Monday, October 28, 2019

The Centennial Project

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist
In 1964, as part of Elmira’s 100th anniversary, the city unveiled the Centennial Project meant to transform the Eastside. The plan called for the clearing of approximately 48 acres of land between Harriet Street and Madison Avenue from the river north to Church Street. The city initially estimated that some 231 families would be displaced, but, in the end 515 families, 130 individuals, and 54 business were displaced for the project.  The neighborhoods were slated to be replaced by a new county health complex, apartments for seniors, a low-rent housing complex, and a neighborhood shopping center. 

Proposed site plan, 1964
The Eastside was one of the oldest sections of the city. During the 19th century, it was a predominantly working-class, immigrant neighborhood. It boasted a mix of Irish, German, and Eastern European Jews, with a sprinkling of African-Americans. As the immigrants moved their way up the economic ladder post-World War II, they began to abandon the old neighborhood, leaving the homes in disrepair. By 1964, most of the buildings were approaching 100 years old. Elderly residents often struggled to keep up with repairs, and many landlords simply didn’t bother. 

113 Dewitt Avenue, 1967
 Reactions of people in the renewal area were mixed. People had been steadily moving out of the area since the 1950s, but a lot of older residence had a strong sense of community and were reluctant to leave. While displaced elderly residents would be given first dibs in the Newtown Towers Senior Apartments, they would have to find temporary accommodations while they waited for it to be built. Homeowners worried about being able to buy new homes, especially since the city was offering bottom dollar for their properties. Families who lived above their own shops had trouble finding other places in the city zoned for mixed use. Many renters, on the other hand, welcomed the prospect of safe, affordable, and modern rental units. 

In January 1967, the city began purchasing homes in the urban renewal area. They established a relocation office meant to help the displaced find new places to live. Relocation officers surveyed the needs of the displaced to match them with available apartments and helped those who wanted to buy homes apply for mortgages. Elmira had long had a problem with landlords who refused to rent to African-Americans. The relocation office forced them to comply with anti-discrimination laws, helping to desegregate many neighborhoods. 

The project was carried out in phases. Construction began first on Newtown Towers in January 1968. It opened in October 1969. Next came the Chemung County Health complex which includes a health center and nursing facility. Work began in 1970 and finished in spring 1971. The Heritage Park low-income housing complex was started last and its opening was pushed back to August 1973 thanks to the flood of 1972. The proposed neighborhood shopping center on the south side of Water Street was never built. The Holiday Inn hotel sits there now. 
Newtown Towers and Chemung County Health Complex, 1973

Heritage Park Apartments, 1974

If you have stories or images related to the Centennial Project or Eastside urban renewal, we would like to hear about it. Please contact me at (607) 734-4167 ex. 207 or drop me an e-mail at

Monday, October 21, 2019

Ghost Stories

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

For the past thirteen years, the Chemung County Historical Society  has joined forces with the talented Elmira Little Theatre and Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery to present an historic Ghost Walk along the paths of Woodlawn Cemetery. Unlike the artifacts and documents we have at the museum, at Woodlawn Cemetery, we’re sharing stories of people who lived their lives in the area. The stories range from heartwarming to hilarious and deserve not to be forgotten. 

October is a natural time of year to honor those who have passed on. Summer feels like it's coming to an end. Falling leaves and colder temperatures suggest winter is on its way. Plans however for our annual historic Ghost Walk actually start back in the summer. In July we start to research, write, and revise original scripts based on the lives of potential characters. We visit the cemetery to find the perfect combination of characters and walk various potential routes. Ghosts are selected on variables like a mix of genders, ages and professions. We balance the mood of the stories we share. And, we pay attention to grave site locations. Ghosts must be close enough to get to on a reasonable walking tour, and far enough apart that when each actor tells his or her story, it won’t disturb the others.

Final scripts are passed on to Elmira Little Theatre members who audition, cast and bring the ghost stories to life. As we get closer to the walk date, Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery provide people to carefully guide each visiting group along the paths to meet the ghosts. Other people are involved including those who keep the lanterns lit, drive the buses, welcome visitors, count bus riders, help with gathering tickets, run the trivia contest and jump in to fill in where needed to keep things going. 

Many people who are part of this event have their own stories to tell. Quite a few volunteers have been doing this for years, including those who have participated as long as the event has been going on. Among them are a brother and sister who stepped in and became guides to honor their father when he wasn't able to do it anymore. Another guide drove from Ithaca to participate after falling in love with the event that her sister volunteers for, and this year a guide was surprised to hear a ghost story involving an act of kindness her own grandfather did. All the people who are part of this event are so important to its success and we can't thank them enough.

Lanterns being checked and ready

In thirteen years, the historic Ghost Walk has changed. In the beginning, there were three ghosts and four tours that took place during one evening. Now the event lasts two nights, and involves four or more ghosts with eight tours each evening. It brings 400 visitors to the museum and to the cemetery, and with only five full-time staff, it takes a heroic effort, and many volunteers to pull this off. This year we were rewarded by selling out all 400 tickets in just two weeks. Our event at the graveyard is to share some stories of those who are buried there, and we are thrilled that history can still be so exciting and popular. We also encourage anyone who missed getting tickets this year to watch for notices next September.

Woodlawn Cemetery

The historic Ghost Walk for this year is over, and the 2019 ghosts have been revealed. These scripts are now posted on our CCHS website.

This year, also look for an additional event coming up. Concerned that our ghost walk isn’t accessible to all visitors, especially those unable to walk the ¾ mile trek at night, on October 30th we are hosting another event called Ghostly Readings. At the museum on that Wednesday from 1:30 pm-2:30 pm, staff members will read this year’s ghost scripts and share images of the people we’ve profiled. We will also feature a mystery celebrity reader. Tickets for this event are $5 and include admission to the museum, cider and donuts. We encourage you to call to make reservations, and hope to see you here or in a year when we do this all again!

Call us at 607-734-4167 for reservations or email

Monday, October 14, 2019

This Photo of a Dirigible Over Elmira is Fake!

by Erin Doane, Curator

“The Pageant of Decision” was a massive theatrical production that celebrated the Sesquicentennial of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign.  On September 28, 1929, 2,000 local participants in Elmira performed the 17-act pageant on a half-mile wide outdoor stage on the slope of East Hill in front of nearly 75,000 spectators. The above photo from CCHS’s archive shows the Navy dirigible Los Angeles hovering over the pageant crowd. It is a wonderful, striking image. Too bad it’s fake.

The crowd shown is indeed gathered for the pageant in Elmira on September 28, but the Los Angeles was not there that Saturday afternoon. The massive airship, in fact, had flown over Elmira one week earlier on September 21. A photo that appeared in the Star-Gazette after the pageant show the exact same image (though a slightly wider view) without the dirigible.

Star-Gazette, September 30, 1929
The USS Los Angeles was a 658-foot-long rigid airship built in Germany in 1923-1924 as part of reparations after World War I. It was delivered to the U.S. Navy in 1924. It was primarily used as an observatory and experimental platform and as a training ship. In 1929, Congressman John Taber of Auburn arranged to have the dirigible fly from its base in Lakehurst, New Jersey up to Geneva on September 21 where it would circle the pageant being held there to commemorate the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign. (“The Pageant of Decision” was actually performed all across New York State in 1929.) So, the Los Angeles did appear at a pageant, just not at Elmira’s pageant. And it actually showed up early to the Geneva one, much to the disappointment of those in attendance.

The original plan was for the Los Angeles to leave Lakehurst on the morning of September 21, passing over Elmira around noon and arriving in Geneva in time to circle above their pageant, which began at 2:00pm. Instead, because of the weather conditions, the dirigible left New Jersey at 5:45 Friday evening, which changed its arrival time in Geneva to 7:30am on Saturday. The flight was non-stop, as there was no place for the airship to land except for in an emergency, so even though it circled the town for about half an hour, very few people there got to see it.

In Elmira, folks were also disappointed by the early passing of the massive airship, but it actually ended up passing over Elmira twice that day. At 5:40am, people who were awake and in the streets at that time could hear the dirigible’s motors droning as it passed over the city. The fog was so thick, however, that it was not visible. When Representative Gale H. Stalker of Elmira learned about the unexpectedly early flyover obscured by fog, he wired naval authorities to express his dissatisfaction. Navy officials then communicated with Lieutenant Commander Charles Rosendahl on the Los Angeles, and ordered him to return to Lakehurst by way of Elmira.

So, at noon on September 21, the Los Angeles sailed majestically over Elmira, bathed in sunlight. It lazily droned in from the northeast, cruised down the center of the city at an elevation of only about 1,000 feet, and then disappeared to the southeast. The original plan was for the dirigible to pass over the city at noon, so the only thing that really changed was the direction in which people saw it traveling. The newspapermen and cameramen of the Star-Gazette climbed onto the roof of their building to cover the story.

Photo taken from the roof of the Star-Gazette building 
Saturday, September 21, 1929. The towers are those of 
the First Presbyterian Church.
The Star-Gazette reported that when the airship passed overhead Elmira came to a standstill. “Husbands phoned their wives at home, binoculars and telescopes were brought forth, cameras were hastily adjusted and restaurants and offices were vacated and points of vantage were sought. Even automobiles were stopped in the streets, the drivers and passengers peering upward and hoping, no doubt, that no policeman would come along to spoil it by making them move on.” There was no waving of handkerchiefs or cheering, however, as everyone was too impressed to become vocal.

So, the USS Los Angeles did fly over Elmira and 75,000 people did gather the watch “The Pageant of Decision” in Elmira, but those two events did not happen at the same time or even on the same day. Why, then, do we have a photograph that indicates that they did? I, frankly, have no idea. Perhaps some photographically-talented trickster was just having a little fun back in the day, never expecting his or her creative image to become part of a museum’s collection. We will probably never know, but it is important to set the history straight.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Who works at a museum?

by Malachi Doane, museum helper

All buildings have a certain amount of internal infrastructure. Electrical, Plumbing, and Air Conditioning are all present in our homes businesses and at the museum as well. Normally my day to day work is as a project coordinator based at the museum and working on tourism projects. I look for and promote interesting but lesser well known sites in our area. Some days however I get to help with other needs around the museum such as exhibitions and electrical projects.

Keeping it all going falls to many hands and everyone at a small museum has to wear a few hats.  When it’s lighting in the cases the exhibits staff, typically under the direction of the curatorial department, become electricians.


Like many, our museum has lighting in the exhibit cases and small low voltage puck type lights were installed around the year 2000. This type of light fixture had halogen light bulbs in them when they first came out, it was before the revolution in LED technology we all enjoy today. As such they ran hot and bright, and emitted ultraviolet light even at low voltage. At our museum a clever system was installed to manage the light/UV/heat output of the little bulbs back when they were installed. Over the last twenty years though, the little lights and the crafty controllers did start to wear out.

Skip ahead to 2019 and the miniaturization of electronics along with advances in LED technology meant we could replace the old halogen bulbs directly, keeping the old fixtures with a bulb that made no UV light, used a fraction of the electricity and none of the heat in the cases.

A little digging for some new transformers as well to replace the old units which had nearly made 20 years in operation, and it was time to get out the ladder and bring our case lighting ahead into the twenty first century!

It’s good to remember that it takes all sorts of people to make a museum work. Our staff all come from various backgrounds, not always in history museums, some not from museums at all. As students we all faced the question, “when am I ever going to need to know this?” Electrical training for me began in high school volunteering backstage in theatrical productions as well as tinkering with ham radios in my spare time.  Internships and summer jobs between semesters called on those resources and helped me build new ones.  Today I was an electrician and an exhibits technician, tomorrow I’ll go back to managing social media and researching in the archives because keeping a museum working takes all sorts of skills.