Monday, August 26, 2019

Bank or Canal?

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

This summer, groups of local students visited the Chemung Valley History Museum. They looked for museum artifacts and documents on a scavenger hunt; heard the true story of the building’s exploding vault (see The Exploding Vault published January 11, 2016); and toured our new exhibit Getting Around: Transportation in Chemung County. They also challenged their engineering skills by designing, building, and testing simple canal boats.

Sometimes an unexpected question or answer gives us to pause and think about history from a different perspective. One of those moments came as we talked about canal boats. When students heard Chemung Canal, many thought we were talking about the bank. But I’ll bet you back in the 1800s, every kid in the area knew about the Chemung Canal.

Drawing of Elmira including canal and boats
Brief history of the Canal
Inspired by the robust success of the Erie Canal to the north, plans were made to build a canal between Elmira and Watkins Glen. This would connect Elmira’s Chemung River to the Erie Canal, and tap into the growing wealth and prosperity the canal was beginning to bring to western New York. Supporters of the Chemung Canal petitioned the state legislature who granted them the  go-ahead in 1829. Construction on the canal began July 4, 1830. A fairly modest sum of $300,000 was allocated for the project, which in today’s money would be close to 9 million dollars. The proposed canal would be the least expensive canal to date.

Photograph of canal construction
It took three years for construction crews to dig the 20-mile canal. Like other canals, it was shaped like the letter ‘u’ and only four feet deep. It reached twenty-six feet across at the base or bottom of the canal and spanned forty-two feet across at the surface. Canals didn’t need to be deep, because traffic on them consisted of canal barges or flat-bottomed boats. Canals were also fairly narrow because tethered humans, horses or working mules pulled them on towpaths along shore. Initial cargo consisted of lumber and agricultural products from the area until increasing demand for Pennsylvania coal dictated the canal be deepened to accommodate larger boats. To do this, workman simply raised the side banks another two feet. Navigating the Chemung Canal took boats two and a half days. They had to travel through the forty-nine locks situated from Elmira to Watkins Glen.

Chemung canal pathway on right side of map
When active, the canal brought prosperity to the area. However, yearly rains damaged the canal, and by 1878 it fell into disrepair. While the canal had been one of the least expensive to build, it had become one of the most costly to maintain. By this time railroads were shipping goods and moving things faster and farther. The Chemung Canal was abandoned and parts of its rights-of-way sold off.
Barge boats at dock along Chemung Canal

Today, parts of the Catharine Valley Trail follow some of the original Chemung Canal towpaths, and the Clemens Center Parkway navigates another part of the canal’s pathway. Unlike the better known Erie Canal to the north, little physical evidence is left of the 20-mile long canal that started in Elmira. 

This summer and fall various Erie Canal events are taking place. The Erie Canal challenge is promoting biking, hiking and walking along the pathway at distances of 15, 90, 180, and 360 miles. Although they don’t mention the Chemung Canal, their website does include where to rent kayaks and places to explore near Watkins Glen and Montour Falls. At both places you can see short parts of the Chemung Canal still visible. Mostly the Chemung Canal is a memory.

This map of the Catharine Valley Trail and link share more Chemung Canal hiking and biking opportunities in the area to explore yourself.

The Bank
The Chemung Canal Bank Company started operations in 1833, the same year the nearby canal opened. The very first bank statement issued ten days after opening showed the bank had assets of $318,525 and deposits of over $10,000. A year later, the bank moved into its first permanent home, on East Water Street, now the site of the Chemung Valley History Museum. One of the bank’s founders, an entrepreneur and financier by the name of John Arnot, had emigrated from Scotland and settled in Elmira. He took over as bank president in 1852, and the bank changed its name to the Chemung Canal Trust Company in 1903.
Former Chemung Canal Bank, now home of The Chemung Valley History Museum

It’s easy to assume everyone knows these things, but for people new to the area-which if we think about it includes young students, history needs to be shared. Keeping that memory fresh is what we do here at the Museum.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Superman at the County Fair

by Erin Doane, Curator

“Look! Up in the sky!”
“It’s a bird!”
“It’s a plane!”
“No, it’s Superman!”

That’s what people were saying in Horseheads when tv’s Superman, George Reeves, made an appearance at the Chemung County Fair on August 14, 1956. The 6-foot 2 ½-inch tall, 195-pound actor played the title role in The Adventures of Superman from 1952 to 1958. He came to the fair as part of the “Kiddie Kapers” grandstand show that included another popular television star of the time, Lassie.

George Reeves making an appearance at the Chemung County Fair on August 14, 1956
A record overflow crowd of more than 5,000 people, mostly children, filled the grandstand for “Kiddie Kapers.” The show began with a clown act that finished with two clowns crawling through the grandstand, dusting off the children with feather dusters. Next came a small brass band, then an aerial trapeze duo. The Briants, a comedy pantomime team performed after that, then Cowboy Jim Phillips and his horse Smokey took the stage. Lassie was up next, performing clever tricks and stealing the children’s hearts. A bullwhip and knife-throwing demonstration by William Cody and Company followed the canine tv star. And then it was time for the final act – Superman.

George Reeves came onto stage as mild-mannered Clark Kent, but after a brief moment behind a backdrop he reappeared as Superman. While everyone was excited to see Superman, as he went about explaining how television shows were made, the children became restless and some began to boo when they found out Superman was not going to fly for them. Yet, when he offered free autographed pictures, hundreds of children rushed the stage.

George Reeves (left) and Lassie had never met until they were “introduced” at the Chemung County Fair, Star-Gazette, August 15, 1956
Reeves spoke to reporter Jim Morse of the Star-Gazette while he was here for the fair. Reeves didn’t seem surprised that children would be disappointed by him not flying. “It takes plenty of explaining,” he said, “when the kids ask me how I’m able to fly. If they’re real young, I tell then that’s Superman’s secret. If they’re 10 or older, and appear serious, not fresh, I tell them the truth. It’s best that way.” My guess is that “the truth” may have had something to do with explaining showbiz magic.

In the interview, Reeves also described how people, both children and adults, were always trying to test him as Superman. Grown men would take swings at him so they could brag that they punched Superman. He always refrained from getting into a fight in public and would run away from such encounters whenever possible. “A guy in my position never wins a public fight, even if it isn’t his fault,” he explained. “The publicity kills you.” Reeves also took his status as a role model for children seriously. He even gave up smoking so kids wouldn’t pick up the habit from seeing him do it.

Reeves also told a rather frightening story to Morse. One time when he was at an appearance in Denver as Superman a 7-year-old showed up with his father’s loaded .45 pistol. The boy wanted to see the bullets bounce off of Superman like they did on television. Reeves was able to talk the child out of shooting him by pointing out that when the bullets bounced off him they might hit someone in the crowd and the boy didn’t want anyone to get hurt.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Summer Stage at Rorick’s Glen

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

In 1900, the newly consolidated Elmira Water, Light & Railroad Company got the brilliant idea to drum up ridership by opening an amusement park at the end of their Water Street line. Such parks had been a popular tactic of trolley and railroad companies since shortly after World War I. Check out our old blog Tourist Traps and Other Summer Pitfalls for details. Rorick’s was all set to be another fairly generic park until W. Charles Smith, the manager of Elmira’s Lyceum Theatre of Lake Street, suggested the addition of a theater. It proved a fateful suggestion and, from 1901 to the start of World War I, Rorick’s Glen was one of the preeminent places for summer theater in the country.

Glen Theater program, 1913
The initial season wasn’t all that promising. The first performance was by William Josh Daly’s Minstrels presented by Mr. & Mrs. Harry Dixie. Most of the shows in that first season were vaudeville variety acts and the audiences were underwhelmed. In 1901, they decided to change things up by bringing in the Manhattan Opera Company. The troupe specialized in operettas and musicals, primarily those by Gilbert & Sullivan. They were a big hit and spent the next 17 years as the theater’s resident summer troupe. In fact, from 1904 to 1916, they were widely regarded as the best summer stock company in the country. In addition to performances by the Manhattan Opera Company, the Glen Theater featured performances by some of the biggest names in vaudeville. They also regularly hosted the Elmira Free Academy’s annual senior play.

The Manhattan Opera Company in the Mikado, 1909
The original theater was a large, lovely building with a seating capacity of 1,500. It burned on the night of June 24, 1904, but was not completely destroyed. The roof was gone, but much of the stage and seating area remained intact. By July 4 of that year, it was back open for business, sheltered by a large tent instead of a proper roof.

They built an entirely new theater in time for the 1905 season. It was roughly the same size, but had been redesigned. The lobby was now a giant wrap-around porch accessed via a flight of stairs and decorated with hanging plants Elmira Water, Light & Railroad Company and beautifully carved railings. It had canvas coverings which could be rolled up or pulled down over the large windows depending on the weather. Several improvements were made to the structure over the years, including the addition of box seating. 600 seats on the ground floor were free, with box and other reserved seating costing between 10 and 15 cents depending on the location. Tickets could afford to be so cheap because, unlike the downtown theaters, the goal was to generate ridership and revenue for the trolley, not the theater itself. 

Picture postcard of the second theater
After World War I, Elmira Water, Light & Railroad Company ridership fell as more people began acquiring cars. Unable to properly maintain the park and theater, the company let them both slowly fall apart throughout the 1920s. The building was finally destroyed in a fire in March 1932.