Essay IV. Stepping Stones into the Past
This fourth essay, entitled "Stepping Stones into the Past," draws upon the research skills I learned as a historian. The stepping stones come from a variety of sources—each of which reaches progressively further back in time: a contemporary village official, a recently published book, and books published in 1937, 1873 and 1843.
While visiting the Hammondsport Glen I had sensed the presence of stories all around me. Like mists, they had risen above the concrete channel that carried the stream down to the lake; they had drifted around the large stone building that stood at the entrance to the ravine; and they had filled the glen itself. Just what those stories were, I didn't know. But I was sure that Grandma had said nothing regarding them—which meant that they had revealed themselves directly to me, without her mediation.
My next step was to begin collecting the information needed to amplify these hints from the glen. Here I felt Grandma's presence more strongly, for I knew from studying her papers that she had followed a similar procedure when preparing her stories. But Grandma was a master storyteller, able to assimilate her research material so fully that she often gave the impression of having known it all along. By contrast, my tendency was to leave the material only partially assimilated- shaping it into a series of stepping stones for reaching into the past.
Stepping Stone No. 1
One weekday afternoon in late November 1991, I pulled into the graveled lot behind the Curtiss Museum. The museum itself was closed for the season. But the same building also housed village offices, and as I walked around the lobby I noticed that the door to the Water and Street Department was open.
"What do you call the new concrete channel that carries Glen Brook?" I asked the woman who stood behind the counter.
"The Glen Brook Flume," she replied, in a cheerful yet business-like tone.
From her I also learned that the structure had taken about a year to complete, had cost the state about a million dollars, and had replaced the one designed by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers after the 1935 flood.
Stepping Stone No. 2
While browsing through the "Local Interest" section at Borders Book Shop in Rochester, I came across Charles Champlin's account of his years growing up in Hammondsport. Entitled Back There Where the Past Was: A Small-Town Boyhood, (Syracuse Univ. Press. 1985), the book included an account of the 1935 flood. So much water had drained off the hills and had funneled through the glen so quickly that the stone retaining walls gave way and the stream began gouging a new channel through the village. Meanwhile, the flood also destroyed an old warehouse in the glen-thereby flushing out several hundred barrels of brandy. "For a nine-year-old," Champlin reminisced in his book (p. 134):
the brandy-chasing was only one of the flood's excitements. There were bulldozers, steam shovels, and dump trucks everywhere, trying to clear away the debris. There were chasms where the streets had been and rock piles where lawns had been, cars buried in mud. The whole lake had gone from blue to brown with the runoff.
Stepping Stone No. 3
From a map on the wall at the Curtiss Museum, I noted the location of Curtiss's bicycle shop. Although it was only a few blocks away, I couldn't picture the site—so off I went for a fresh look.
After reaching Pulteney Square, I turned toward the nearby hill. On the other side of Pulteney Street was a grocery store (O'Brien's Market)—next to which was a parking lot that extended back to the Glen Brook Flume. As best I could tell, Curtiss's bicycle shop once stood where that parking lot is now.
But Curtiss and the stream had been tied together in another significant way. From Clara Studer's 1937 biography, Sky Storming Yankee: The Life of Glenn Curtiss (pp. 18-19), I learned about developments prior to the aviator's birth in 1878:
The rugged contours responsible for its champagne industry also made the region good scenic playground material. It occurred to J. P. Barnes, a natural promoter, that the ravine to the north of town might well be turned into as profitable a source of revenue as Watkins Glen, near Ithaca, New York.
For the first half mile the bed of the stream lies between cleancut stone walls; then comes a series of waterfalls. Beyond this are other cataracts, rimmed by a border of sturdy pine trees. Barnes built in stair steps [and] railings, bridged over the falls[,] officially re-christened it the "Glen" and charged admission. Various concessions were installed along the slope. For several years it proved a successful enterprise, then its popularity declined. Fellow townsmen liked to tease Barnes by asking him what ever happened to his Glen. With some bitterness he would mutter that he didn't know "what ever became of the damned old gully."
But a few sentimental souls still remembered it. Lua Curtiss was one of those who went there now and then. The Glen was the prettiest place she knew, so pretty she thought she ought to name her first baby after it. With another "n" added "to make it look more like a name," she called him Glenn Hammond Curtiss. The middle name was taken from the town itself, or its first settler, Lazarus Hammond.
Stepping Stone No. 4
In the course of researching the glen, I also consulted W. W. Clayton's History of Steuben County. Originally published in 1873, the book provides a richly detailed view of the region—which is why it remains an important historical reference work.
Described in the section on Hammondsport (p. 413) was the stone building I'd seen. Long used as a warehouse, it had originally been a marvel of early 19th-century technology:
The Mallory stone mill, which still stands as one of the prominent landmarks, was begun by Meridith Mallory, of Yates County, in 1835, and finished in 1836. About $30,000 were invested in the engineering and construction of the mill, which were entirely sunk, as the enterprise never paid a cent on a hundred dollars. The mill is four stories in height and was supplied with three overshot wheels, one above another; the water, which had an immense fall, was brought from the "Gulf Stream," in a canal or race dug along the side-hill. John Capell, of Penn Yan, was the master millwright, and Mr. Van Autrick, a son-in-law of Mr. Mallory, the engineer. The mill was a first-class merchant- and custom-mill, with four run of stones, and finished in splendid order. Had the expectations of Mr. Mallory been realized, it no doubt would have been a fine property.
What had first piqued my interest in the glen was a passage from the geologic survey of New York State that James Hall had prepared for publication in 1843. "At Hammondsport," Hall had noted, "in the ravine above Mallory's mill, we find about three hundred feet of rocks exposed..." (Geology of New York, Part 4, p. 480).
The existence of that vast bluff intrigued me. Even in early 1991 when I had first looked through the book, I knew enough about Hammondsport to be sure that the exposed straia could not be seen from the village. Yet Hall's description made the site sound so close that I felt certain I could find it.
But how to proceed with the search? Here an important clue came from another part of the book. During his travels Hall had been accompanied by his wife Sarah, and it was she who had prepared the engravings used to illustrate the text. Among these was a full-page view of the "Ravine at Hammondsport, Steuben County, N. Y." (Plate XVI):
For me, that engraving served as an invitation: it offered an image of what to look for the next time I was in Hammondsport.
© 1993, Thomas D. Cornell