Group Plans to Preserve Last Surviving Structure of "Helmira"

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A hundred and fifty years ago this summer, the Civil War prison camp in Elmira, New York closed its doors for the last time. At a recent press conference, the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp officially kicked off their fundraising efforts to preserve the last known surviving piece of the prison.

Between 1864 and 1865, roughly 12,000 Confederate prisoners were held at Elmira Prison. Nicknamed “Helmira” by the inmates, nearly 25% of prisoners detained there would die as a result of unsanitary conditions. Today, the former site of the prison is a residential neighborhood and the only visible reminders of the camp are a few stone markers scattered amongst the houses.


Learn More About Elmira Prison Camp in our Uniquely New York: Path Through History Video:


“In the fall of 1865, the government holds an auction and just liquidates, for pennies on the dollar, anything they owned,” explains Bruce Whitmarsh, Director of the Chemung County Historical Society and a board member for the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp. “So all the lumber that was used to build the stockade walls and buildings were sold.”

As a result of the auction, almost every physical trace of the prison camp was lost to history. All except for the disassembled building now being stored in a former Elmira Water Board pump station near the original site of the prison. According to Whitmarsh, the wood building is roughly the size of a two-car garage.

“It’s a pretty utilitarian building,” continued Whitmarsh. “But again, it’s important because it’s the last one.”

The Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp hope to raise  $100,000 in order to re-assemble the structure and preserve it for future generations.

“We believe we’re going to need $25,000 to $30,000 to get the building standing again,” explains Whitmarsh. “And the remaining funds are going to go towards the establishment of an endowment to be able to keep the building maintained for years to come.”

Elmira Prison Camp During the War

Elmira Prison Camp as it appeared during the war.

During the press conference, the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp also announced the completion of the steel base on which the former prison building will sit. The steel base represents the first step in the structure’s re-assembly and will allow the building to be easily moved in the event flooding.

“We tried to be forward thinking on that,” explains Whitmarsh.

Once the project is completed the structure will sit on a plot of land roughly a hundred feet from the original prison site and will include an exhibit on the history of Elmira during the Civil War. According to Bruce Whitmarsh, the building will give visitors a tangible reminder of the area’s past.

“One of the things that people get excited about, certainly I get excited about, is being able to touch the past and this will be a building you can step inside,” states Whitmarsh. “It’s an original piece of history.”

 

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