Railroad Avenue in Elmira, New York is a quiet place now. Looking at it today you wouldn’t suspect that years ago it was the city’s noisiest street with the constant sounds of passenger trains (sometimes 3 or 4 an hour), saloons, music, and people have too much fun. It went on all day, every day, except on Sundays when they toned it down. In the seven blocks from the Erie Station to Water Street, only two of the original 92 business spaces remain in 2010 (three have been razed since 1999). Railroad Avenue thrived in the years 1867 to 1927. In 1927, it served Elmira with 24 cafes, 6 hotels, and 4 barbershops. The raising of the Erie tracks in the early 1930s signaled the beginning of the end.
Railroad Avenue was not the nicest place in Elmira. It had a dark secret of vice and crime. Its merchants and neighbors called it the “AVENOO.” The police called it “the great black way. Although the street was poorly lit, the Elmira Star-Gazette called it the “merry thoroughfare were the lights burned brightest in the ‘music rooms’ of saloons.”
Around 1910, crime was out of police control. The daily occurrences of robberies, burglaries, madams keeping “disorderly house’, drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and murders kept the Elmira Police Department busy. The following accounts are edited from the newspapers of the day.
July 1, 1909 Two men arrested for breaking into the Swift Beef House to steal two hams to sell on Railroad Avenue to get money to buy liquor.
August 6, 1910 Three girls were “picked up” by Captain Hartigan and Officer Hurley on Railroad Avenue while the captain was going through the various saloons. One claims she is a domestic servant, and is being held while her story is being investigated. The other two women were released with a warning to keep off the Avenue.
August 10, 1910 Thomas Hotten, a salesman of Cleveland, was the victim of robbers yesterday on Railroad Avenue at 12:30 last night. $48 and a train ticket from Elmira to Cleveland were taken. It was the boldest robbery in recent years. He was grabbed and held by one of the robbers, his pockets were searched by the second and the third watched for the police. The three robbers ran toward the string of sharks along the Westside of the street.
September 10, 1910 Merchants on Water Street complain about the noise made by trains passing over the crossing at Railroad Avenue and Water Street. Noise is so great that conversation in their stores is impossible. The Water Street Crossing has never been satisfactory. Workmen are kept busy tearing up and relaying the rails every month. At present, the railroad company is laying concrete hoping to improve conditions.
In the near vicinity of the Erie Depot, a survey of the crimes listed in the newspapers of the day indicated that in the three months of July, August, and September 1910, there were 58 instances of wrongdoings and mishaps.
The worst offense in the summer of 1910 was an attempted murder of a woman by a man. Assaults had the highest frequency with fourteen arrest. Next was public intoxication with twelve arrest. There were nine cases of robberies, including several armed robberies. Grand larcenies totaled six. There were three women arrested by being “disorderly.” Three saloons were forced to close following the revocation of their liquor licenses. Three hobos were charged with vagrancy. Burglaries happened twice. One husband was arrested for beating his wife. One person was reported “missing.” There was one instance of breaking and entering with nothing stolen. And finally, milkman Frank Antuzzi was bitten by a vicious dog while delivering milk. No one was injured or killed by a train in the near vicinity of the Erie Depot that summer.
A survey of the same three months in the year 1998 in the Star-Gazette showed that nothing happened on Railroad Avenue - bad or good. Railroad Avenue was not mentioned once. The two taverns left on the street had no bands or concerts listed in the events column.
Pickpockets targeted naïve country farmers up from Pennsylvania for a day in the city. Police raids on saloons and hotels were a daily occurrence. One raid in 1910 on the Mansion House Hotel picked up one “woman of ultimate accessibility” who was fined $10 and ordered to leave Elmira. The newspaper reported that she was 21 years old and good looking. Women also got into trouble in saloons. In 1912, two women were arrested for “intoxication and disorderly conduct” in the backroom of a saloon.
City health officials cited the Merry-Go-Round Saloon for “unsanitary conditions.” They said it was “a place where diseases breed,” similar to other saloons on the Avenoo. Some of the salons were nothing more than shanties and shacks, assembled like boxes, whose only purposes were to sell liquor, women, or promote gambling. Others were connected to hotels and boarding houses. A few of Railroad Avenue’s saloons changed owners frequently - sometimes once or twice a day, making it difficult for police or federal agents to ascertain ownership. Some saloons were frequently in trouble for infractions of the prevailing liquor laws.
The Erie House (one of the few remaining buildings) dates to 1882, when it was the John Murphy Saloon. In 1890 in was the Walsh Liquor Store. In 1903, it was the Walsh Hotel. From 1904 to 1914, it was the original “Erie House” run by Mrs. Margaret Walsh.
In 1910, Elmira’s district attorney vowed to fight vigorously to clean up Railroad Avenue. Since “thugs” seemed to be getting the upper hand, he suggested that two officers, instead of the one, patrol the area. The police chief that he would have to think about it.
However, there were some very nice people that lived and worked on Railroad Avenue too. Lazarus Musante sold bananas and pineapples at his fruit stand. Miss Rose Kinney ran the Iroquois House Saloon. The Queen City Macaroni Factory was a popular business among those Elmirans who knew the importance of good macaroni. Queen City’s owner, Joseph Cilli (also Cilley, Chely, Chelley), was a former Morrow plant machinist turned noodle entrepreneur. His partner, Joseph Tress, was a candy maker who came from a confectionary-making family. The excellent pasta was manufactured in an upstairs apartment above the Chely and Tress store on Railroad Avenue. Together, Joseph and Joseph sold noodles and candy from 1907 to 1912.
Other well-liked stores on the Avenue were Sylvester and Graves Picture Framing, the Bronx Café, the Gold Dollar Café, the Coffee Pot, the Grand Hotel, Sonny’s Lunch, the Roma Hotel, the Palace Quick Lunch, and the Shepherd Melodeon Factory (a melodeon is a small organ). There was also a business called the Brown Salicyline Company that produced aspirin.
The McCrone Brothers (Michael, James, and William) and their mother Eva, were kindhearted and very benevolent to the area. They opened a combination meat market, baker, restaurant, and grocery on Railroad Avenue. Their ad said, “…where meals and lunches can always be found.” In 1933, the McCrones opened the “5¢ Restaurant” with good meals that included oatmeal, coffee, rolls, large bowls of wholesome soup or meat stew, big slices of cat, and cookies. Affluent Elmirans purchased rolls of meal tickets and either sold them to the less fortunate at a nickel each or gave them away. It made a big difference to the lives of many Elmirans.
The decline of Railroad Avenue began around the time of the raising of the Erie Tracks in the early 1930s. Some store owners mover their businesses to different locations to escape the noise and confusion of the nearly one year elevation construction project. Other buildings, such as the more decrepit hotels and saloons were demolished. By 1937, 11 buildings were razed and 26 were vacant. By 1946, 29 buildings were razed an 9 were vacant. By 1966, 56 buildings were razed and 8 were vacant. By 1976, 76 were razed and 4 were vacant. By 1986, 77 buildings were razed and 4 were vacant. In 2006, there are only 5 buildings left and none are vacant.
Elmira City Directories 1867-1986
Elmira Star-Gazette July 1, 18, August 6, 11, September 10, 15, 1910.
Elmira Advertiser July, August, September 1910.
Elmira Star-Gazette July, August, September 1998.