order to ensure that the stories of the men and women involved in their struggle are accessible to the wider community.  Over the coming months, CCHS will be sharing some of those stories here and in an up-coming on-line exhibit. Stay tuned. The entire collection is available for viewing during our regular research hours.

Mrs. Cornelia F. Stewart Matthews, daughter of Thomas Stewart, was the local branch of the NAACP’s first president in 1917, as well as its fourth in 1925. Heavily involved in politics, she served as the Republican Committeewoman for Elmira’s First District, Fourth Ward. She was not only the first Black woman in the county to serve in such a role, she was the first Black person to do so. An active member in the A.M.E. Zion Church, she often represented the Christian Endeavor both regionally and nationally. 

Mrs. Cornelia F. Stewart Matthews

Locally, she worked hard to help uplift the Black community. In 1918, she was involved in a lawsuit against a real estate company which refused to rent or sell property to “colored people or undesirable foreigners.” In order to obtain an official charter from the national organization, the local NAACP needed 100 members. Matthews arranged for Mrs. Addie W. Hutton, an NAACP leader from New York City, to come and give a presentation on the organization and its aims at the Bethal A.M.E. Zion Church. Although few people attended, they were able to get the membership they needed to be chartered in 1918. 

Elmira Star-Gazette, November 4, 1924
The woman could not stop founding clubs. On February 14, 1924, she established the Nannie Borroughs Club at the local YWCA. Named for a nationally known Black activist and educator who was apparently a personal friend of Matthews, the club was intended to be a safe space for Black girls to socialize and discuss the issues of the day. A few years later, she established the CFM women’s book club, also at the YWCA. The CFM Club lasted well into the 1950s, twenty years after Cordelia Matthews’ death in 1936. The Nannie Borroughs Club eventually became more of a women’s support group before ending in the late 2000s.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Time for a Change

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

I have a big, bittersweet announcement to make: I have accepted a new job as a Visitor Experience Coordinator at the Catskill Interpretive Center in Mount Tremper, NY and I will be leaving my position at CCHS on August 31. This is an exciting opportunity for me professionally and personally, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have any sadness about leaving. Please accept this rambling farewell letter to all of you--our readers, friends, and visitors--as my final CCHS blog post.
My new stomping grounds
I have been at CCHS for over 5 years now and moved to Elmira having never been here before. I know this region has its struggles and people tend to dismiss it, but as a newcomer, I found incredible opportunity. As a historian, I marvel every day at how rich this county’s history is (and will continue to be far into the future). As an educator, I’ve had the fortune to work with thousands of local children and have seen how smart, empathetic, and interested in history they can be. Please embrace these positives.
Just look at these smart 2nd graders learning about gold panning in their westward expansion unit!
I’m grateful to everyone out there who read one of my blog posts, attended a program at CCHS, or bought my book. As you may have noticed, I’m not a historian who is interested in the “big” popular stories. Sure, they’re fine and all, but I like the weird stuff, the small tales that normally get lost when we look at the past. My favorite kind of history is infused with humor. I’m particularly proud of Curiosities of Elmira and would be remiss if I didn’t take one more opportunity to shamelessly promote it.

I’ve worked hard to bring our local history to you in new and novel ways, with our History They Didn’t Teach You in School series being my favorite of our successes (don’t forget to sign up for Joy! in December). Thanks to everyone who attended these programs, let us be totally silly, and threw things at Bruce (you’ll understand what that means if you’ve been to the programs…). You always made it fun for me to lead those tours. I also can't leave this blog post without mentioning my alter-ego Mark the Mammoth. I hope you follow him on Twitter. Having built his account from nothing to mini-celebrity, he is strangely one of the parts of this job I will have the most trouble letting go of.

Is it weird that Mark is one of the things I'll miss most about this job?
I won’t go on and wax poetic here for much longer. As you know, my coworkers, Bruce, Erin, Christine, and Rachel are fantastic and smart. I’ve been lucky to have a chance to spend the last 5 years learning from them. They’ll be stuck picking up the slack while they wait to hire my replacement, so please be extra nice to them in this transition period as they add even more work to their busy schedules. And please be as nice to the new educator as you all were to me. If you find yourself in the Catskills, please feel free to say hi!

Monday, August 13, 2018

Millport’s Civil War Monument

by Erin Doane, Curator

On August 4, 1904, a 14,920-pound siege gun arrived in Millport. The artillery piece was made by the Fort Pitt Foundry in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for use during the Civil War. The army shipped it to Millport from Liberty Island, New York to serve as a monument to the local soldiers and sailors who had served in the war.
Civil War monument in Millport Cemetery off Cemetery Hill Road, July 2018
Dozens of men from Millport served during the Civil War. Many enlisted in the 50th New York Engineers. Company G was almost entirely recruited from village. The regiment built roads, battery position, forts, and bridges. It was attached to the Army of the Potomac and saw action at Yorktown, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Rappahannock Station. The men of the 50th were at Appomattox Court House to witness the surrender of General Lee and his army. 

In 1883, veterans of the war established Post 416 G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) in Millport. The post was named for Private Wilson Dean who was a member of Company A, 89th New York Volunteers. He had enlisted in Catharine in 1864 at the age of 27. He was captured in Cold Harbor, Virginia and died at Andersonville. In 1904, members of the Wilson Dean post arranged to create a monument to honor its namesake and all the others who had fought during the war.

Millport Cemetery, July 2018
There are sixteen graves of Civil War soldiers near the
monument and several more throughout the cemetery.
The siege gun was brought to Millport on a flat rail car which was shunted onto a Pennsylvania Railroad siding. From there, it was up to the people of the village to get the gun to its final location in the Millport Cemetery. The cemetery was almost a mile from the railroad siding and some 400 feet up a steep dirt road. The cannon was moved onto a low wheeled rig provided by the Reeves Machine Works. It took ten teams of horses and additional men hauling on ropes to move the piece to the cemetery. People cheered the workers along the way and, after several pauses to rest, the gun was placed on a concrete base in the northwest section of the cemetery near the graves of several Civil War veterans. Its barrel was pointed toward the south.

Civil War Monument, 1904
Length of gun, 12 feet. Diameter, 32 inches. Diameter of bore, 10 inches.
Weight of gun, 15,000 pounds. Weight of mounts, 1,000 pounds. Height
of pedestal, 2 feet. Height of shell pyramid, 6 feet. Number of shells, 20,
weight of shells, 7,300 pounds.
The monument was officially dedicated on October 13, 1904 at a daylong celebration. At 11 o’clock in the morning, G.A.R. members and other citizens marched to the cemetery. Post commander R.B. Davidson delivered opening remarks which were followed by the singing of a patriotic song and a prayer by Rev. E. Burroughs. Several young Millport girls then pulled strings which let the drapery that had been covering the cannon fall way. The crowd sang another patriotic song then listened to an address given by Dr. Robert P. Bush, a distinguished orator from Horseheads and a Chemung County assemblyman.

Monument dedication, October 13, 1904
The festivities did not end there, however. At noon, the G.A.R. members and their guests returned to the village and had dinner at the Baptist Church. At 1:30pm, additional dedication exercises and speeches took place at the masonic hall. Sherman P. Moreland of Van Etten gave the keynote address. There was then a reception held to honor the surviving members of the famous 48th Regimental Band. There was singing, addresses, music, and stories by veterans. Coffee and hardtack were served at the close of the evening.

For almost 90 years, the cannon stood guard over the Millport Cemetery. Over the years, however, the monument suffered from the effects of weather and the occasional vandal. The concrete base had begun to crumble, and the gun and pyramid of cannonballs, which had been painted silver at some point, were looking worn.

Monument in September 1973, photograph taken by J. Arthur Kieffer
In the summer of 1991, Duane Hills, commander of the Elmira Sons of Union Veterans, and a crew of his men went to the Millport cemetery four time to restore the monument to its former glory. They patched the concrete, removed graffiti, and repainted the gun and cannonballs. On October 13, 1991, they hosted a small ceremony to rededicated the memorial. At the conclusion of the event, fifteen men dressed in Union uniforms fired a rifle volley in honor of those who had served during the Civil War.

Civil War graves and monument, July 2018

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Unwanted Child

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

In the autumn of 1832, the Village of Elmira was rocked by scandal. On the morning of October 19th, a baby, about three weeks old, was found abandoned on a wood pile. There were few clues as to the baby’s identity. No note. No monogramed cap. Just a simple white flannel blanket over superior-quality underclothes. No one knew how long it had laid there, but it was lucky to be found alive. The child spent the next few months in the care of Mrs. Atkins, who had milk enough to nurse it, before being sent to the poor house. 

Article about the baby from the Elmira Republican, October 20, 1832

The baby on the woodpile was not the last to be abandoned in Elmira. On April 7, 1898, police were called to the Erie Railroad Depot to take custody of a three-week-old infant found in a cloth satchel on the train which had just arrived from Corning. Luckily, the baby was unharmed. Others have not been so lucky. The same year the baby was abandoned on the train, another was found dead on the banks of Newtown Creek on November 26, 1898. Others have been found in the Chemung River and at the Sullivan Street dumping grounds. It would be nice to think they died before they were left like garbage. In the case of Baby Smith, her father confessed to weighing her down in a creek with rocks after he lost his job and couldn’t find anyone willing to adopt her. 

Floyd Smith drowned his infant daughter in a creek after losing his job at the Willys-Morrow plant in 1920

In most cases, no one had any idea who the parents were. In 1832, suspicion landed on Miss Sally Armstrong. Sally had spent the spring and summer working on her brother’s Elmira farm before returning to her parents’ home in late October. The timing was right and a young, unmarried girl like Sally would have every reason to dispose of an unwanted child. In those days, having a child out of wedlock could destroy a woman’s marital prospects and doom her to a life of poverty. In March 1833, the rumors got so bad that her brother’s neighbors, Richard and Ann Smith, felt compelled to write a letter to the local newspaper saying that they knew for a fact that Sally had not been pregnant. 

Richard & Ann Smith's letter to the Elmira Republican, March 30, 1833
In 2000, New York State passed the Abandoned Infant Protection Act which made it legal for parents to anonymously abandon newborn infants so long as they left them at a designated safe area such as a hospital, social workers’ office, or police or fire station. In 2010, the law was expanded to include infants 30 days or younger.