Settled in 1788, Elmira was the site of one of the battles of the Sullivan-Clinton expedition of 1779, during which a colonial army routed American Indians allied with the British. The city got its industrial start in the 19th century with lumbering and woolen mills. Confederate soldiers were held at a prison camp here during the Civil War; conditions were so bad that thousands of prisoners died.

Elmira's most famous resident, Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), spent more than 20 summers at Quarry Farm, which belonged to his wife's family. He is buried in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery. The city has also been known as the "soaring capital of America," since it hosted the first national soaring contest in 1930.

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