Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Elmira, New York: Civil War Prison

I lived in Elmira for five years in the late 1960s, covering fifth through ninth grade. You’d think that I at least heard about the major events in the history of the city that is close to the Pennsylvania border in south-central New York State. Yet somehow, I have no recollection that Elmira was the host of what probably was the most notorious prison camp of the Civil War – at least from the perspective of the Union. Maybe I was sick that day in middle school.

I picked up some references to the facility several years ago, and was still curious. Then I came across a book called “Hellmira,” by Derek Maxfield. It isn’t a massive book, but it certainly covers the information that Civil War buffs might want to know about the place.

First of all, the camp was only open for about 13 months, from the middle of 1864 to the middle of 1865. It had 12,000 prisoners during that time, and 2,900 of them died. That’s a percentage of 24.3 percent. It’s not as high a percentage as the one for Andersonville (Ga.), controlled by the Confederacy. That checks in at 29 percent. Elmira was picked for the camp because it already a major railroad hub for Union operations. The idea was to hold about 3,000 prisoners, but the commander was told to expect 10,000.

Conditions weren’t exactly terrible at the start, even if there were few permanent buildings for the prisoners. At least it was warm. Many prisoners slept in tents for long periods of time. A creek ran down from the hill into the Chemung River nearby, and it quickly became a less than sanitary source of water. Dysentery and diarrhea quickly followed.

Naturally, winter came early that year, as the first snow turned up in early October. The barracks had a couple of stoves, but usually fuel was scarce as temperatures dropped well below zero. Rations were skimpy, and medical care was spotty. Then in the spring, the long winter’s snowpack turned to water … which led to a huge spring thaw into the river that flooded the camp. The war ended in April, 1865, and the last prisoners left in July of that year. By December, you’d never know a prison camp had been there.

That’s the way it stayed until 1985, when a marker went up on Water Street near downtown. In 1992, a monument (shown above) was placed by the water pumping station along the river where the prison was located. Nearby is a replica of one of the barracks. Meanwhile, some Confederate soldiers are buried at Woodlawn National Cemetery, which also holds the remains of Mark Twain.

As tourist attractions go, a Civil War prison isn’t exactly Monet’s Garden when it comes to popularity. There are other sights to see in Elmira, including Twain’s study and a spectacular lookout of the valley from Harris Hill. Still, it was worth a stop on a recent road trip to see where the prison was located – now the site of housing on the edge of downtown. The camp is a part of town history, and it’s no longer a secret – at least to me.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Corning, New York: Corning Glass Museum

Corning Glass has been around for more than 150 years, and one of its biggest gifts to the community in upstate New York - besides steady employment - has been its museum. The Corning Glass Museum opened as a 100th anniversary present to itself and the area in 1951.

The present structure was in place through 1972 when a flood struck the area. The museum went through a gigantic restoration project, as several items were damaged by the water - which was as high as halfway up the walls of a lower floor. Some of the items, including rare books, received a painstaking restoration. The museum was rebuilt to that most of the items were above the previous flood plane. So far, so good, in that department.

There are all sorts of items on display, dating back about 3,500 years. A few special exhibitions come and go throughout the year to keep things relatively fresh. There a couple of different glassblowing demonstrations that take place throughout the day. It really is fascinating to watch the process in action. But some of the items are remarkable. Take, for example, the one in the photo here. That's quite a chess set, and it's made of glass. 

The Museum is easy to find. It's right off Interstate 86 in Corning, and the way to it is well marked. This definitely is the type of museum that you'd find in a big city, except it's in a little town that has become world famous because of glass.

Corning, New York: Rockwell Museum

Say, what's that buffalo doing up there?

Certainly that's a question that has come up when people walk by the Rockwell Museum in downtown Corning. It's not highlighted on the literature, which is at the least an interesting decision.

Even so, it's a little tough to find the answer. But the building has a relatively a good history, even without an explanation.

It seems Robert Rockwell arrived in Corning to run a department store owned by the family, and he brought some art and artifacts with him. The collection was displaying in the store on Market Street from 1960 to 1975. 

Meanwhile, in 1973 - two years after the devastating flood - some officials from Corning Glass decided to find a good home for the collection. Call it a Bicentennial gift. The facility opened in 1980 in a hotel as something of a temporary stop. But bigger plans were in the works. The Old City Hall was offered by the city as a place for a museum. The facility was renovated, and opened as the Rockwell Museum in 1982. It went through a big renovation almost 20 years later. Indeed, it's a very nice facility to hold its contents. 

You can buy a combination ticket to the Corning Glass Museum and to the Rockwell Museum. What's more, Corning Glass has a shuttle service that links the two facilities, as well as a couple of other stops. It's not a bad walk between the locations, but those who prefer a free ride will be glad to see this. 

Elmira, New York: Ernie Davis' Grave

There aren't many sadder stories in sports than the one describing Ernie Davis. The fact that it comes out of a relatively small town only adds to the poignancy.

Ernie moved to Elmira at the age of 12 to live with his mother and stepfather. He became one of the city's all-time great high school football players at Elmira Free Academy, graduating in 1958.

From there it was on to Syracuse University. As a sophomore in 1959, Ernie helped SU win its only national championship. In 1961, Davis became the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy - which was quite an achievement since many Southern voters of the time would not vote for a Black player. 

In 1962, Davis became eligible for the NFL draft. The Cleveland Browns sent future Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell and a first-round pick to Washington for the No. 1 overall choice, and took Davis. The dream was to have Ernie line up next to fullback Jim Brown to form a dream combination. In 1962, Davis prepared to play in the College All-Star game, only to become ill. The diagnosis was leukemia.  He suited up but did not play in a Browns' preseason game. Davis died on May 18, 1963.

If you are in Elmira, it's rather easy to pay your respects to this College Football Hall of Famer. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, not far (a little northwest and down the hill) from Mark Twain's grave. There are signs if you get close, but a stop at the office first might be in order. Davis is buried next to his mother. During our visit, we tossed the football a couple of times - thinking Ernie might like that.

Elmira, New York: Dunn Field

This has been the spot for baseball for years and years in Elmira. It contains more sports history than I thought - and I spent five years there in the 1960s. Who knew?

This spot used to host the Maple Avenue Driving Club in Elmira. In 1885, the Buffalo Bisons were finishing out their time in baseball's National League. They had sold most of their players away, and were using any warm body to fill out the lineup. (No wonder they closed with a 16-game losing streak.)

For whatever reason, the final double-header of the season for the Bisons was played in Elmira. Providence knocked off Buffalo twice. Still, this is the home of a major league game, played on October 10. Considering that Buffalo hosted the Blue Jays in 2020 and 2021, it's almost amazing that Buffalo's last games in the National League more than a century before that were played somewhere else.

Some more history arrived here in 1902. The first night pro football game to be played under lights was held here. The Philadelphia Athletics and Phillies of baseball team formed a football team that year, in a small league called, yes, the National Football League. On November 21, the Athletics played the Kanaweola Athletic Club of Elmira. Special trains from surrounding towns were set up so that more people could watch the games. Philadelphia was too good on this night, winning by a score of 39-0. 

(Thanks to Diane Janowski's story for information on the football game.)

Now back to baseball. Recreation Park was placed on this site, but it burned down in 1938. Dunn Field, named after a local businessman who donated the land, replaced it. Elmira hosted Class A and AA teams for several decades. Among the Hall of Famers who called this home were Jim Palmer and Wade Boggs. Earl Weaver managed here for a while, selling cars in the offseason to make ends meet. Don Zimmer got married at home plate here. The park, which is located very close to the Chemung River, got clobbered in 1972's flood, but it was fixed up. Eventually, the team - almost always called the Pioneers - fell off the minor league map.

Still, the building is used for a team in a summer college league. When we visited it, the top of the right field fence bent backwards. You'd think that balls that struck it might roll around like a marble in a toilet. Other events are staged there as well. 

A visit here is an exercise in nostalgia for me, since I watched minor league teams from the Orioles, Royals and Padres play Double A ball here. But what this place really deserves is a couple of historical markers.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Niagara Falls, New York: Wallenda Marker

Talk about guts!

Nic Wallenda cornered the market on that quality on June 12, 2012. That's when he walked on a high wire across the gorge that forms Niagara Falls between the United States and Canada. Wallenda did it with the Falls roaring below him, in front of a national television audience.

Now that "stroll" always will be remembered. An historical marker was placed in the area in July 2014. It's about 25 yards from the place where Wallenda started his walk. It ended safely on the Canadian side about 26 minutes later.

The rock used for the marker was taken from the gorge. Also attached is part of the wire that crossed the gorge that day.

Here's how Nik's walk looked when it happened:

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Monday, September 16, 2019

Sugarcreek, Ohio: World's Largest Cuckoo Clock

Sugarland has the nickname of "Little Switzerland." A visit there will never be confused to a trip to a village in the Alps. Still, there's a big reason for a detour to its downtown area.

Yes, the world's largest cuckoo clock is here.

The structure was first built in the early 1970s for a restaurant in Wilmot, Ohio - just up the road from Sugarcreek. When the restaurant closed, it moved to Sugarcreek and received some TLC.

Now it's on the main intersection of the town. Every half-hour from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. - from spring to fall - the cuckoo clock performs for audiences. It's all very well done.

For whatever reason, videos won't post on this site. So go to Plan B and click on the link.

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