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  • Diane Janowski

The Mountain House and Frenchman’s Cross

by Diane Janowski, Elmira City Historian

 




Mountain House Berthod
View of the Mountain House near the Chemung River, circa 1880. Postcard courtesy of the Eleanor Barnes Library.  

The Mountain House, located about three miles west of Elmira, was a famous roadhouse in the 1840s. It catered to the “better class” with regular Sunday dinners and exclusive dances. Eventually, it became a “resort with somewhat questionable character.”


The Mountain House had regular boarders, and served corn liquor and hard cider. Free-for-all fighting between customers was normal - old-time dances and chicken fights. Business dwindled. During the 1860s, when the Clark brothers managed it, the roadhouse was the “lounging place of rough soldiers and rougher hangers-on.” Drink, carousal, and bloodshed were shockingly common, and no one thought of going past the place unarmed. Tales of dark deeds and dead men’s bones haunted the area. One of the Clark brothers died, and the other went to the Civil War. By 1868, James Roe owned and operated the Mountain House.

 

On June 11, 1879, sixteen-year-old Eugene Berthod of France and a friend disembarked from the ship “Labrador” in New York City. Family legend is that he had no definite destination when he left the city on a westbound train. When the conductor called “ELMIRA,” he thought, “El Mira, El Mira… Mira means wonderful. That’s the place for me. I’ll try it.”

 

Strolling out West Water Street to the River Road, the travelers came across the old Mountain House. They liked the looks of it as a place to live and grow vegetables. At this point, Berthod’s friend vanishes from the story. He protected his property from the curious public. The 1902 county map shows Anna owning the Mountain House and Berthod living in a house right along the river.


Berthod knew of the reputation of his property and spoke about it to an associate of the Star-Gazette in 1901. He said, “It was not only a notorious roadhouse, but it had harbored dissolute women.” He recounted tales of an earlier resident who dug a cellar and found human remains under the kitchen. He believed them to be missing men and women from Elmira—another tale spoken in hushed tones told of counterfeiters working in the building’s attic. In 1901, the Elmira, Corning & Waverly (EC&W) railroad secured the right of way through Berthod’s land and threatened to raze the old building. If they failed, Berthod said he would build a brewery. The building was demolished in 1907. Berthod lived in the colony of rustic cottages called “Bohemia,” where he grew vegetables in the fertile soil near the river.

 

Bethod’s obituary in the Star-Gazette reported him living alone, making his own bread and butter. Berthod was eighty-two when he died in 1942.


While traveling west on Rt. 352, about a mile and a half past the point in West Elmira, one can see the “Frenchman’s Cross.” This cross is located on a rock ledge above the location of the Mountain House. Berthod himself related this story of its origin. In 1909, an older man asked permission to erect a cross on top of the mountain on Berthod’s farm. The cross was in memory of a young girl who lost her life there many years prior. Berthod believed the girl was a victim of some rough characters who were known to frequent the well-known resort. The mystery of the older man and his connection or interest in the girl’s death remains unconfirmed.


Today, Tanglewood Nature Center owns the “Frenchman’s Bluff” area of the cross that looks out over the Chemung River. The property is posted “No Trespassing” due to the dangerous nature of the climb and is protected by the many rattlesnakes that live in the rocks.



Sources:

Star-Gazette Dec 29, 1928

Elmira Daily Gazette May 29, 1899

Elmira Daily Gazette August 24, 1901

Elmira Star-Gazette July 7, 1942

Elmira Star-Gazette August 22, 1931

Elmira Star-Gazette March 23, 1929



 

 

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