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History Happened Here

God’s Handprint

June 2024
6min read

Beautiful scenery abounds in the southern tier of New York’s Finger Lakes, but so does rich history, all intimately tied to the land

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.

Corning Inc.’s sway in municipal matters is apparent on the city’s main street. Market Street teems with stately stone buildings, calligraphic signs, and geraniums blooming from giant planters; every side of the street is the sunny side. It’s hard to believe it was once an eyesore. After a 1972 flood, community members launched an effort to rid Market Street of the garish billboards and haphazardly slapped-on additions that had hidden its historic architecture. In 1974 the Corning Glass Works Foundation, through a seed grant, helped create the Market Street Restoration Agency; it would become the model for countless restoration programs. Still funded entirely by Corning Inc., it offers free design services to any Market Street business that wants to renovate. Almost all of them have.

Market Street today, rather than being frozen in one era, presents a mélange of periods, from the Victorian Ice Cream Works to the volcanic rock-faced 1960s YMCA. As the city’s idealized epicenter, the street is the locus for several community events throughout the year, including a jazz festival, a farmer’s market, and, as part of “A Crystal City Christmas,” a gingerbread walk. This last is perhaps the most appropriate, because Market Street—and Corning as a whole —is a gingerbread village year-round, sweet, fanciful, and contrived. Everything not quaint is hidden from sight: Even as it offers full views of not one but five factories, it maintains a surreal picturesqueness.

Just twenty-six miles from the street where Corning has stopped time, Hammondsport’s Curtiss Museum commemorates the man who propelled New York—and the nation—into the speed-hungry, aviation-mad twentieth century. Glenn Curtiss first won fame as a motorcycle man. The bike-shop owner created his first motorcycle by fastening a single-cylinder engine- with a carburetor fashioned from a tomato can—to one of his bicycles. By 1907 he was being called the fastest man on earth, having gunned his forty-horsepower V-8 motorcycle 136.3 miles per hour down a Florida beach.

His motorcycles are the first exhibit in the Curtiss Museum. Really bicycles with engines where the pedals should be, they resemble the steroidal motorcycles of today about as much as Curtiss’s diaphanous June Bug resembles a DC-10. The museum’s reproduction of the 1908 plane looks like a glorified kite strung together with wire and bamboo, but the June Bug nonetheless took Curtiss almost two kilometers through the air in the firstever preannounced, officially observed flight. The plane was a result of Curtiss’s membership in the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), a five-man group assembled by an aging Alexander Graham Bell.

The AEA had moved headquarters the previous winter from Bell’s summer home in Nova Scotia to Curtiss’s hometown, Hammondsport, on the southern tip of Keuka Lake. It was an astute decision. The same air currents that waft off the Finger Lakes to nurture grapes also buoyed flying machines (and hang gliders today). Curtiss’s feat with the June Bug provided grist for the area’s penchant for handing itself prestigious titles; it is not only the Wine Capital of America, the Crystal City, and the Soaring Capital of America, but also the Cradle of Aviation, a title that has proved problematic.

The June Bug first flew four and a half years after two other bike-shop owners, the Wright brothers, had quietly made their initial powered flights at Kitty Hawk. But most Americans thought of Curtiss as the first in the air: He reveled in his ever-growing publicity while the Wright brothers remained taciturn about their achievements until it was too late. The Curtiss Museum alludes to, but plays down, the trouble that followed. In 1909 the Wrights filed a patent suit against Curtiss, kicking off eight years of countercharges, injunctions, and appeals. Both parties were too stubborn to settle, and while they squabbled, aviation progress ground to a halt. Upon the United States’s entry into World War I, however, the government imposed a patent pool on all industry members, effectively ending the dispute.

The museum keeps a spot for Curtiss’s once-ubiquitous Jenny, the plane in whose open cockpit many World War I pilots and 1920s barnstormers learned to fly. Visitors to the museum can also explore a restoration shop and peer into work being done on old aircraft; with its wrenches and pliers hanging on the wall, the operation feels like the Hammondsport shop must have when a man with a grade school education tinkered his way into technological history.

In 1948, following in Curtiss’s speeddemon footsteps, a Cornell law student named Cameron Argetsinger got the blessing of both the Chamber of Commerce of Watkins Glen, a hamlet on the southern shore of Seneca Lake, and the Sports Car Club of America to hold a road race. Nearly ten thousand locals thronged a 6.6-mile course that October to watch Argetsinger reintroduce auto racing to postwar America. Travelers can still follow the winding course on which those early drivers competed over Watkins Glen’s verdant dips, bends, and curves.

Two tragic accidents in the early 1950s presaged the demise of the 6.6mile course, and by 1956 Watkins Glen had a closed 2.3-mile circuit; by 1961 it was home to the U.S. Grand Prix. The track hit hard times in the early 1980s, however, and lost the Grand Prix and all racing at that level. Corning Inc. came to the rescue and bought the track in 1983 in a joint venture with the International Speedway Corporation. Three years later cars were blistering around the renovated facility at the track’s Winston Cup event. To honor its half-century of automobile races, and in accordance with the local voracity for superlatives, Watkins Glen has dubbed itself the Home of American Road Racing.

All the honorifics get a little hokey, yes. But what’s truly superlative is that this one stretch of rural New York has a pretty good claim to all of them. Anywhere else the whine of a sports car, the sputter of a proto-airplane, and the chime of toasting wineglasses might sound cacophonous. But here these historical echoes harmonize well. And if you listen, and follow the reverberations back through time, you’ll hear the oldest and quietest sounds, the whispering of trees on the hills and the soft lapping of the eleven Finger Lakes, wielding the baton.

—Christine Gibson

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