Love brought Mark Twain to Elmira, NY. Olivia Langdon, the woman who eventually became his wife, lived with her family there. Once he met her he was smitten and courted her until she said yes.
Back then, though, he was still Samuel Clemens. Although they didn’t live in Elmira for a long time, they visited frequently and stayed there many summers. During their visits, he wrote many of his books and made a lasting impression on the town.
Elmira, NY today
Our recent trip to the southern tier of upstate NY had us staying near Elmira. I didn’t know about the Mark Twain connection beforehand but quickly found out about it.
Chemung Valley History Museum and Mark Twain
For me, learning all things Mark Twain and Elmira started at the Chemung Valley History Museum. As a person with very little knowledge about this area of New York, I loved getting an idea about the town through the museum. However, even people in the know will appreciate it.
The museum is small but filled with information. In some ways, it felt like more than a museum of just the Chemung Valley, or of a museum of Mark Twain’s time there, but of American history itself. Their exhibits included things like transportation through time, Elmira’s perspective of the Civil War (which is all the more interesting for me since I now live in North Carolina), and life in the town through history.
There was just enough interaction that my kids were more than happy. They especially loved the exhibit that shared the music through time and decided that Buffalo Springfield’s Vietnam War-era song “For What it’s Worth” was their favorite.
Mark Twain Exhibits
We were there to see Mark Twain, though. My original plan was to take the museum’s trolly tour of the city to see the Mark Twain sites. However, I learned that their Twain-focused tour starts later in the day. So we explored the museum and took in the section dedicated to Twain.
I couldn’t have planned it better myself. Setting up the Chemung Valley’s history in our minds, then focusing in on all of the aspects of Samuel Clemmens time there was the perfect introduction and re-introduction we needed.
Twain Country Trolley Tour
Our small group boarded the trolley. The tour guide greeted us. He was a local man who, you could just tell, loved talking about his town.
I’m not really going to get into the details of what he mentioned to us. Instead, I’m going to focus on the two major Mark Twain-related sites we saw on the tour. First up, Mark Twain’s Study.
Mark Twain’s Study at Elmira College
This gazebo-looking building above is Mark Twain’s study on the gorgeous campus of Elmira College. We learned that it was originally at his local home at Quarry Farm, but moved to this location in 1952 to protect it from vandals.
Sitting in the study was cool. I think even my kids, who like I said aren’t really familiar, could feel the historical impact. We learned that between the years of 1872 and 1903, on his various visits to Elmira, Twain wrote 13 stories or novels. Included in that lineup – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Mark Twain and the people of Elmira.
Elmira felt like the type of place where most of the locals have a personal story from their own ancestor’s first-hand experience with Mark Twain. Our tour guide shared with us that his great (great) grandfather lived next door to the Clemmens family and that he suspects that the character Jack Packard in chapter 12 of Huck Finn is based on his grandfather.
My kids are now very eager to meet this famous character when they read Huck Finn.
Mark Twain’s burial site: Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, NY
Our next stop was Mark Twain’s gravesite. Throughout our drive to these destinations, our tour guide shared stories of both Mark Twain and other important people and places of Elmira’s history. One story that I found interesting was how Samuel Clemmens became known as Mark Twain.
How Mark Twain got his name.
The tour guide explained that name was an homage to Clemmen’s childhood home. He grew up in Missouri, on the river and even worked on the river himself. The depth of the river was very important to know. And now I’m going to quote another Mark Twain Museum, The Boyhood Museum of Mark Twain:
What does “Mark Twain” mean?
On the river, the depth of the water was vitally important. A mark was the same as a fathom on the sea or six feet. Twain means two. If the man checking the depth called out “Mark Twain,” it meant a depth of twelve feet, “safe water” for riverboats of the day.
Mark Twain’s Burial Site
Once we got to his site, I immediately took a picture of the monument (above left). His grave is on the right. This is his wife, Olivia’s, family burial plot and it’s also where she and their children are buried.
Twain’s daughter had the monument made to commemorate her father, on the top, and her husband, on the bottom. What I thought was interesting, that was pointed out to us, is that the height of the monument is twelve feet – or a Mark Twain.
Visiting Elmira – Logistics and Tips
There’s so much more to the history of Elmira and to the stories in Mark Twain Trolley Tour than I mentioned in this post. I think it’s an important stop for fans of Mark Twain, and easy for anyone traveling between New York City and Niagara Falls.
Visiting from the Finger Lakes
Due to the nature of our trip, we based our family in Corning, NY. We stayed at the Staybridge Suites which was highly appreciated for the space – we had a two-bedroom hotel for the duration of our stay. The rooms and common area are a bit dated and for a shorter trip, I’d probably prefer to stay at the newer Hilton Garden Inn.
Elmira and Corning are just south of the Finger Lakes region. So, if your travels take you to the Finger Lakes, a visit to this area is an easy day trip. You’ll also want to make time to visit the fabulous Corning Museum of Glass.
The downtown area of Elmira had some local restaurants and the outskirts had more familiar national chains like the Olive Garden. However, I was more familiar with the restaurant options in Corning since we stayed there. The Gaffer District has a variety of food and I think I tried every one. The places that had the combination of great food and friendly service were Aniello’s Pizzeria and Fiesta Brava.
Other Mark Twain places around the U.S.
Mark Twain’s Elmira isn’t the only place that celebrates him. He was born and raised in Missouri, and there are several areas around the state for fans to visit.
Children’s books about Mark Twain
Prepare kids for a trip to Elmira, or just to learn more about one of America’s most famous authors, with the following children’s books:
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