Binghamton's Oldest Church: A Constant In A Changing City
Driving through downtown Binghamton today, there's no shortage of historic churches. But there's one that's been there since the very beginning.
Christ Church, with it's iconic purple slate roof and 110 ft tall steeple is easy to spot on the corner of Henry and Water Streets and taking a look inside, it's hard to forget.
"It's one of the landmarks in this town," says Broome County Historian Roger Luther.
Inside Christ Church in Binghamton.
The soaring stone building and elaborate interior were just a dream back in 1810. That's when the church's founders were meeting at the county courthouse. They didn't have a building of their own yet, but one of their founding members was Joshua Whitney. Whitney was Henry Bingham's land agent. Whitney was in charge of divvying up the land. He secured the lot at the corner of Henry and Water Streets for the church to build on. They had their first building by 1818.
During this time period, the region was going through a rapid growth. The next several years saw the development of the area, the Chenango Canal, and eventually the railroad. Christ Church was also growing. By 1853 they needed a new building. The church hired famed architect Richard Upjohn to do the drawings and contractor J Stewart Wells to bring them to life.
“Wells was a very famous builder in the area, built the New York State Inebriate Asylum and the Phelps Mansion," says Luther.
It took two years to build. The stone came from a quarry in Guilford, laid down piece by piece, but when they got to the steeple, they had to stop.
“They just didn’t have the funds to complete the spire," says Luther.
It wouldn't be completed until 50 years later, when Wells decided to just pay for it himself. The same stone quarry was opened back up again to finish the job.
Christ Church before the steeple was built.
Inside the steeple, up two flights of spiral stairs and a ladder, are the bells. One large tolling bell, clustered together with eleven smaller chimes. The bells were cast in Troy, New York and were a gift from the Jarvis family. They were installed in 1904.
Broome County Historian Roger Luther in the bell tower at Christ Church.
The church has a group of parishioners who are "chimers," taking on the job of playing the bells, which are controlled by a keyboard of levers. Our tour guide, Gene Stanton explains that the bells are tuned to a musical scale. Each lever corresponds with a note.
All of that is at the top of the building, but down below there's even more history. Some of it, is speculation, but still fascinating. Stanton shows us a trapdoor hidden underneath the pipe organ. The rumor is that the church was part of the underground railroad. The timeline makes sense, but Stanton says they've never been able to find any written proof. It remains a mystery, just like some other happenings around the building.
Stanton says lights go out and things go missing on a regular basis. He says the pitcher for the wine used during communion went missing for several weeks. It was found in the top of the bell tower and no one knows how it got there. Well, no one knows officially how it got there, but if you ask parishioners, they say: "We're blaming all the ghost stories on Joshua." It all comes back to Joshua Whitney, the most famous ex-parishioner in the history of the church.
“Story goes, he was a real heavyset guy. Got to be 300 pounds or so… so he asked the church to provide him a special box to accommodate his family," says Luther.
He was denied. Whitney never came to another Sunday service, but the parishioners joke that he is still messing with them in revenge.
A church doesn't get to be over 200 years old without developing some myths, legends, and even ghost stories along the way.