Photos by Cheryl Landes
In 1868, Amory Houghton, Sr. relocated the Brooklyn Flint Glass Company for easier access to cheaper raw materials, waterways, and railroads. Canal boats hauled his glassmaking equipment along a network of rivers, canals, and lakes from Brooklyn to Corning, New York. When the trip ended, he renamed the company Corning Glass Works.
Today, Corning Glass Works is known as Corning Incorporated and its headquarters still thrives in the town that shares its name. The company has grown to 45,000 employees worldwide, along with some 70 manufacturing plants and research and development facilities in Europe, Asia, and North America.
This year, The Corning Museum of Glass celebrates the company’s 150th anniversary by retracing the journey from Brooklyn to Corning on the GlassBarge, a working vessel converted into a glass studio.
After the anniversary launch May 17-28 at Brooklyn Bridge Park, the barge traveled up the Hudson River to Albany and west on the Erie Canal to Buffalo. Then it turned around, followed the Erie Canal east to the Seneca Canal, entered Seneca Lake at Geneva, crossed the lake, and docked at Watkins Glen for three days. From there, the barge will be transported by land to the its final destination in Corning on Saturday, September 22.
The barge stopped at 16 towns, where the crew welcomed the public aboard to watch 30-minute glassmaking demonstrations on the deck.
The studio is set up on one end of the barge, and bleachers are at the other end where guests can relax and watch gaffers transform blobs of glowing hot glass into beautiful pitchers, vases, pumpkins, and more.
During a trip to southern New York State, I stopped in Watkins Glen to watch the demonstrations. It was like watching a glassmaking class from start to finish. An emcee explained the glassmaking process as one or two gaffers created beautiful pieces.
In the first demonstration, a gaffer made a vase. He started by inserting a long metal blowpipe into a furnace to gather molten glass on the end, which resembled a glowing blob of honey on a honey dipper. He carried the rod to a table, where he rolled the rod slowly to start shaping the glass. Then he blew through the rod to create a bubble in the glass and refine the shape. As the glass cooled, he returned to the furnace to add more molten glass to make the vase wall thicker.
After the vase had the shape he wanted, he started forming the neck of the vase with a set of tongs. He gripped the glass near the tip of the rod and gently stretched the glass to the length he wanted while continuing to roll the rod.
He must continue rolling the rod while forming the neck of the vase to prevent the hot glass from losing its shape.
Then he blew into the rod again.
As the glass cooled, he reheated the vase in the furnace enough to resume shaping it. When he removed the vase from the furnace, he held a pad to the base while rolling the vase to continue adjusting the shape.
He repeated rolling while using the tongs to lengthen the neck, blowing into the glass, and reheating the vase until he finally achieved the perfect shape.
When he finished, he placed the vase in an annealer to cool the glass overnight.
In another demonstration, two gaffers worked together to make a pitcher. One gaffer shaped the body of the pitcher while the other created and attached the handle.
The demonstrations at Watkins Glen ended tonight, September 16. Now the GlassBarge will travel by land to Corning for a final community celebration on Saturday, September 22, which includes a viewing of the updated Crystal City Gallery at the Corning Museum of Glass. The gallery’s exhibits tell the story of how Corning Incorporated became one of the premier centers for glass cutting in the United States.
If you go to the celebration, take some time to check out the contemporary glass, history of glass, and innovations in glass exhibits at the museum. Make your own glass in the studio. Stop at the gift shop, which sells decorative glass items, glassware, and jewelry. Then walk or drive two blocks from the museum to explore the historic Gaffer District in downtown Corning—a quaint neighborhood filled with shops, casual and fine dining, and the Rockwell Museum.
The Gaffer District is also celebrating the 150th anniversary of glassmaking along Market Street on September 22 from noon until 7 p.m. At the HARVEST festival, enjoy local harvest-inspired food, community tables for gathering, and live music by regional talent. At 7:15 p.m., the celebration moves to Riverfront Centennial Park and ends with a fireworks display.
Parking is free at the Corning Museum of Glass. Limited free on-street parking is available in the Gaffer District or for a fee in the garage at Centerway Square.
After the celebration in Corning, the barge will return to its homeport of Albany and its duties as a working vessel.