Elmira, New York is the county seat of Chemung County. The city lays at the confluence of the Chemung River and the Newtown Creek. Elmira is a part of the Southern Tier of New York State, which is comprised of a few counties that lay along the border with Pennsylvania. The city has a population of about 30500.
Early Exploration and Conquest
French explorer Stephen Brule wrote the first account of the area around Elmira in 1615. He was sent by Samuel Champlain to enlist the aid of the local Andaste tribe against the nearby Haudenosaunee. When the next European explorers ventured up the Chemung 150 years later, the Haudenosaunee had control over the valley, and had allowed a large variety of tribes to build small settlements. The French and Indian War made the valley extremely dangerous for settlers from New York, as most of the tries in the area had sided with the French. The reputation of the valley held for thirty years, and there were no white settlements in the valley at the time of the American Revolution.
During the revolution, the local tribes had settled on the side of the British, and were raiding nearby rebel settlements. George Washington sent one of his generals, John Sullivan, up the Chemung to prevent further damage. The locals prepared for this assault at a location just northeast of the current downtown area, building earthen breastworks. Later called the "Battle of Newtown", Sullivan pulled his artillery within 300 feet of these defenses, and utterly destroyed the bunker and it's occupants. Sullivan then continued to march up the river, slaughtering the local population and burning their villages.
Village of Newtown
With the land now virtually unoccupied, white settlers flooded the fertile valley. The first settlement was built on top of a previous native settlement called Canawcola, which translates roughly to "head on a pole". The new settlers called the area Newtown Point, after the junction of the streams. Farther up Newtown Creek, the settlements of DeWittsburg, Wisnerburg and Horseheads were built. Newtown Point received the bulk of the incoming settlers, and quickly swallowed up DeWittsburg and Wisnerburg. In 1792, the three villages officially joined to form the village of Newtown. In 1828, the village council met to rename the village as it became officially incorporated into New York State. Supposedly, the city received it's name from Elmira Teal, the daughter of the owner of the pub where this meeting took place.
Business in Elmira grew with the construction of the Chemung Canal in 1829. The canal connected the Chemung River at Elmira with Seneca Lake at Watkins Glen, and thus to the rest of the Erie Canal. The canal was the cheapest built in New York State at the time, but was also a victim of shoddy construction, which required many repairs. Nevertheless, the canal made Elmira one of the busiest inland ports in New York State, with raw materials shipped out in all directions. The freight business brought money and workers to Elmira, and the village transformed into a city. The Erie Railroad built a station in Elmira in 1849, which became the base of a large railway hub that connected most of the large towns in the area. While this took business away from the canal, the freight jobs still remained in Elmira.
Another railway also made a route through Elmira during these years. Escaped slaves were funneled through Elmira on the Underground Railroad, as it made a easy stop for escaped slaves making their way from Washington or Philadelphia on their way into Canada.
Elmira's central location made it a base of operation for the Union army during the American Civil War. There was a large base build on Fosters Island in the Chemung River, where new recruits were trained and shipped off to the front. During the course of the war, this base was converted into a confederate POW camp. Simply called Camp Elmira, over 11000 confederate prisoners were housed here during the final years of the war. The camp had an atrocious record, with one in four prisoners dying from the conditions in the camp.
The first POW's to arrive was housed three to a tent, with a small stove for heating and cooking. As the camp grew, some lived in crowded barracks. The winter of 1844 was extremely harsh, and the ramshackle living quarters proved inadequate. Smallpox and typhoid spread quickly around the camp. Those who fell ill were quarantined outside the camp in tents, but with no supplies to treat the ill, these men had little chance of survival.
Those who died were buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery by John W. Jones, a former escaped slave. Jones kept very careful records of each man that he buried, listing their name, rank, hometown, and any other information he could on wooden headboard on their grave. Jones was able to keep accurate information on 2956 of 2963 men that he buried.
The Daughters of the Confederacy came to the cemetery after the war to bring home soldiers buried in "inhospitable Northern soil." When they saw how carefully Jones had interred the soldiers, they decided to leave the soldiers where they lay. Over the years, the headboard have been replaced with granite headstones. Those stones with a pointed top belong to confederate soldiers. There is also a statue of a confederate soldier located in the cemetery, which was donated by The Daughters of the Confederacy.
The College and the Writer
Simeon Benjamin founded the Elmira Women's College in 1855. Elmira College was the first school in the United States to award to women bachelor’s degrees that were equal to those awarded at men's universities. One of the members of the first board of trustees for this school was Jervis Langdon, who donated some land to the school from his neighboring Quarry Farm. His daughter Olivia was one of the first girls to graduate from this school. She married Samuel Clemens, who is better known by his pen name, Mark Twain.
The Clemens family would spend the summers on the Quarry Farm. The Langdon's gave Twain a gazebo on a ridge that overlooked the valley. In this study, he wrote a number of his books, including A Tramp Abroad, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. When he died in 1912, he was buried next to his wife and children in the Langdon plots of the Woodlawn Cemetery.
In 1952, the Langdon family donated this gazebo to the College, which then created the Mark Twain Studies department. In 1983, the family donated the remainder of the Quarry Farm. The farm is used as a residence for those in the Twain Studies department.
Today the college is co-educational, admitting men into classes for the first time in 1969. There are about 1200 students enrolled in 35 different majors. Eight of the buildings that make up the campus are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Local resident Matthias Arnot drew up designs for a new kind of machine in 1897, called a "glider." Thirteen years later, encouraged by the invention of the airplane, Arnot built and flew the first glider off of Harris Hill in Elmira. During World War II, pilots were trained on Harris Hill to fly gliders to silently drop supplies behind enemy lines. Today, Elmira is known as the "The Soaring Capital of America" and is home to the National Soaring Museum.
Ernie Davis grew up playing Football in Elmira. He had an outstanding high school career, and went on to win the Heisman Trophy playing for Syracuse University. He was drafted first overall by the Cleveland Browns in the 1962 NFL draft. Soon after the draft, he was diagnosed with leukemia, and died less than a year later. Even though he never played a game with the team, the Browns retired his number 45 jersey.
A flood on June 22-23 of 1972 caused $291.2 million in damage to the city of Elmira. The flood was caused by Tropical Storm Agnes, which had collected moisture over the Atlantic Ocean, and swerved quickly inland. The Chemung River rose 17 feet over it's banks, destroying the Walnut Street Bridge, and causing significant damage to every other bridge for miles. At the Chemung Canal Trust Company, 71 inches of water sat in the lobby, while safe deposit boxes and the vault were completely flooded.
Elmira is the hometown of Eileen Collins. She became the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle in 1995, and the first to command a NASA mission in 1999.
Tommy Hilfiger was born and raised in Elmira. He sells his name for a living.
With the decline of manufacturing, and the reduction of railroad freight, Elmira began a decline. The population of the city has been in decline since it's peak of 45000 in the 1960 census.
Along with a majority of the rust belt, the city has yet to completely recover for the loss of its economic mainstay. A small tourism industry exists in the area, and the hotels usually fill up during the racing season at Watkins Glen. Elmira College provides a large number of jobs for the city, as well as companies in neighboring areas, such as Corning Incorporated. The other jobs in Elmira are mostly sales and service positions, with manufacturing position making up only 15% of the economy.
The city has made some attempts to attract more business to the area. Most recently, Elmira has acquired two professional sports teams: the Elmira Jackals of the United Hockey League, and the Elmira Pioneers of the Northeast League. A new arena was recently constructed in downtown Elmira for the Jackals.
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