Monday, July 24, 2023

Paved Streets

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Street grader in Chemung County

Driving during the summer can often be frustrating. Sometimes it feels like every road you come across is in the process of being built, or badly needs to be repaired. To add to the frustration, drivers navigating construction zones, summer weather, and road conditions often have a short supply of patience. It’s as if the smell of asphalt goes along with hot air and hot tempers.

In its purest form, asphalt is the hardened form of petroleum. Currently, the United States leads in petroleum production, and it was in our region that one of the world's first petroleum deposits, located in what is now western Pennsylvania, was used by the Seneca. As far back as the 15th century, the indigenous group was known to use the sticky substance for healing lotions and in ceremonial fires.

Road construction in Chemung County
Using asphalt for paving road surfaces starts to show up in the late 19th century. At first, Elmira’s busier streets were covered with either vitrified (a heating process to harden) bricks over sand or Medina stone, a material discovered during construction of the Erie Canal. For a while, these surfaces stood up to ever increasing traffic. But when the area’s population passed 30,000 people, it became clear that the city’s roads needed more attention. Local officials turned to newer technologies.

Engineers had been using petroleum in liquid form as a road cover for gravel-covered streets. They found it helpful in keeping the road surface intact and reducing the dust kicked up by traffic. Then Edward Joseph de Smedt, a Belgian immigrant, chemist, and professor at Columbia University, came up with another idea for using petroleum. Using the material in hardened form, he developed what he called asphalt concrete.

De Smedt’s process mixed crude petroleum with construction materials, like sand and gravel, then dried the mixture into sheets that were laid down on a gravel road. The sheets were applied in layers, with each layer compacted to create a flexible and stronger surface. Through trial and error, de Smedt was convinced that the new layered pavement was successful. In July 1870, the first asphalt road was paved in Newark, NJ. Much to the chagrin of another man, de Smedt went on to be called the inventor of asphalt paving.

General Averell
That other man was General William W. Averell from Bath, NY. During his Civil War service, Averell had come across naturally dried petroleum or asphalt in the Carolinas. Seeing its potential, he formed the Grahamite Asphalt Pavement Company, and set himself up as its president. In 1870, while observing de Smedt’s approach, Averell saw problems. He went on to experiment on his own and in 1878, Averell filed a patent, “Improvement in Asphaltic Pavement” staking his claim to fame.

Amzi Barber: The King of Asphalt
Other investors and entrepreneurs swarmed to get in on the new financial opportunities. An American businessman, Amzi L. Barber, decided the best way to make money in the asphalt business was to control the source of petroleum. He set about buying mineral rights. Barber, later known as the Asphalt King, already held financial interests in real estate and the Locomobile Company of America, one of the first American automobile manufacturers. Barber believed that both of these benefited from having paved streets. Barber bought some of de Smedt’s patents and went into business with his brother-in-law, Buffalo industrialist John J. Albright, establishing the Barber Asphalt Company.

Barber Asphalt was competitive and bid for work all around the country. In 1895, Elmira leaders decided to pave the first roads in asphalt and awarded the contract to Barber over a local firm, Costello & Neagle. West Church Street, west of Main was paved that summer. The Barber Asphalt Company beat Costello & Neagle at least one more time in 1897, underbidding them by only .01 cent per square yard.

By the turn of the century, the Barber Asphalt Company had laid more than 12 million square yards of asphalt pavement in 70 American cities to the amount of $35 million, well over a billion dollars today. Most of Barber’s business ventures seem to have been successful, but they were not without controversy. Numerous reports of international bribes, faulty patent use, and coercion led to lawsuits against the company, including one filed by General Averell, who challenged Barber’s use of patents. Averell won and was awarded nearly $400,000, about $11 million in today’s money. Despite this vindication, Averell was never able to change the narrative of who invented pavement.

Star-Gazette March 6, 1896

Another unsuccessful Barber venture was his attempt to establish The Asphalt Trust by consolidating companies and creating a monopoly. It was ultimately denied by the federal courts and the trust collapsed. Even so, Barber’s wealth seemed to endure. When he died in 1909 of pneumonia at the age of 66, he left his second wife, Julie Louise Langdon, first cousin to Olivia Langdon of Elmira, and five children an inheritance said to be worth millions. However in the spring of 1913, the New York Times reported that six years before he died, he had sold off many of his interests to his brother-in-law for a guaranteed annual income of $12,000.

Today the majority of American roads are paved with asphalt. It continues to be one of the least costly methods to use even though it means that summer also seems like road repair season. 

Monday, July 10, 2023

Behind the Scenes

 By Monica Groth, Curator


This year, the Chemung County Historical Society celebrates its 100th anniversary. To kick off our commemorative year, we’ve opened the exhibit It’s About Time: Celebrating 100 Years of the Chemung County Historical Society.

This exhibit is truly special – it gives you, the viewer, a behind the scenes look into the sort of work the Historical Society does. What is it we’re up to all day? What’s the point of having us around? It also features some great objects, specifically a 1923 American LaFrance Brockway Torpedo Fire Engine, and photos and documents discovered in our institutional archives and displayed for the first time.

The gallery being prepared for installation

The exhibit endeavors to answer questions people might have about the purpose of a historical society:

How do we add new items to the collection?

·        Well, donated items are assigned special numbers, known as accession numbers, when they are accepted into our collection. In the exhibit, you can see examples of how we write that number on different materials – fabric, paper, earrings made of human hair…

How do we take care of the collection?

·        Keeping stuff in good shape for over a hundred years is no mean feat. In this section of the exhibit, we’ll explain how materials break down as they age. Temperature and humidity must be kept in check in all storage areas and galleries to prevent chemical reactions or mold growth from occurring. Check out the equipment we use to monitor the climate in our collections. Look through a microscope at an example of mold that can damage historic items. Check out the magnified verdigris forming on a 150-year-old mechanical pencil, and watch as light causes a modern newspaper to fade over time.

This case highlights how different materials, including wood, metal, glass, and cotton age.

A magnified view of the common mold of the genus Aspergillus seen through a microscope lens. Molds can cause great damage to museum collections if relative humidity (average moisture in the air) is not kept between 30-55%

How do we design exhibits?

·        It’s been a unique experience for me, the curator, to install an exhibit about exhibits. Exhibitions are planned months in advance and require the help of many collaborators. There are always engineering projects that I encounter when installing an exhibition. For example, the image below showcases a stained-glass window lit from behind by an array of lights constructed specifically for this display (many thanks to volunteer Kevin Wechtaluk for assisting me with its creation)!

These three objects simplify the exhibit process from research to completion

How do we recover from disaster?

·        Following the flood of 1972, nearly 60% of the Society’s library was damaged (or outright lost). Volunteers painstakingly worked to rescue items, freezing a lot of archival documents to slow their deterioration. Many items in our collection still bear signs of flood damage. Interestingly, a lot of our donation records were destroyed in the flood. When going through the institutional archives in researching this exhibit, we found far fewer records before that fateful year. On display, you can check out a severely waterlogged and muddy visitor register kept at the Museum (then located at 304 Williams St.) at the time of the flood.

 How do we help researchers?

·        As a society, we want to make our county’s history accessible to anyone interested in learning about it. Our Booth Library, named for our founder Arthur Booth (whose 1928 wool suit is also on display in the gallery), is open to researchers interested in looking through the maps, letters, books, and documents which comprise an archive of over 100,000 items.

Archivist Rachel Dworkin by the Library's shelf of Elmira City Directories

 How do we teach local history?

·        Since the society opened its first public museum in 1954, students have been welcomed into the Museum. Many county residents will recall their elementary school trips inside our doors to this day. Be sure to see our Educator Susan Zehnder’s June 12th blog featuring our most recent visitors. Beyond school programs, we’ve hosted excursions to historic sites around the country (including up the Mississippi River), created escape rooms, and organized antique shows. Of course, our ever-popular GhostWalk remains a favorite October event. This year, we’ve invited you all to our Birthday Party on August 26, 2023!

 How else do we share stories?

·        How do we reach out to people who can’t visit the Museum? Well…this blog is one example of our growing reach! Since our first Journal was published in 1955, we’ve created a lot of literature from which people can learn. The internet allows us to reach a worldwide audience today and we hope you continue to keep up with us here on our blog and across our social medias!

 Whose history do we tell?

·        As a society which preserves our county’s history, it’s important to ensure we are including the stories of all. For example, our Black Oral History Project highlights black voices in Chemung County, our new gallery guide pamphlet series leads visitors through the museum by focusing on different perspectives, and our Heritage Exhibit Series focuses on the history of a different immigrant community every 6 months.


We also include Native American perspectives; this pair of beaded moccasins on display was made by the Seneca