What to Do in the Finger Lakes: Elmira’s Mark Twain
For the bookish. Image by Kayti Burt.
Looking for a low-key, culture-rich locale to escape the hustle and bustle of your daily life? The Finger Lakes region of New York might be just the ticket. You would be in good company, too. Great American author Mark Twain — AKA Samuel Clemens — spent more than 20 summers visiting and writing in Elmira, New York, one of the larger cities in the southern Finger Lakes region, with just under 30,000 residents.
Twain penned some of his most celebrated works here, and it’s easy to see why. The region is renowned for its beauty, but it also has a commitment to cultural history and an eye on progress that does Twain proud. The city is home to Elmira College, one of the first institutions of higher learning for women in the country (It has since gone co-educational.) and the alma mater of Twain’s wife, Oliva Langdon. Twain and Olivia married in 1870, and Twain spent many subsequent summers visiting his in-laws in the region.
Last month I was lucky enough to spent some time exploring Mark Twain’s connection to the region as part of a larger trip to the Finger Lakes. Here’s everything you need to know about taking your own trip to “Mark Twain Country” to get to better know the fascinating man behind classics like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and The Prince and the Pauper.
What to Do in Elmira, New York
Enter hallowed ground — Mark Twain’s study at Elmira College.
Though Samuel Clemens’s primary residence was in Hartford, Connecticut, he got much of his writing done from inside the very octagonal study pictured above. The study was built for Twain by his in-laws and originally sat outside of their house, the nearby Quarry Farm, where Twain and his family spent their summers. Twain wrote to his friend William Dean Howells of the study:
“I haven’t piled up MS (manuscript) so in years as I have done since we came here to the farm three weeks and a half ago. Why, it’s like old times, to step right into the study, damp from the breakfast table, and sail right in and sail right on, the whole day long, without a thought of running short of stuff or words.”
The study was moved to the Elmira College campus in 1952. Check out the accompanying Mark Twain Exhibit in nearby Cowles Hall and the statue of Twain also found on the campus. Tours are provided by trained student guides during the summer and are available by appointment during the off-season.
Visit Mark Twain’s grave.
Twain chose Elmira as his final resting place, a point of pride for the people who call the Finger Lakes region home. Twain, his wife, and his four children are all buried in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery. If you’re lucky enough to get a tour guide who knows his or her stuff (like I did in Mark Delgrosso, the trolley master and tour guide for Trolley Into Twain County Tours), then you’ll learn about Samuel Clemens the father, husband, and friend in the town Clemens once called “a foretaste of Heaven.”
Check out the Chemung County Historical Society.
The Chemung Valley Museum has a small dedicated exhibit to Twain (and the people and places he knew in the Chemung Valley), complete with cardboard cutout of Twain for the obligatory photo-op. The society expands beyond Twain, of course, tracking the county’s history from the time of the Native Americans through the end of the 20th century. If it wasn’t already clear, this is a region that values and celebrates its history. The region was an important part of the Underground Railroad, a training place for soldiers during the Civil War, and the birthplace of fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger.
Cost: An adult ticket costs $5. Check the website for more information about admission hours and ticket discounts.
Where to Eat in Elmira, New York
Hilltop Inn Restaurant
The Hilltop Inn Restauranthas many claims to fame. Not only does it boast a similar view to the one Mark Twain saw when he wrote from his octagonal study, but it’s also home to the world’s largest wreath/shamrock and boasts New York’s longest-held liquor license (doled out following Prohibition). The food and wine selection is pretty excellent, too…
Where to Stay in Elmira, New York
Holiday Inn Riverview
If you’re looking for a clean, comfortable, and centrally-located hotel at which to stay while in Elmira, check out the Holiday Inn Riverview. It has an in-house restaurant, comfy beds, and a fantastic staff who were kind and friendly upon my check-in.