“Chief Clerk,” the Erie Indian and his dog, who reigned for 70 years in “old Elmira,” is just a memory. For many today, not even that.
But the coming and going of “the Chief” recalls the memory of vibrant times in Elmira’s history when Railroad Avenue was alive and well.
According to former County Historian Tom Byrne, the “Chief” was one of a half-dozen statues with which Dr. Edwin Eldridge decorated his park around 1870. He was given to Eldridge by “Gentleman” Jim Fisk, of the Erie Railroad, who was a business associate. Dr. Eldridge’s will provide that if the city did not take over his park upon his death, the Chief statue would be moved to the Erie Depot on Railroad Avenue. Eldridge died in 1876, and with no action by the city until 1890, the statue was relocated.
Byrne noted that beginning in the 1940’s, “vandals” began to assault Chief Clerk. His tomahawk was taken numerous times, his arm was fractured, and in December of 1951, according to the Star-Gazette, “the coup de grace was administered by three Cornellians, police said. The statue was pretty well shattered even though a fence had been erected around it. The Erie sadly pronounced the old boy beyond repair.”
One wit, in an unsigned, undated effort article, noted that “the Erie assigned him to the defense as scrap in January 11, 1952 rather than pay his ‘doctor’ bills.”
Recently I had a stroll down “memory lane” with Jan van den Blink. His enthusiasm for the history, and indeed the changes which have occurred, was infectious. The fact that he succeeded his grandfather and mother as the president of the Hilliard Corp. perhaps explains his commitment to the story of this brick paved street between the old and new, the fully restored and the empty lots.
Walking out of the Hilliard plant, which opened in 1905, we strolled over to the Moore Business Forms building on McGee Street, which is very close by and runs parallel to Railroad Avenue. Jan pointed out the embroidered name of the American Sales Book Co. over the door and also noted that the current Hilliard parking lot was formerly the site of a building, which was connected to the Moore building by an enclosed “bridge” over McGee Street.
The American Sales Book Co. was founded in 18 and joined the Moore Group in 1929. eventually in 1945, it was consolidated into the single name Moore Business Forms. The March 11, 1930 Star-Gazette reported that “Perhaps no other company has contributed more to the industrial fame of Elmira than the American Sales Book Company, Ltd. of this city and Niagara Falls. Through the quality distribution of its products and by national advertisement … it is the largest manufacturing company of its kind in the world.” Hilliard purchased the Moore property in 1985.
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We then walked over to Railroad Avenue, with Jan specifically calling attention to the brick paved street. Hilliard Corp. owns the street and the properties on both sides. One side has a modern building housing many Hilliard operations, having replaced the old street front. The other side is the former Erie Railroad Depot, constructed in the late 1860’s, which Hilliard purchased in 1983 with a plan for preservation. South of the intersection of Railroad Avenue and West Third Street is the site of the former American Hotel, now a vacant lot.
When the Erie Railroad first arrived in 1849, Elmira had about 3,000 residents. With that arrival, their fates were linked. A symbol of their success would be the Erie Station built in 1867 and 1868, and opening in 1869. It was noted in an unidentified article on Sept. 14, 1869 that “The stones used in the construction of the building are brought from Susquehanna and Waverly, and with excellent brick obtained from Horseheads, give promise of that solidity of which not a tithe has been said in some buildings we wot of.”
Jim O’Hara wrote in the Aug. 2, 1959 Star-Gazette that “in 1935 the Erie depot in Elmira was a virtual beehive of activity. On an average day 20 passenger trains loaded up with travelers bound on business or vacation trips.” At the time of his writing, it was down to “six a day.”
In the 1930’s, opposite the Erie Depot, the 500 block of Railroad Avenue included the Roma Hotel, State Hotel, City Hotel, Globe Hotel and Palace Hotel. At 113-115 West Third St. was the American Hotel, which had been built in 1835.
Garth Wade reported in the Feb. 4, 1981 Star-Gazette that “The American is a symbol of Elmira’s busy days, a time when the nearby Erie Railroad station hummed with activity. A time when folks from places like Hornell and Waverly came via the Erie to shop in Elmira, and a time when the area’s military men counted on the Erie to bring them home from war.”
Jim Hare is a former history teacher and mayor of the City of Elmira. His column appears monthly in the Star-Gazette.