7 Astonishing Things To Do In Elmira NY; Mark Twain’s Hometown

Elmira, New York, in Chemung County, holds a unique distinction as the beloved hometown of the iconic American author, Mark Twain and the birthplace of fashion icon Tommy Hilfiger. Beyond its charming landscapes and cultural attractions, Elmira is a place steeped in literary history and the legacy of one of America’s greatest storytellers.

We invite you to step into the world of Mark Twain as we explore the place that shaped his life and inspired his timeless tales. Join us on a journey through the heart of Twain’s Elmira, where we’ll also uncover the best things to do in Elmira NY, ensuring your visit combines literary exploration with unforgettable experiences.

Looking for more weekend getaway ideas? Check out our round-up of romantic getaways in NY, including the nearby Finger Lakes region.

Mark Twain in his Study Elmira NY

Things to Do in Elmira NY

VISIT: Center For Mark Twain Studies

All Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) devotees will want to step right into where America’s best humor writer and social critic did much of his thinking, writing, and cigar smoking.

Some of the most important works in American literature, including the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, were predominantly written in this gazebo-like study, now on the campus of Elmira College.

Why Elmira NY? This is where Twain’s beloved wife, Olivia, was from. And it’s where they spent most summers after they were married.

Why on this college campus? The Study didn’t start here.

Mark Twains Stand Alone Study Elmira College NY

A short history. Mark Twain was born Samuel Clemens in 1835 in Florida MO. Enamored by river life, his first job was riverboat pilot. But then, the Civil War made travel on the Mississippi River impossible.

So, Twain moved out West to work in the mines. But he discovered that writing for the newspaper was a better fit. He had a great knack for travel writing, so was thus hired to cover “The Grand Tour” to Europe and the Holy Land on a maiden steamship voyage.

Mark Twain and Olivia Langdon

Photo of Olivia Langdon, Mark Twains Wife

While on board, Twain met 17-year-old Charlie Langdon who was from a wealthy logging and railroad family. ( The Langdons also happened to be staunch suffragists and abolitionists – Frederick Douglas was a friend).

Charlie showed Twain a picture of his sister, Olivia.  Twain was so struck by her beauty, that he traveled to Elmira NY to court her upon his return from abroad.

Olivia’s father was suspect of this man with the reputation of being an unambitious sloth and heavy drinker, and turned him away. Twain continued to write to Olivia anyway (150 letters). A year later, he proposed again. However, this time Olivia’s father saw the genius in his daughter’s choice. “Take the girl,” he told Twain.

History of the Study

Photo of young Mark Twain

Mark Twain made a lot of money from the book he wrote about the Grand Tour. Innocents Abroad provided him with the funds to build a house in Hartford CT.

Olivia’s sister, Susan Crane, had a summer home, called Quarry Farm, near Elmira NY, on the Chemung River. In 1871 Crane invited Olivia and Samuel for the summer – a three-month stay that became an annual tradition.

By 1874, it seemed that Twain’s cigar smoke had so annoyed everyone in the house, that the family built him a stand-alone study in the shape of a steamboat pilot house. Perched on a bluff overlooking the Chemung River, steps from the family residence, Twain could smoke to his heart’s content.

Artifacts in Mark Twain Study Elmira College NY

Mark Twain spent twenty consecutive summers in Elmira with his family. And by all accounts, those summers were the most productive and happiest of his life.

But Twain’s later years were wracked with tragedy. His first-born son died at age 1 ½. And two out of three of his daughters, and his wife Olivia, passed away before he did.

After Mark Twain’s Death

Twain Museum Elmira College

After Mark Twain died in 1910, the Langdons still owned Quarry Farm. Crowds of fans made pilgrimages to the property out of curiosity and for inspiration. Strangers traipsed on Langdon’s private land daily.

To rectify this, Twain’s niece, Ida Langdon, a professor of English at Elmira College, arranged to move his Study 2 ½ miles from Quarry Farm to the Elmira College Campus.

In 1983, Quarry Farm was bequeathed to the College as a “Scholars Retreat,” where those studying Mark Twain literature now stay for two-week sessions.

Stained Glass Twain Elmira College Chapel

Continue inside Cowles Hall. Inside, you can examine artifacts and papers focusing on the academic side of Twain, and both the Clemens and Langdon families. See Livvy’s bed, Twain’s lap desk, and other personal items, along with photos from the area.

Step into the Chapel to see Olivia and Samuel Clemens in stained glass – just two panels among many others.

Mark Twain Samuel Clemens Grave Site Elmira NY

VISIT: Mark Twain’s Grave – Woodlawn National Cemetery

Twain’s grave, inscribed “Samuel Langhorne Clemens – Mark Twain,” is one of the most visited in the country. Though he died in Redding, CT, Mark Twain is buried with Olivia, and all of his children, including the one daughter who outlived him – Clara.

By most accounts, Clara had a happy first marriage with Ossip Gabrilowitsch that ended at his death. But the second, to Jacques Samossoud, a womanizer who stole her money, was anything but. Yes, Samossoud is buried there, however, you won’t see his name anywhere. The family did not arrange for his name on any tombstone.

Clara had only one child, Nina, a troubled daughter who overdosed on drugs in middle age. Olivia and Mark Twain have no direct descendants.

John Jones obituary

Look, also, for the grave of John W. Jones.

Jones was an escaped slave from Virginia who, it was believed, helped 800 enslaved people to freedom on the Underground Railroad. He reconnected with his wife in Elmira. The community was so welcoming, that they appointed him Sexton of this graveyard.

Inconceivably, Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery was the final resting place of many Confederate soldiers, as Elmira had the Northernmost Civil War POW camp.

Jones took great care to respectfully bury those Confederate soldiers along with their personal possessions. He wanted to make it easier for grieving families to find their sons. Amazingly, legend has it that Jones returned to his past enslaver in Virginia to let him know that his son had died in New York.

TOUR: Trolley into Twain County Tour

This 60-minute narrated trolley tour brings you to Twain’s Study and highlights his connections to the area. Leaves from the Chemung Valley History Museum.

Big Horn Mammoth Tusk

VISIT: Chemung Valley History Museum

This region is replete with important history – both natural and man-made. See “The Big Horn” Wooly Mammoth Tusk from one of many that roamed upstate NY 11,000 years ago, and plenty of artifacts and photos from the Langdon and Clemens Families.

As noted above, in 1864 and 1865, the Elmira Prison Camp held over 12,000 Confederate Troops. Nearly 3,000 died from Smallpox, a harsh winter, and a shortage of food.

GO: National Soaring Museum

The National Soaring Museum is a captivating destination for aviation enthusiasts and curious travelers alike. Situated in the soaring capital of America, with its close proximity to the famous Harris Hill Soaring site, this museum celebrates the art and science of gliding through the skies. Visitors can explore an impressive collection of gliders and sailplanes, learning about the history and evolution of flight.

Want to give soaring a try? Book a glider ride on Harris Hill with an FAA-certified pilot.

GO: Tanglewood Nature Center

The Tanglewood Nature Center offers a serene escape into the heart of nature. This sprawling nature preserve is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and wildlife lovers. Visitors can explore miles of scenic trails that wind through lush forests and meadows, providing a perfect opportunity for hiking, birdwatching, and wildlife spotting. The center also features an educational nature museum, where guests can learn about the local flora and fauna.

Where to Eat and Stay Near Elmira NY

Pleasant Valley Inn

STAY: Pleasant Valley Inn – Hammondsport NY

Keuka Lake (one of the Finger Lakes) is about 20 minutes away. You’ll have the added advantage of staying near the wineries and in an establishment with a top restaurant attached. 

Read all about it in our Keuka Lake travel guide.

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  • Malerie Yolen-Cohen

    Malerie Yolen-Cohen is the Author of the cross-country travel guide, Stay On Route 6; Your Guide to All 3562 Miles of Transcontinental Route 6. She contributes frequently to Newsday, with credits in National Geographic Traveler, Ladies Home Journal, Yankee Magazine, Shape.com, Sierra Magazine, Porthole, Paddler, New England Boating, Huffington Post, and dozens of other publications. Malerie’s focus and specialty is Northeastern US, and she is constantly amazed by the caliber of restaurants and lodging in the unlikeliest places.

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4 thoughts on “7 Astonishing Things To Do In Elmira NY; Mark Twain’s Hometown”

  1. Malorie,
    We became Maven followers when we met you aboard The Katahdin two years ago in Greenville, ME.
    This piece on the strong thread Mark Twain’s time in Elmira,NY played in his life and career is especially interesting.
    Well done.
    Bob & Terri Thomas
    Dexter, ME

  2. Hi Bob and Terri – sorry I didn’t respond sooner. Yes, I do remember you! Thanks for the comment, and thanks for following me since then! Malerie

  3. Mark Twain was not born in Hanibal
    And he did not die in Hartford

    Just read your article in the Elmira group web site



  4. Hi Sam. You are correct – Born in Florida MO, died in Redding CT. I made the corrections in the post. Thanks for a close read.

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