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The Buffalo News

April 13, 2014


Elmira Celebrates 150th Anniversary


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 are also a number of other reasons to visit this southertier 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 noted author Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. 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.


A bit of Elmira History.

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 was also 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 over 12,000.   New businesses sprang up to cater to soldiers and military contracts.  The City of Elmira was officially incorporated on April 7, 1864. 

To learn more about area history stop by the Chemung County Historical Society, 415 East Water Street, Elmira, 607-734-4167 Two of their 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

            There are a number of special events taking place this year to celebrate Elmira’s 150th anniversary. The signature “Celebrate 150” event will take place on Saturday August 2nd 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 7th, a family-friendly community event, The Elmira Blooms garden tour on July 13th and the Elmira Street Painting Festival on July 19-20 ( For more information about events in Elmira this year visit


The Mark Twain Connection

            Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) 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; 1200 Walnut Street, Elmira.

            The Mark Twain Study, which is now located on the campus of Elmira College, is where Clemens did his writing. The unique octagon shaped study was a gift to Twain from his sister-in-law and her husband. It was originally built in 1874 at their farm, Quarry Farm, and moved to the college in 1952. During the summer months the study is open for docent led tours. For more information see


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. 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, 2nd Street and Hoffman Street border the area. For more information visit their website Included on their website is a self-guide 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 unique 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 over 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;

Public tours Friday and Saturday at 11 AM, 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 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, Tuesday through Saturday. For more information call 607-734-4167.



Other things to do in Elmira

Perched high on Harris Hill, just north of the city of Elmira, is the National Soaring Museum, home to the largest collection of gliders and sailplanes in the world. It is only one of two museums worldwide dedicated to motorless flight. Interest in gliders began in the late 1890’s, however, once powered flight became popular, soaring took a backseat until the late 1920’s; after Charles Lindberg took his famous flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Public interest in flying grew and many people got involved in soaring because it was inexpensive and easy to learn.

There was some use of gliders in the military during WWII, including combat gliders, training gliders and transporters. After the war, soaring grew to be a popular recreational and competitive pastime. Gliders have also been used for aeronautical and scientific research.

In addition to the numerous aircraft displayed, both on the museum floor and suspended from the ceiling, the museum has several hands-on exhibits, including flight simulators that allow you to see what it is like flying and landing a sailplane.National Soaring Museum, (607-734-3128, ) 51 Soaring Hill Drive, Elmira. Open daily.

If you want to experience soaring firsthand, the adjacent Harris Hill Soaring Center offers sailplane rides weekends April-October and daily flights during July and August (weather permitting). During your 20 minute flight you get a panoramic view of the Finger Lakes Region.

Harris Hill Soaring Center, (607-734-0641 or 607-796-2988, ).

Just north of Elmira, in Horseheads, The Wings of Eagles Discovery Center (formerly the National Warplane Museum) houses a collection of military aircraft and aviation memorabilia from the early 1900’s until the present day. Of special interest is the restoration hangar where all types of aircraft are being restored to exhibiting or flying condition by museum volunteers

Wings of Eagles Discovery Center, (607-358-4247, ) 339 Daniel Zenker Drive, Horseheads. Open Tuesday – Saturday.


If You Go

For general information on Elmira see



From Buffalo take the I-90 (NYS 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.