Lost or Forgotten History of the Greater Binghamton Area

Binghamton, Now and Then 

Here is a great story courtesy of Jason Kruger.

Video by Damian Martin

Binghamton: Now and Then
"Fleshing out the Past"

by Jason Kruger

My name is Jason Kruger. I am a 29 year old insurance agent, lifelong Binghamton resident and an amateur local historian. In my spare time I, along with a close group of friends, spend spare time researching local history via libraries, websites, museums and old newspapers. We trade findings and reference materials and try to get involved as much as possible in events relating to local history in Broome County. One such way is through social networking, and by doing so I discovered a local group titled "What's Goin' On Binghamton". After seeing my posts and photos relating to Binghamton history I was contacted by them in the hopes that we could work together to detail some of the more interesting and lesser known facts about local history.

The following article is in reponse to a video recently posted by "What's Goin' On Binghamton" titled "Now and Then". The video features about 11 minutes worth of modern Binghamton scenes transitioning to photos or post cards of what the area looked like in the same location approximately 100 years earlier. I will flesh out some details of a few of the more interesting scenes and hopefully provide some entertainment to those who didn't know our area was so rich in history. For easy reference I will lay out some details in a non linear fashion and reference certain time stamps in the video. For example, (5:15) will refer to 5 minutes and 15 seconds into the video, where you can scroll to in order to see the location I'm discussing. Thanks for checking it out!

Outstanding architecture is something that has always existed in Binghamton, however, many of us are so used to it that we fail to notice it in the way those visiting from out of town do. The period most significant for design and architecture in Binghamton would be the late 1800's through the early 1900's. This is a time when men such as Isaac G. Perry and Truman Lacey would mold the downtown landscape into the Victorian Gothic views that we still see to this day. (1:56) As seen in this photograph, the heart of downtown was and still is dominated by buildings designed by these men.

The building on the corner of Court and Chenango streets, aptly named "The Perry Building" (2:19), was designed in 1876 and has the distinction of being the only cast iron building in the city. You can go up to it to this day and stick a magnet to the side of the building. Perry, the son of carpenter, was known to have a keen eye for architecture from a young age and often incorporated impressive staircases in his designs, This can be seen in a number of his buildings, but most notably in the Inebriate Asylum, known as the Castle on the Hill, to Binghamtonians. Perry, in his day, was a bit of a local celebrity, as were many of the wealthy upper class in the area in the early 20th century. Perry lived on the top floor of the Perry Building during the later part of his life. From there he could see what was known as the "Perry Block", a number of buildings that he designed, including the Courthouse across the street (2:36), Phelps bank across Chenango Street (:09) and Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church further down Court Street. The Perry building would go on to become Mclean's department store and later used for dentist offices, lawyers offices and photography studios. Perry would go on to be the lead architect of the New York State capitol building in Albany. Towards the end of Perry's life he was commissioned to design a new set of gates for the entrance to Spring Forest Cemetary. Shortly thereafter Perry passed away and was the first person to be taken under the gates he designed, to his final resting place. Perry died in 1904 at the age of 82.

Truman Lacey was also an important architect in the history of Binghamton. Lacey designed the Security Mutual Building (to the right at :09), The Press Building (the large building to the left at 3:19), the current Lost Dog cafe building (originally a cigar factory, Binghamton's major export at the time) as well as numerous other buildings, many of which stand to this day.

No story about Binghamton's past or local architecture would be complete without mentioning the Kilmer family. One of the most affluent families this area has ever seen, father Jonas Kilmer and son Willis Sharpe Kilmer turned a company focusing on herbal cure alls, specifically "Swamp Root", into a million dollar operation (4:47 - the building where Swamp Root was produced, now "Remliks".. Kilmer spelled backwards, and also the name of the Kilmers famous yacht). The company founded by Jonas Kilmer's brother Dr. S. Andral Kilmer was based on quackery and misleading claims, as was the case with many medicine companies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In a time before federal drug regulations salesman could, essentially, make any boisterous claims they wanted. Such was the case of Willis Sharpe Kilmer, who marketed the cure alls brilliantly and played a large role in his families fortune with his marketing and advertising skills. Both father Jonas and son Willis' mansions could be seen on Riverside Dr (10:51 - Willis' house on the left, Jonas' on the right and at a reverse angle at 11:04). The remaining mansion of Jonas Kilmer (11:14) is now used as a Jewish Temple. Also worth mentioning is Kilmer's relation to The Press Building downtown. In 1904, the building was financed by Willis Sharpe Kilmer as home to a printing operation for his own local newspaper, The Binghamton Press. This was in response to, quite literally, bad press he had received by another local newspaper. In typical Kilmer fashion, rather than back down and admit defeat, he decided to start his own newspaper. He also demanded the Press Building be two stories higher than another building that had recently been constructed, The Security Mutual building, in an effort to claim the title of tallest building in Binghamton. The Press Building carried this title until the State Office Building was constructed in 1972 and took the honor of being the tallest building in Binghamton.

Chenango Street was once a hub of entertainment for the area. The Stone Opera House and the Strand Theater stood as opera houses and movie houses, in a time when most movies were silent (3:13 - the Strand is the small white building towards the left and to its right the Stone Opera House, discolored by years of neglect and once a fire). From the other end, the corner of Chenango and Lewis Streets, (4:18) one would see the "Moon Block" on the right and both "The Arlington" and "The Carlton" hotels on the left. The "Moon Block" would be destroyed by fire in 1949, leaving people homeless and basically obliterating that side of Chenango Street for a period of time. As the years passed, and the movie industry changed, the need for 19th century style theaters diminished only to be replaced by multi screen cinema complexes. The theaters on Chenango couldn't keep up and now sit abandoned, waiting to be repurposed.

Lackawanna Train Station (3:48) was, at one time, crucial to the development of the Binghamton area. The connection of railroad lines and passenger service allowed the area to grow immensely and made Binghamton a powerhouse of industry and manufacturing. In the mid 20th century, however, this train station and surrounding neighborhood was slated to be wiped off the map by what was known as "Urban Renewal". This was a program designed to demolish old, dated structures and replace them with new businesses and housing. Funding fell short after the demolition phase, and this part of town suffered heavily. Much of what you see now (before-4:04 after-3:56) came down as a result of this. The lot where "The Arlington" stood (4:35) is now a fenced in parking for post office vehicles. Luckily the Lackawanna Train Station avoided the wrecking ball, probably due to lack of further funding, and remains as proof of a bygone era.

Due to the population boom of the early 20th century, many clubs and societies popped up around the city. Nowhere was this more noticeable than on Washington St (3:33). The Kalurah Temple, home to a Shriners type organization, once held meetings here and was in the middle of what was known as "Fraternity Row". This included, in order, the Boys Club, The Kalurah Temple, The Elks Club and The Knights of Columbus. Also, always relevant in the Binghamton area were the Freemasons. A large Masonic temple (8:59) was built shortly after a fire took their former location in 1919, which happened to be in what we now call the Mid Town Mall. This is between The Perry Building and The Press Building. The Mid Town Mall again burned in 2010, this time after being acquired by a developer for student housing.

On July 22, 1913, a clothing factory fire killed 31 women on Wall St in downtown Binghamton. A post office standing near this location (5:33 - large stone building on the left) suffered heavy damage and was later torn down as a result. The clothing factory (7:25 - brick building to the middle right, shown here with advertising on its side wall) was previously a cigar factory but later converted to a clothing factory where one hundred or more woman could work at a time making mens overalls. It was a hot day, and many women had removed layers of clothing to cool down. The women were hesitant to run outside, partially dressed, when fire alarms rang, thinking it was only a drill, and when the fire quickly erupted due to the many flammable materials, the women were trapped on the third and fourth floors. These women are now buried in a circular mass memorial grave-site at Spring Forest Cemetery.

Many of the other photographs in this video highlight street scenes, houses and daily life in Binghamton, as it was in a more prosperous time. Although Binghamton is no longer the booming economic center of upstate New York, it's recent revitalization is refreshing, and much of downtown has improved immensely in the last decade. It's with great hope that while keeping our minds on the future we can also remember the mistakes such as Urban Renewal that have occurred in the past. Our priority should be to protect the historical beauty that the city still maintains while moving forward and developing new ways to make the former "Valley of Opportunity" prosperous once again.

Binghamton's Buried First Ward Stream 

By J. T. Colfax

The history of Binghamton’s First Ward leads many to stand in front of a given area and say things such as, “Here was once a great scale-making factory,” or “Here was a factory that sold Matthew Brady his supplies and went on to make the film used on the first moon landing.” These are gone now. But something was there then, which everyone knew, saw, worked with or around, that now hardly anyone knows is still there. Imprisoned in the 1920s, it still lives, and from time to time escapes into the streets. Unlike the Jones Scale Works, or the spot on Charles Street where Ansco employed tens of thousands of people, this forgotten entity spans the entire First Ward.

There is no spot in the First Ward from which one can say he is far away from Trout Brook, or Trout Creek. It was once a peaceful little brook, but it became a mosquito-ridden dumping ground as the ward grew. It was once loved, and then it was shunned. Much money was spent hiding it as a shameful nuisance. It is a natural spring, here before any settler, and it is here still.

“Trout Brook” is only known now to the very old timers, or to people in the water department. From a ravine in Glenwood Cemetery, it can be seen running freely. There is a mention of it on a plaque in St. Michael’s Cemetery next to Glendwood Cemetery. The only other visible mention is on a large sign at the creek’s far end (near McDonald Ave.), which gives warning with a phone number to call in case of flooding. Thus, the only two public notices of its existence bookend its whole length.

Today, Trout Brook runs like this: … visible from the Glenwood Cemetery ravine it runs free, and then it runs in a large square tunnel under Route 17. It discharges from there on a series of cement steps next to the teacher’s parking area for Woodrow Wilson School. Hidden amongst the overgrowth there is a stone boulder plaque from the builders of the earthen dam on Mt. Prospect, which is now the major source of control for Trout Brook. On the grounds of Wilson School one can see the fenced-in area of Trout Brook running through its “screen chamber.” These iron bars are meant to catch debris before it flows into the tunnel.

I live a few blocks from there, and began researching this water system three years ago during the noted floods of 2006. I have a manhole cover in my yard, which is clearly noted: “TROUT BROOK, 1927.” I came home from work at 10 p.m. to find all my neighbors’ yards a lake, and my manhole cover ajar.

After the screen chamber near Wilson School playground, the water is not visible again unless one actually enters the tunnel. The tunnel goes under private residences on Baxter St., and makes an abrupt left turn on to Julian St. A manhole cover can be seen in the sidewalk on the north side of Julian St. about three housed in from Glenwood Ave. Just before this area one can see an odd-shaped piece of wood about the size of a door or table that apparently was a stop-gap repair job, or was once used for entry. It forms the ceiling of the tunnel for about 6 feet, and is not in keeping with the rest of the tunnel workmanship.

The tunnel, which in most areas is about 5 feet high, proceeds down Julian St., and has a manhole cover in the middle of the intersection where Julian meets Johnson St. Because that cover is a little loose, when cars hit it, the reverberation can be heard blocks away even above ground. The sound is deafening if one is anywhere near it inside the tunnel.

Another manhole is visible where the tunnel crosses Holland St. at Julian, clearly marked “Trout Brook.” As the tunnel crosses Holland and goes under a vacant lot, the workmanship changes. All this way the tunnel is made of reinforced concrete; these sections were made whole and installed in 1927. But there appears to have been some trauma here; some segments are made of indented plastic, and others of clay shingles.

The tunnel heads briefly towards Clinton St. for about the space of five private yards on the West Side of Holland St., and then crosses Colfax Ave. near May St. Four manholes can be seen covering it in the area many old timers refer to as the “May Street Dump,” the raving below Berlin St. I found a rather large salamander clinging to the walls in this area, and later brought a professor from BU who specializes in such creatures, to rescue it. We could not find it again. (His name is Dylan Horvath, and when he saw Mt Prospected nearby he felt that it was no longer unusual that such creatures would make their way there from such terrain.

The storm drain then crosses Charles St. near the steep curve, and crosses under the land where the Ansco plant used to be for so many decades. The path of its course is surrounded by chain link fence on the Ansco side, and the wrought iron fence of Spring Forest Cemetery. It passes under Spring Forest Cemetery, and at Mygatt St., there is a dramatic change in workmanship. From Mygatt to Wilson School the work is generally plain even cement piping. But from Mygatt to the Chenango River outfall, near the old Cutler Ice House, the tunnel is made of beautiful stone work with a large keystone where the stone portion begins.

The tunnel makes its way down Lydia to Gaines, and then under Winding Way, which owes its winding shape to the course of the brook.The stone portion was built about 1924-25 by a contractor named Fitzgerald. While work-in on the drain, one of his vehicles backfired in such a way as to start a Lydia St. house on fire. A change in patent laws regarding concrete during this time made it cheaper than stone work when another contractor named Clarence Rose got the contract to build the segment from Mygatt to Prospect St.

Mr. Rose stood on the hill in Glenwood Cemetery for his mother’s funeral with the Trout Brook running freely nearby while the work was going on down below. Mr. Rose was an avid hunter, and once slightly wounded himself with a gun. He was swindled out of several thousand dollars by a con man from Los Angeles in the 1930s. Involved in politics in the Chenango Forks, he left an estate of $750,000 when he passed away in 1958. His retirement party a few years before that was held at the IBM Country Club with over 800 guests attending. Someone left flowers on his grave in Katellville Cemetery during the Christmas season of 2008.

A careless typographer at the Binghamton Press on Sep 19, 2927 marred much of the meaning in an article headlined: “Trout Brook Sewer Is Two Thirds Finished,” but this detail can be made out: “Clarence W. Rose has completed the Trout Brook sewer to a point west of Colfax Avenue near Holland Street.” Other articles of this period show Rose to be working on the screen chamber at Wilson School and on the pump houses, which are still visible in a state of decay on the Ansco property on Charles St. Interestingly, on the same day a New York Times article tells of the death of a former Binghamton mayor’s wife.

Mayor George E. Green, during the 1890s had to deal with a large group of angry First Warders who blamed the City for flooding their basements during water main installation work. They claimed that the city had destroyed ancient wooden storm drains put in place by Daniel S. Dickinson as he drained the “swamp” and developed the land for parcel selling. Mayor Green took the position that the people were after “Free improvements” to their lands .The First Warders petitioned Governor Levi P. Morton, who had to spend months investigating the complaint. (The whole saga is captured in word for word letters on Google Books viewable by searching for “Wolcott Street Swamp Nuisance.”)

Gov. Morton, though forgotten today, was previously a Vice President of the United States under President Arthur. Before that he was Minister to France, where he accepted the Statue of Liberty for the United States. Much loved in France, he was given the honor of driving the first rivet into the statue (in a big toe).

The wooden storm drain in question drained spots of swampy water into Trout Brook. The incident became known as the Wolcott Street Nuisance, but we know Wolcott St. today as St. Cyril Ave., a one-block street just below Spring Forest Cemetery running to Starr Ave. where the Jones Scale Works once Operated.

When he died in 1910 Mayor Green was buried in Spring Forest Cemetery. Just as Contractor Rose was busy burying Trout Brook under Spring Forest Cemetery in September 1927, working on 20-foot-deep pumping houses just next door at the Ansco site, the former Mayor’s wife came home from Albany, where she lived, and as she tended to the family plot she dropped dead on her husband’s grave.

“As she was turning away from the plot, employes (sic) in the cemetery saw her collapse. Physicians said that the death was caused by heart disease.” (New York Times, Sep. 19, 1927). The widow Green was probably not happy with the way the main lawn of the cemetery looked at that time. She was buried beside her husband.

From 1904 to 1927 there was a peaceful little pond using Trout Brook water in the main lawn, reported to be part of the improvement work going on in 1904 when Architect Issac G. Perry (of State Hospital “Castle” fame) designed the cemetery gates as his last job, and then promptly died becoming the first body brought through the gates. That local history story is fairly well known, but those articles also mention the intent to use Trout Brook to create a lake.

No one knew Trout Brook more fondly than Senator Daniel Dickinson. He built his home so as to look upon it, and picked his child’s, and thence, his own burial spot so as to be near it.

He was robbed of the above ground appearance of this brook next to his grave fifty years after his death, but it still runs at about the same level under Spring Forest Cemetery as he is in his grave. Mr. Dickinson built his home, “the Orchard,” on the West Bank of the Chenango River near the Erie Railroad Bridge. When his body was brought home from NYC, thousands followed the hearse from the depot to his home where present day McDonald Ave. is located (and where one can see a Trout Brook flood control sign). Maps show his home to have been between Trout Brook and the rail bridge. One map of the 1800s actually signifies the brook as “Dickinson Creek,” but it apparently didn’t take.

In a “Testimonial of Respect of the Bar of New York” (viewable on Google Books), it is stated that the Statesman’s “body was laid in the Northwest parlor and the vast concourse that thronged to take a last look, entered from the south, passed around the coffin, and was permitted to leave from the East entrance.”

Upwards of 6,000 people escorted the casket to Spring Forest Cemetery from The Orchard. All of them had to have stepped on little bridges over the creek, not only on the Dickinson property where it would have been visible from that parlor window, but all along the route to Spring Forest.

Dickinson often visited his child’s grave and sat there writing poetry. He chose the family grave plot next to Trout Brook. In its coverage of the funeral, The New York Times referred to the stream as “insolent.” Let’s end with the coverage from the Testimonial of Respect.

“How sweet the grave wherein he (Dickinson) lies entombed. A little mound, shaded by an adjoining hill was the spot selected for the final resting place of this great and goodly man. A little fretful brook, whose wandering course leads along the base of the mound, sings gentle dirges on its rippling surface, as if to soothe the calm sleeper who rests so near its borders.”