Elmira sits on both sides of the Chemung River, a few miles north of the Pennsylvania border. Some parts of the city are quite historic, with handsome stone and red-brick buildings; other parts are crumbling, windswept, and seriously depressed.
Once the site of a Seneca village, Elmira was first settled by whites in the 1780s. By the 1840s, the town was known for its lumbering and woolen mills, and by the 1860s, for its metal industries and iron furnaces. Elmira also served as a major transportation center, sitting at the crossroads of the Erie Railroad, the Chemung River, and the Chemung and Junction Canals.
During the Civil War, the Union Army set up barracks in Elmira. In 1864, one of those barracks was turned into a prison camp for Confederate soldiers. The prison was poorly built and desperately overcrowded; thousands of prisoners died within a year.
Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, spent more than 20 summers in Elmira. His wife, Olivia Langdon, grew up in the area and Twain wrote many of his masterpieces—including Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—while staying at the Langdon family farm. Mark Twain’s Study  has since been moved onto the campus of Elmira College, which was one of the earliest colleges for women, founded in 1855.
Outside the city lies the National Soaring Center. Elmira has been known as the Soaring Capital of America ever since 1930, when the first National Soaring Contest took place here.
Most of Elmira is north of the Chemung River. Exiting off Route 17 onto Route 352W (Church St.) will take you into the heart of the city. Route 14N runs past Elmira College and Woodlawn Cemetery  (off West Woodlawn Ave.).
In July and August, hour-long trolley tours (Chemung County Chamber of Commerce, 607/734-5137 or 800/627-5892) of Elmira’s historical attractions are offered; call for details.