History along the Chemung River Trail

Native American and Revolutionary War History

The Chemung River has a rich Native American History including the Forbidden Trail and historical village sites. Check out the sites below:

Historic Lowman, NY

Chemung Valley Living History
Revolutionary history and events

Susquehanna River Archaeological Center (SRAC)
Dedicated to education, research and preservation of the region's Native American archaeological, cultural and historical assets for the communities within the Twin Tier Region

Civil War Era History

The Chemung Basin featured a vast amount of arable land. Once soldiers recognized the area during the Revolutionary War, Europeans began settling in the area. Dairy, lumber, wool, and tobacco were primary industries. Farmers used the waterways within the Chemung Basin to ship their goods as far as Baltimore on wooden arks.
Learn more about the history of the arks and the Bicentennial Ark

Waterways, the canal, and the railroad system all influenced the development of the Chemung Basin. The construction of a local canal connected the Chemung River to Seneca Lake and the Erie Canal. The canal allowed for increased freight trade, but it was costly to maintain. By the mid-1800s, the railroad systems were the dominate trade route in the area and the canal became less important.
Learn more about the Chemung Canal

Civil War
Due to the variety of transportation routes in the area, a military base was established in Elmira. Soldiers from across New York State came to Elmira for training before their regiments were transported south. In the 1860s, a prison camp for Confederate solders was established in Elmira. Conditions at the camp were horrendous and one fourth of the Confederate prisoners died before the end of the War. John Jones buried these soldiers with care in the Woodlawn National Cemetery.
Learn more about the Elmira Prison Camp and the Woodlawn National Cemetery

Underground Railroad
The transportation opportunities in the area made the Chemung Basin an important destination for many slaves seeking freedom. Many local people harbored escaping slaves in homes, churches, cellars, and barns. Baggage cars departing from the railroad station in Elmira toward Niagara Falls often carried escaping slaves with the approval of abolitionists.

John Jones, the escaped slave was the caretaker of Woodlawn Cemetery, risked his livelihood in order to enhance the Underground Railroad in Elmira. He worked with leaders in Philadelphia to bring groups of escaping slaves to Elmira and he housed up to thirty slaves at a time. Jones also convinced the railroad baggage officials to hide the freedom-seekers on their journey to Canada and helped those who did not continue to traveling blend into the local community. For more information go to John Jones Museum.

Interestingly, Mark Twain’s writing was influenced by the Chemung River and the abolitionist history of Elmira. Twain enjoyed a view of the river from his summer study as he wrote many of his famous novels that frequently related to the issues related to abolitionist activities in Elmira at the time.

Industrial Era and the Flood of 1972

Modern History of the Chemung Basin

Industrial Era 
During the twentieth century, the extensive railroads and waterways allowed the Chemung River Basin become an important industrial center. manufacturing and retail

The Flood of 1972
In June of 1972, tropical storm Agnes moved up the coast from the Gulf of Mexico and caused dramatic record inland flooding. Agnes actually held the record as the most costly natural disaster in America until Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

The storm caused major destruction across New York State and in the Chemung and Susquehanna Basins. After almost ten inches of rain fell over the already saturated basin, the rivers crested at more than ten feet above flood stage. The flood caused over twenty deaths and millions of dollars worth of damage.

Many businesses in the Elmira were damaged during the flood. Flood waters rose to the ceiling of the Glass Museum in Corning and destroyed ancient glass objects. Utility lines, bridges, and homes were destroyed. The flood left many local residents stranded and disconnected. Local communities came together to rebuild after the storm, but the riverfront areas were forever changed by Agnes.

Learn more about Tropical Storm Agnes and the impact it had on Elmira

View other flood photos

Susquehanna River Archaeological Center (SRAC)
Dedicated to education, research and preservation of the region's Native American archaeological, cultural and historical assets for the communities within the Twin Tier Region.

Chemung Valley Historical Museum
Historic Lowman, NY

Elmira, NY
John Jones Museum
Chemung Valley Living History

Town of Big Flats Chemung River and feeder canals
Tobacco in Big Flats

The Historical Story of the Chemung River

A prominent member of our Society ask me when the Chemung river was named and by whom. The search that question started took me thru History books, early newspapers, and maps. The facts seem to be that the Delaware Indians moved into this area in 1756, found the Tusk and named the area and river Chemung a Delaware meaning “Horn in the Water”. It is recorded that this tusk was found near the area where the Riverside Cemetery is in the Town of Chemung. The Delaware Indians built a village just a stone throw from the area that the Mastodon tusk was found, and called it Chemung The village contained fifty or sixty houses, built of logs and frames, and situated on the banks of the (Chemung) branch of the Susquehanna River. It was near this village on August 13, 1779 the first clash between Gen John Sullivan troops led by Lieut.-Col. Adam Hubley met in battle and is well recorded in Col. Hubley journals. The name (Tioga) was used in journals of Officers, later historians, and mapmakers; with a survey in 1788 by New York State we became a part of Tioga County. In 1836 a Legislative Act separated the two counties, and we became Chemung with the river reverting to the name the Indians gave to it.

Map of Alexander C. Flick 1768-1780
Map Sullivan’s Expedition, 1779
The Andaste Trail to Painted Post by Ellsworth C. Cowles Map included dated 1615-1779
Map No.4 of surveys made by Lieut. Benjamin Lodge 1779
Journals of the Military by Frederick Cook Sec of State 1887
Journal of Lieut. Col. Adam Hubley.

Chemung River Statistics: The river is born where the Tioga and the Cohocton come together above Corning, N.Y. It flows southeast to a post-glacial pass just below Big Flats through an ice –gourged valley toward Elmira. The steep scarped hills above Fitch’s bridge are believed to be glacier –formed. From there it flows thru Elmira to Fort Reed and then southeast to Tioga Point where it joins the Susquehanna River below Athens, Pa. Nine –tenths of Chemung County is drained by the Chemung River into the Susquehanna Basin and then to the Chesapeake Bay. The remaining one-tenth is by Catherine Creek that drains north to Seneca Lake, to Lake Ontario, to the St. Lawrence River.

The major drainage streams within Chemung County are as follows: Newtown, Cayuta, Seeley, Baldwin, Sing Sing. Wynkoop, Bentley, And Post Creeks. The tributary rivers are four, the Tioga, Canisteo,Conhocton and Cowanesque. (* Plan of 1967)

The Chemung County Master Plan of 1967 *used the Chemung River in a fresh water park plan with an inflatable dam near Dunn field area. This created a slack water pool, which would have given Chemung County all the fresh water Recreation they later incorporated into Park Station County Park. People have always used the river for their recreation. Some would build a houseboats and float down the Chemung and Susquehanna rivers as far as time and means would permit. Winter ice-skating above the dam and the racing of horses below the Lake St. bridge on the river ice was the vogue before the turn of the 20th century. Sculling, canoeing and boating was enjoyed by the general public, and was done both above and below the dam. The Elmira boat club was formed around the turn of the 20th century. They maintained a boathouse at the foot of Columbia St. Here were kept two single racing shells, a double shell and two sail boats Many boating trips were made by the club, some all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. Towns at which they stopped would greet them as distinguished visitors, and allow them to pitch their tents on their village greens. Competing regattas against neighboring cities were popular .A small steam Powered sternwheeler named “Bertha Taylor” owned by I. Rood Taylor in 1888 carried passengers from Columbia Street to Rorick’s Glen. The fare was 25 cents.

Many young men joined Cottage Clubs along the river. There they could dine masculine style, play cards, go fishing, take a boat trip. Our September 1963 Journal has a excellent article by Edward L.Van Dyke of these River Cottages, and a exhibition catalogue by Michelle L. Cotton“A Century Of Outdoor Life And Recreation in The Southern Tier 1865-1965” is another publication that cries to be read. The dinning masculine style still goes on in Rod and Gun clubs today.

Like the Native Americans the early settlers settled along the river and creek banks. They cleared the land and used the river as their highway and the water to power their mills. Lumbering from 1798 thru the early 1840s was a major industry and the river was alive with log rafts and produce Arks Note: article Elm Sunday Telegram Feb 27,1955 by Frank A Reed.

The Baldwin flouring mill on West Water Street was run by waterpower generated at the dam., built by Isaac Baldwin. Today there are still rements of the Junction Canal dams with their piles still visible .at the, Jenkins and the Katy-did dams. The Junction Canal Dam called Johnny cake also furnished power for a mill at Wilawana, Pa.The Athens dam base stones can be seen when the river is clear.

Ferries and Fords: In the early days there were two ways to get across the river. One was, by fording, but there were only a few places this could be done at low water. Recorded fords were Rowland’s Eddy above the Mountain House and at Harrington’s Ford a mile up the river from Lowman (Crandall!-30-1955) Before bridges were built our first settlers relied on ferries that were located along the river banks. Some ferry locations are shown on our oldest maps, One historic account tells of a ferry in the Town of Chemung and of the house that the ferryman lived in which has been restored. Another was just above the Baldwin Island in the town of Ashland, and of course the Kline ferry where Madison Ave bridge is today. Travelers might have been expected to pay as much as a shilling for a two horse team, sixpence for a one horse rig, with many payments being paid in barly, whiskey, corn or butter. (Patterson3/19/1999)

There are recordings of people drowning in attempting to get across by fording, and down thru the years each generation has its story of tragic drownings. The river was used for recreation of swimming, boating, fishing and ice skating A number of tragedies are connected with well known dangerous places and these picked up names such as the green hole below the mill dam and the crook hole at Katy Did, And the big hole near Brands tobacco warehouse. A calamitous example was on June 21, 1910 when two 15-year-old teenagers drowned in the middle of the Baldwin Dam and was witnessed by several people .In 1843 a 880 word inspired poetry was composed on the death of 13 year old Martha Decker crossing the river on a horse.

In the year 1903 an escaped Sea Lion from a Cortland Trout park visited Elmira and was seen just below the Baldwin Dam near the foot of Collage Ave. The dam turned it back toward Madison and Lake Street bridges. The bridges and riverbanks were soon crowded with people. Ever available boat was brought into use to try and capture the animal to claim a reported large reward but the animal escaped.

On Saturday morning July 25,1903 the seal was seen was seen in the vicinity of Rock Spring brewery by three men bent on its capture. The area was in shallow water and they almost had it in their boat when it made a lunge at one of them. The Sea Lion was clubbed and died. It was placed on exhibition in the window of Berner’s café on East Water Street. It was five feet, one inch long and 15 inches thick weighing just 150 pounds. So ended a sorry but true story.

In the river are many islands, some quite extensive that stand like living emeralds to boys. In my youth with friends these all had to be explored. We spent many days, as only boys know how to spend a day out of doors, Fishing, boating, swimming and just exploring. What better way to spend a hot summer day than drifting down the river in a rowboat we found islands that were just grassy, some had a good stand of timber. Some were used as pasture and a few were cultivated. All were uninhabitable because of the high water. The river was our playground in the summer and with our bikes to get us there we swam in it from the Dunn field area up to Fitches bridge where the last water toboggan would allow us to skid half way across the river, and Fitches bridge was our diving tower.

I have found the names Wschummo, Shimango, Skeemonk, Shamunk. These are variations of a Delaware Indian word meaning “the big horn,” found in the riverbed. Other recorded Tusk finds from the (Star-Gazette 7/10/1988)1. A white settler found a 9-foot long tusk. It was sold.2.A second long tusk was found and sent to England in 1799 for scientific testing and never returned.3. In the 1840s, a tusk was found along the riverbank and sent to Lafayette College, where it was lost in a fire.4. Two teeth and a jawbone remnant were discovered near the Town of Chemung in 1872,and their where about are unknown.5.In 1933 a tooth is found in excavation at the Chemung County Jail and is kept in the Chemung County Historical Society. Other finds are recorded on page 266 of the March 1957 issue Chemung County Historical Journal.

Commercially the river was used to catch fish to peddle and there were several eel traps. It has always been a source for fur trappers. Until electric refrigeration. The harvest of ice was a large industry which kept many men employed.

The city of Elmira very tax base was developed from the River front lots in its earliest days. The Village of Elmira would lease the property along the river and the leases would build buildings for their use. Eventually they would buy the property and pay taxes on it. Down thru the years as Elmira downtown developed, property was sold, transferred, and sub-let. The need for additional space developed additions to the backend of these buildings. Cantilever unpainted overhanging porches gave an unsightly appearance from the south side when you approached from the bridges. During the 20s, 30s, 40s, &50s,the river was used as a garbage dump by the tenants of these buildings from College Ave east to Madison Ave. It was only cleaned when a storm raised the river level and washed the debris away. The concrete levee and urban renewal finally cleaned it up. Today’s fisherman claim that certain areas still have illegal dumping, but they also say fish are making a comeback.

This January 8,2001 The congregation of the Holy Trinity Orthodox Christian Church of Elmira Heights. Participated in a ceremony that they called theophany to bless the waters of the Chemung River. The ceremony reflects the importance of water to all life said the Rev, Jason Kappanadze their pastor. I think the Native Americans who first use the river for their transportation would agree and wonder why we waited so long to have this blessing.

Indians in Pennsylvania by Dr.Paul A. Wallace
The Passing Show by George Crandall
1.Sculling on the river 8/19/56
2.Racehorses on the river ice 12/30/56
3.River dams piles 6/17/56
4. Ice cut on the river 7/25/56
5. Johnnycake Dam furnish power 9/12/54
6. Build a houseboat 5/13/56
7. Flouring mill on Water St.was run by water power 6/19/55
8. A seal got into the river 3/21/57
9. Flood danger 9/11/57
Several maps of Chemung County showing ferries, fords & dams
Master Plan Studies Chemung County Planning Board Jan. 1962
Home in these Hills by Carleton Burke
Chemung County its History by the writers group of CCHS.
Articles by Lisa Ann Leland Elmira Star-Gazette 7/12/88
Article by Peter Gade 7/12/88
Articles by Mark Fleisher “Chemung the River in our lives
Articles by Ausburn Towner
River Engineering by encyclopedia
Survey, Map and profiles of N.Y.Lake Erie & Western Railroad
Indian Monument Dedication Painted Post, NY 5/30/50