Mark Twain penned several of his most notable works in New York State’s Finger Lakes Region
By Jim Ferri
Mark Twain is one of the most celebrated writers and humorists in American history.
The nom de plume of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Mark Twain was christened by William Faulkner as “the first truly American writer.” Ernest Hemingway professed “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” And he was such a great humorist the Kennedy Center continues to acknowledge his wit with its annual presentation of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Many of his most popular works – including such classics as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Life on the Mississippi – have forever linked Twain’s name to the Mississippi and his boyhood town of Hannibal, Missouri in the minds of his fans around the world.
You can imagine his fans surprise (and perhaps yours as well) when they learn that Twain didn’t pen these notable works while living near the Mississippi, but in the small town of Elmira, NY in the state’s Finger Lakes Region. Elmira is about a four-hour drive from New York City, Philadelphia and Toronto.
Mark Twain, Growing His Elmira Roots
When Twain first arrived in Elmira in 1868 he was well-known as a travel writer for The Innocents Abroad, but had not yet written his celebrated novels. He had come to woo Olivia Langdon, the daughter of Jervis Langdon, the wealthiest man in Elmira. Langdon was one of the founders of Elmira Female College, established to grant degrees for women that would be equal to those of men. Olivia was one of its graduates.
Twain and Olivia were married two years later and subsequently settled in Hartford, Connecticut but for 20 years returned every summer to Olivia’s sister’s house, Quarry Farm, in Elmira. It was here that Twain wrote most of his novels and other pieces in a small study on a hillside overlooking the Chemung River Valley, a place he described as “an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills.” It was, he said, “the quietest of all quiet places.”
The study was built for Twain by Olivia’s sister and her husband. An octagonal structure only 12 feet wide, with a window on each side, its shape was reminiscent of a riverboat pilothouse, likely since Twain was at one time a riverboat pilot. While ostensibly built to provide Twain a quiet place to write, one can’t help but wonder if Olivia’s sister may have had more selfish interests in mind since Twain smoked between 20 and 40 cigars a day.
He was likely smoking his cigars also on summer nights, as he’d sit in his rocking chair viewing the Chemung River in the distance. “Once or twice each night, we’d see a Steamboat slipping along in the dark,” he wrote. “And every now and again, she’d belch a whole world of sparks up out of her chimney. And they would rain down in the river. And look awful pretty.”
America’s Most Famous Literary Landmark
Elmira is a literary Mecca for Twain fans. If you make the pilgrimage to this lovely upstate town your first stop should be Elmira College, home of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, one of the leading centers on Twain’s literary legacy in the world.
The college’s pièce de résistance is Mark Twain’s study, moved there from Quarry Farm in 1952. Ranked as “the most famous literary landmark in America” by USA Today, it was in this study that Twain wrote Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, A Tramp Abroad, Life on the Mississippi, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as well as other shorter works. It’s staffed by trained student guides and open to the public during the summer, on weekends in early fall, or by appointment the remainder of the year.
Steps away is Cowles Hall, the college’s original building, and the new home to the small but interesting Mark Twain Exhibit, which has photos and other Twain memorabilia related to his summer sojourns in Elmira. It’s open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, year-round, and is free. There’s also a statue of Twain and another of Olivia on the picturesque campus.
Other Notable Mark Twain Attractions
Another popular attraction for many visitors to Elmira is Twain’s gravesite in Woodlawn Cemetery where he is buried alongside his wife and children. The cemetery is open throughout the year and there are signs directing visitors to Twain’s grave. You’ll often find cigars, coins or flowers on his tombstone, left as tributes by visitors. The site itself is marked by a headstone that is twelve-feet-tall, or two fathoms, the nautical term known as ‘mark twain.”
Quarry Farm is still visible on East Hill but it’s closed to the public except during a series of fall and spring lecture series and other special events. During the year it’s used as a home for Mark Twain scholars visiting Elmira. You can have a view of the home from the road, however.
Other “Twain-connected” sites about Elmira include the Chemung Valley History Museum ( a display of Twain historical items), the excellent Arnot Art Museum (the painting Skating on the Pond was created by George Waters for his friend Mark Twain and originally hung at Quarry Farm) and the Langdon Mansion (home of Jervis Langdon and where Twain married Olivia).
All are included as stops on summer one-hour Trolley Tours that depart the Chemung Valley History Museum on the hour from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. The 2 p.m. tour is the most Twain-focused and includes stops at Elmira College and Woodlawn Cemetery, which the earlier tours don’t.
Those who’d like to tour by themselves can take the “Mark Twain in Elmira Cell Phone Audio Tour.” The tour is free but, of course, standard cell-phone rates apply.
Editor’s Note: you may also enjoy Literary Landmarks: Inside the Homes of Famous Writers, Intriguing Places Worth A Detour, and 10 Really Interesting Small American Museums
If you go:
The Center for Mark Twain Studies
One Park Place
Elmira, NY 14901
Tel: (607) 735-1941
The study is open May 1st to Labor Day, Tuesday – Saturday, 9:30 am – 4:30 pm (closed on Elmira College holidays); Labor Day until October 15th: Saturdays 9:30 – 4:30. The Center will also open the Study throughout the year by appointment although you should be aware that the Study is an unheated building.
The Mark Twain Exhibit is open Year-round (except Sunday, Monday and Elmira College holidays) by appointment (telephone (607) 735-1941.
Chemung County CVB
Chemung Valley History Museum
415 E Water Street
Elmira, NY 14901
Tel: (607) 734-4168