God’s Handprint

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Boosters anywhere will argue that their home feels like a little slice of heaven, but western New York’s more stalwart denizens allege that the region has actually been touched by divinity. They refer to New York’s eleven Finger Lakes, so named because the Iroquois believed the Creator left two handprint signatures there after finishing the world. Geologists now know Ice Age glaciers carved the lakes and enveloping hills as they retreated. But whether bestowed by glaciers or a polydactyl God, this region’s luscious geography has given rise to surprisingly diverse attractions.

Two hundred thousand gallons of wine pour out of the area every year, for one. The Finger Lakes’ dozens of vintners discovered nearly a century and a half ago that air fanning off the water warms the nearby hills, creating the perfect, humid climate for grapes. Amid the vineyards, various of America’s movers and shakers also blossomed. Some left an indelible mark on the region, like Mark Twain, who summered in Elmira and married one of its native daughters. Today he lies buried in that town’s shady Woodlawn Cemetery, and the octagonal building in which he wrote Tom Sawyer now Stands on the leafy campus of Elmira College. Others, like the birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger, whose impoverished family stuck out from Coming’s snobbish Victorian society, merely marked time there on the way to history. But any of them would be hard pressed to forget the Finger Lakes’ myriad geographical charms.

Of course, trolling around a lake, cruising the winding hill roads, or lolling in the sun with a bottle of local Riesling are the easiest things to do here; they’d be the easiest anywhere. But as its enthusiastic residents will assure you, the area is also crammed with multiple—and at first apparently wildly disparate- historical attractions. Granted, ignoring the beauty shining in from all sides to concentrate on history is hard, but luckily it’s also unnecessary, because those very mountains and hills invited the history makers. Take as evidence Corning, an elaborately adorable little city about twenty miles southwest of Seneca, the widest of the Finger Lakes.

By 1868 Corning was a prosperous but waning logging town linked to the Hudson River by the Erie Railroad. Having stripped the surrounding hills bald, the town’s fathers decided to lure a new industry. The pulverized rock and sand dusting the area—leftovers from the long-departed glaciers—made glass the clear choice.

Meanwhile, fifty-five-year-old Amory Houghton, the owner of New York’s Brooklyn Flint Glass Works, was wearying of the costs of his outfit’s urban home. When a Corning banker, Elias Hungerford, approached him in 1868, the offer was tempting. Corning looked like paradise, with its connection to railroads and the Erie Canal, proximity to cheap Pennsylvania coal, and surplus of skilled labor. The fifty thousand dollars Hungerford offered Houghton to move sealed the deal.

In 1875 the company took the name of its new hometown to become the Corning Glass Works (today Corning Inc.). Soon the glass works earned its town a second name, the Crystal City. Independent glass blowers flocked to be near the company that was making globes for Edison’s new light bulb; then developing Pyrex; then in 1934 casting a two-hundred-inch disk for the Palomar Observatory’s Hale telescope; and later developing the soon-omnipresent Corning Ware. At one point fifty-five glass businesses clustered in town—visitors can still wander into numerous glass shops along Coming’s main street—and as the glass works thrived, the city prospered in turn, today most evident in the improbably large Victorian houses crowded together on South Side Hill.

Corning’s true crowning glory, however, is the Corning Glass Center. Arthur Houehton (a descendant of Amory) first conceived of a permanent glass center in Corning in 1951 as a temple to the beauty and technology of glass. Today the center, whose billowing shape and space-age glass facade lend it the look of a pool of water glinting in the sun, houses a studio for glass artists, shops in which to buy pieces from Steuben, Coming’s artglass division, and, most interestingly, the Corning Museum of Glass.

A translucent bridge made of—what else?—leads into the museum. The gallery is arranged chronologically, so the reverently lit pieces seem to evolve from one to the next. The museum owns some thirty thousand pieces of glass; the exhibits trace glassmaking from its volcanic origins, through Europe’s centuries of voluptuous vases and dazzling cut-glass bowls, to the studio art of today. Looking at a millennia-old, thumb-sized head of Amenhotep II, or at the museum’s frilly Renaissance-era Venetian goblets, I marveled that all this intricate glass had survived, considering the frequency with which the average person breaks the material.