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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Telephones and Telegraphs

Men working on a telephone pole on 
the corner of State and East Market Streets, 
circa 1900. Courtesy of Diane Janowski.
by Diane Janowski
Elmira City Historian

In 1846, Elmira was temporarily up-to-date. We had telegraph service thanks to Ezra Cornell who strung up a line from Ithaca to Elmira. Unfortunately, Elmirans did not use the new technology and Ezra, being a practical businessman, stopped the service after only a few months.

By 1847, Elmirans had a new working telegraph service running out of Hall’s Book Store at 334 East Water Street run by Francis Hall. Mr. Hall was also Elmira’s first express agent. Although Hall’s telegraph was a convenience it was not always reliable – the wires easily fell off their poles during high winds. In 1850, another telegraph office opened over Dr. Paine’s drug store on Water Street. The line ran from Elmira to Canandaigua and connected to the New York Central Railroad wires.

In 1852, an exclusive wire was strung for the Erie depot with an office in the American Hotel.

In 1855, Mr. Cornell connected lines between Addison and Newburgh with an office in Elmira. The Northern Central Railroad put up a line between Williamsport and Elmira with an office on Fifth Street.

The challenge for early telegraph service was that people only used them for emergencies and receipts barely covered expenses. Many small lines quickly went out of business.

Elmira’s Silk Mill

By Diane Janowski 
Elmira City Historian

Silk became an important industry in Elmira at the turn of the 20th century. In 1880 the heart of the silk industry was Paterson, New Jersey. When labor relations fell apart, mill owners began looking for other locations that had a large supply of low-cost labor to tend the new machines that were changing the way in silk was spun, knitted, and woven. That location was the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. The coalmines and heavy industries of eastern Pennsylvania were providing work for immigrant men, whose wives and children were available to work in silk mills.

The first mill in Allentown was a success, and soon communities all over the Valley were hoping to lure or create a silk mill. By 1914, the Lehigh Valley was the silk manufacturing center of the world. One of the mills that left Paterson in the 1887 was Read and Lovatt who opened a factory in Weatherly, PA, outside of Hazleton. They opened a second factory in Elmira and a third in Palmerton, PA. The Weatherly operation was the largest spinning mill in the US at the time.

Jerome C. Read was president of Read & Lovatt, and was the president of the Silk Association of America from 1910-1913. He started the business in Elmira in 1887 in the abandoned Barnett Mill at Madison and Fifth Streets. Read & Lovatt began operations with 40 employees. Any boy or girl, 13 years of age or older, could apply for a job at the mill. The owners spent $60,000 for a new building designed by Pierce & Bickford at the same location in 1893.
Nathan and Polly Teall’s gravestone
in Geneva’s Washington Street Cemetery.
Photo courtesy of Mark Gossoo.
By Diane Janowski
Elmira City Historian

According to legend, Captain Nathan Teall came to Newtown (now Elmira) around 1794 and opened Teall’s Tavern on Sullivan Street near East Water. One of the frequent guests was State Assemblyman Judge Emmanuel Coryell who lived somewhere between Athens and Owego. At the time Judge Coryell was head of a committee to change the name of Newtown as there were several other Newtowns in the state.

According to the Star Gazette on June 27, 1939, “One night in 1806 little Elmira Teall, Nathan’s youngest daughter climbed into his [Coryell’s] lap and went to sleep. Noticing her beauty, Judge Coryell thought it matched the beauty of the surrounding country and later according to the story asked for the Board of Trustees to change the name of Newtown to Elmira. The name Elmira is said to come from Spanish words of Moorish origin ‘El Mira’ meaning beautiful outlook.’ Wellington’s troops took the name back to England from their Spanish campaigns, and eventually it became the name of a character in a book. It is surmised that Mrs. Teall had read the book and named her youngest child after that character.”

But who was Elmira Teall, and what’s her story? I had to do some detective work.

The Tealls lived in Elmira until around 1805 when they moved to Horseheads with their five daughters and four sons. Shortly thereafter they moved to Watkins Glen. The Tealls operated a tavern at the foot of Seneca Lake near today’s Harbor Hotel. It was a popular spot for tourists who traveled around Seneca Lake. Visitors stopped at Teall’s Tavern for “a glass of their favorite wine or one of those ‘slings’ fashionable at the time.” The October 30, 1894 Geneva Advertiser described Nathan Teall as a “jovial landlord with a hearty welcome to greet the coming guest, and just as cheery a goodbye to speed the departing guest. Mrs. Polly Teall was a model landlady.”

First Day of School - The Norton Sisters’ Kindergarten

First Day of School - The Norton Sisters' Kindergarten
by Diane Janowski
Elmira City Historian

The concept of an “infant school” as a separate learning environment for pre-school children goes back to 1779 in Strasbourg, Austria. The idea was refined, and by 1820 there were several infant schools in Europe. German scholars experimented and renamed the concept “Kindergarten” which is German for “children’s garden” in 1840. Women were trained under this model and opened kindergartens throughout Europe. The first Kindergarten in the United States opened in Watertown, Wisconsin in 1856.

Young educator Miss Mary Emily Norton taught at Elmira’s Diven School around 1880. She was a forward thinker and knew what was happening in the German education system.

Mary Emily quit her position at Diven School and went to New York City to study this “kindergarten” idea and how she could implement it in Elmira.

She came back to Elmira in September 1885 armed with ideas of blocks, paints and crayons, scissors and paper, and the knowledge that she learned while in New York City.

The "California Arrow" Visits Elmira

The “California Arrow” from the Atlanta 
Constitution, Nov. 6, 1904.
By Diane Janowski
Elmira City Historian
In 1906, the Elmira Sunday Telegram advertised “Chemung County Fair September 17 - Two Daily Airship Flights by Captain Thomas S. Baldwin who demonstrated his ability to Navigate the Air at the St. Louis and Portland Expositions.”

Baldwin was a showman and entrepreneur who specialized in balloon ascents, and in 1885 was the first person (or one of the first) to use a parachute at airshows. When he realized that the public was becoming bored with hot air balloons, he thought of a way to energize them.

Alberto Santos-Dumont in France had developed a dirigible – a balloon with a motor capable to maneuver through the air. Baldwin went to France to study Santos-Dumont’s designs.

Baldwin was very interested in Hammondsport native Glenn Curtiss’s motorcycle engines and the possibility of combining a balloon with an engine. In 1904, after seeing a Curtiss motorcycle in action, he ordered a V-Twin engine from the G. H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company, and mounted it on the California Arrow. A wooden cedar frame held the engine. The pilot stood on the frame, and used his weight to balance the airship.

The aerodynamic cigar-shaped gasbag was made of silk sealed with linseed oil, and filled with hydrogen. The bag was 54-feet long, and was painted silver. The whole apparatus including the engine weighed 520 pounds.

It was a triumph. Baldwin came to Hammondsport to meet Curtiss. The California Arrow was the first successfully flown dirigible in the United States.

The Arrow was scheduled for its first Elmira flight from the Chemung County Fair on the afternoon of Thursday September 19, 1906, but the rudder broke in practice. At about 6:30PM, the crew finished repairs and Baldwin took off for a trial flight around the fairgrounds. He promised to visit Elmira the next day.

The next morning, with winds slightly too strong for flying dirigibles, Baldwin ascended 2,000 feet above the fairgrounds, then headed south along the hills east of the city until he was over East Clinton Street. Then he turned right and cut across Elmira towards City Hall. When he was discovered, the fire bell tolled, factory whistles were blown, and Elmirans climbed to the tops of downtown buildings and expressed their shouts of approval. The Arrow circled City Hall, then turned north to fly over the north side for the return trip, much to the delight of Northsiders.

The airship landed at the fairgrounds after being airborne for thirty minutes. Baldwin stated that it was one of his most successful ascensions, and the first flight that he had made in New York State. It was also Elmira’s first look at a dirigible.

The California Arrow was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake on April 18, 1906. It, and four other airships were in storage at Baldwin’s Market Street factory. With only one airship remaining, Baldwin moved to Hammondsport to be closer to Curtiss’s expertise. In collaboration with Curtiss, Baldwin received an Army contract in 1908 and built three dirigibles. He built several airplanes between 1911 and 1913. In 1914, he built a dirigible for the Navy. Years later he enlisted in World War 1 in the Signal Corps as Chief of Balloon Inspection and Production. Baldwin died in Buffalo in 1923.


Elmira Gazette September 12, 19 and 20, 1906

Elmira Telegram September 19 and 20, 1906

His Mother Called Him "Harry"

Hal Roach, circa 1920,
American film producer,
director, and actor.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
by Diane Janowski
Elmira City Historian

Harold “Hal” Roach was an Elmira boy, born the son of Charles and Mabel Roach of Columbia Street on January 14, 1892. Although others called him “Hal,” his mother called him “Harry.” Young Hal’s first job was as a newspaper deliverer. One of his customers lived at Quarry Farm - Samuel Clemens.

In several Star-Gazette interviews, Hal said his childhood in Elmira was a happy one. In one interview Hal said, “Elmira was a fine place for a boy to grow up.” He recalled playing in Grove Park as a child. After his death in 1992, Elmira renamed the park pavilion in his honor.

Hal claimed to have “attended and been kicked out of almost every school in Elmira.” St. Patrick’s, Booth, and Elmira Free Academy schools officially claim him as a former student. He attended EFA for a short period, and played football on its team. After his EFA expulsion in 1908 at age 16, Hal’s father “strongly suggested” that Hal leave home in hopes that “traveling would help him grow up.”

Roach went as far from Elmira as he could - Alaska. He mined for gold and when that did not prove advantageous, he delivered mail for two years in “Uncle Sam’s service” (in Alaska) riding a horse for long distances through the wilderness. After nearly losing one foot to frostbite, Hal decided upon a less strenuous job. While on vacation in Los Angeles, he happened to meet some people connected with the motion picture business, and because of his riding skills learned while delivering mail, he secured himself a job as an extra in a movie. As an extra, the director placed him in a gambling den scene. The director did not know the game nor did the other extras, but Hal did. Hal straightened out some details, and the director rewarded him a regular job.

Hal worked hard and finally became the assistant director. Eventually in 1915, he formed a company with Dan Linthicum. Dan supplied the money, while Hal supplied the brains. They took the first letters of their names, R-O-L-I-N, as their company name. The companies who bought their movies went broke and with Rolin’s capital down to zero, Roach decided to risk it all on one last effort. Their next movie had no story, or “rhyme or reason.” Hal called it “Just Nuts” with Harold Lloyd, and sent it to the Pathè Movie Company. Pathè bought it and asked for several more. Hal’s company had more good players - including Harry Pollard, and Bebe Daniels.

Rolin had its own studio, several directors and all the money it needed. Hal worked hard for his success. Elmira’s Regent Theater made famous his “Lonesome Luke” comedies locally.

Neither Mr. Roach bought nor wrote any scenario. He thought out comedy situations, outlined his ideas to his company, and put his crew to it. This method proved successful. According to IMDB, Hal produced 650 films in his lifetime.

In 1937, Mrs. Roach visited Elmira to renew acquaintances with her old friends. She told the Elmira Star-Gazette that since she moved to California in 1916, she had met Joan Crawford, Mary Pickford, Claudette Colbert, and Jean Harlow. Mrs. Roach said that she was proud of her son, and that she and her husband were reluctant to leave Elmira when Hal coaxed them to move to California “where there was real living.” She said that she did not regret moving west although she missed her friends in Elmira. She lived at her son’s studio in Culver City, California until her death. Hal died in 1992 at age 100, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.


Elmira Advertiser, September 15, 1916.

Elmira Star-Gazette, June 13, 1937.

Elmira Star-Gazette, January 12, 1992.

Zen Zeno “The River Kid”

by Diane Janowski
Elmira City Historian
Stephen Peer crossing the Niagara River.

My job as City Historian requires me to answer questions – lots of questions. Many start with, “Did this really happen?” Sometimes I can answer, “Positively,” or “Absolutely not.” Then, there are the questions with answers that are somewhere in-between.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a family that had a question about their father who lived in Elmira in the 1940s. “Dad” often spoke of his being 4 years old, walking out onto the winter ice on Brick Pond, falling through and drowning. Fortunately, he revived within a few minutes. The family wanted to know if the Star-Gazette reported the drowning incident. In the process of researching, I found out other things about the child that the family did not know. “Dad” was a frequent visitor of the St. Joseph’s emergency room with at least two other incidents before the age of four – once for getting cut with a piece of glass, and the other for falling out of a cart - both newsworthy enough for the Star-Gazette. However, I did not find mention of his drowning. That is not to say that it did not happen. He may have recovered very quickly and not needed medical attention. The family did enjoy reading about the two other incidents.

Another recent question came from a childhood friend of mine, Lu Randall, whose grandparents lived on my childhood street five houses up from my parents. Lu recalled her family’s lore about the contractor who built that house at 506 Esty Street. She told me a long fun story. I asked myself if this could be true.

Dreaming of Freedom

First page of the Newtown (now Elmira)
section of the Tioga County (now Chemung)
1810 census.
By Diane Janowski
Elmira City Historian 

In 2002, I had the opportunity to work for James Loewen, sociologist, and professor of race relations at the University of Vermont, and author of Lies Across America, and Lies My Teacher Told Me. He was finishing a book called Sundown Towns and needed information about African Americans in Elmira in the early 20th century.

I had to look up what a “sundown town” was. It means a town that is “white on purpose.” This idea dated from around 1900 to 1950. According to his census research about Elmira, West Elmira in particular, he believed it to be a sundown town. Wikipedia says in sundown towns “restrictions were enforced by some combination of discriminatory local laws, intimidation, and violence.” Some towns had posted signs stating that people of color were allowed to be in the town limits in the daytime, but had to be out by sundown.

My first reaction was “Of course not. Not in my Elmira.” But, I thought of Loewen’s book. Maybe I am naïve. He claimed he could tell from census records, which towns were and were not, sundown towns, and West Elmira fit his criteria. In other towns, people did remember the signs and the rules. So, I started asking people who were alive in the 1920s and 30s if this was true, or if they had ever heard about sundown rules locally, or remembered the signs. I asked about 20 people, and they all said, “No.” I looked in old newspapers. Nothing. I relayed my information to Mr. Loewen, and probably because of me, Elmira is not listed in his book. It is however listed as a “possible” sundown town on his website.