The City of Elmira, about a three-hour drive from Buffalo, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. In addition to the variety of special events planned throughout the year to celebrate this milestone, there also is a number of other reasons to visit this Southern Tier city. Elmira, known as the “Soaring Capital of the World,” is home to the National Soaring Museum. The Wings of Eagle Discovery Center in nearby Horseheads has a collection of military aircraft and other aviation memorabilia.
Of course a trip to Elmira would not be complete without paying homage to author Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, who wrote many of his well-known works here. Clemens and his family spent their summers here, as his wife, Olivia, was an Elmira native. Other notables who hail from Elmira include astronaut Eileen Collins, fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger and news anchor Brian Williams.
What is now the City of Elmira was originally formed as the Village of Newtown in the 1790s. The first white settler, John Hendy, arrived in 1788. In 1808, the town officially changed its name to Elmira, after the daughter of local tavern owner Nathan Teall. In 1833, the Chemung Canal running from Elmira to Watkins Glen was completed, making the town a regional hub for commerce. When Chemung County was formed in 1836, Elmira became the county seat. Prior to the Civil War, Elmira remained a relatively small town with just a handful of manufacturers. It also was home to the Elmira Female College, which opened in 1855.
At the outset of the Civil War, Elmira was designated as one of New York State’s three mustering points and was later chosen as a military depot. Over the course of the war, Elmira’s population nearly doubled to just more than 12,000. New businesses sprang up to cater to soldiers and military contracts. The City of Elmira was officially incorporated April 7, 1864.
To learn more about area history, stop by the Chemung County Historical Society, 415 E. Water St., Elmira, (607) 734-4167, www.chemungvalleymuseum.org. Two of its permanent exhibits include “In the Valley of the Big Horn,” which looks at Chemung County history from early Native Americans until the 21st century, and “Mark Twain’s Elmira,” which focuses on Elmira’s influence on the writer. An upcoming exhibit on the Elmira Civil War prison camp will begin in July.
Celebrating 150 years
A number of special events celebrating Elmira’s 150th anniversary are taking place this year. The signature “Celebrate 150” event will take place Aug. 2 along East Water Street in downtown Elmira featuring music, fireworks and a collection of items for “The Time Capsule Project.”
Other upcoming events in Elmira include the 10th annual Riverfest on June 7, a family-friendly community event, the Elmira Blooms garden tour July 13 and the Elmira Street Painting Festival on July 19-20 (www.elmirastreetpaintingfestival.org). For more information about events in Elmira this year, visit www.iloveelmira.com.
Clemens was a familiar figure in Elmira during the summer months, when he and his wife, Olivia, spent time with her family, the Langdons. While visiting here, Twain wrote a number of his most famous works, including “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
Samuel and Olivia Clemens, along with their children, son-in-law and granddaughter, are buried in the same family plot as the Langdon family in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery. Clemens got his pen name, Mark Twain, from a term that was used on the Mississippi to indicate the depth of the river. The height of the monument near his grave is the height of the measurement, mark twain. Woodlawn Cemetery ((607) 732-0151; www.friendsofwoodlawnelmira.org) 1200 Walnut St., Elmira.
The Mark Twain Study, which is now located on the campus of Elmira College, is where Clemens did his writing. The octagon-shaped study was a gift to Twain from his sister-in-law and her husband. It was built in 1874 at their farm, Quarry Farm, and moved to the college in 1952. During the summer, the study is open for docent-led tours. For more information, see www.elmira.edu/academics/programs/Center_Twain/The_Study.html.
Tours of Elmira
Clemens spent quite a bit of time in the Near Westside Neighborhood, which is reputed to have the highest concentration of Victorian homes of any neighborhood east of the Mississippi River. This 20-block area, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, has about 480 homes; many of them magnificently restored High Victorians. The Chemung River, College Avenue, Second Street and Hoffman Street border the area. For more information, visit www.nwnainc.com. Included on the website is a self-guided walking tour of the area.
Several years ago, my husband and I took a day trip to Elmira to learn more about the history of the district, the unusual architecture and its connection to Mark Twain. While you could walk around the neighborhood yourself, the best way to see it is to take a personalized guided tour of this area led by Samuel Draper, who has been giving tours of this district for more than 20 years.
Going on one of Draper’s tours is more like being shown around town by a personal friend than taking your usual tour of a city. Everyone we met on the street seemed to know him by name and he is most knowledgeable about both the architecture as well as the folk history of the area.
Historic Near Westside ((607) 732-1436; www.historicnearwestside.com): Public tours 11 a.m. Friday and Saturday, April-October. Other times by appointment. Group and individual tours are available.
During July and August visitors to Elmira can enjoy a one-hour, narrated trolley tour of historic Elmira. These tours focus on Elmira’s past as well as Twain’s legacy. Tours depart from the Chemung Valley History Museum on the hour from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call (607) 734-4167.
If you go
For general information on Elmira, see www.marktwaincountry.com
From Buffalo take the I-90 (New York State Thruway) to the I-390 South. Follow that until it becomes the I-86 and head east. For downtown Elmira, get off at exit 56.