ExPats: Cameron Collins
Updated: Sep 5
“I’ve always been amazed at the amount of talent Elmira has produced!” Cameron Collins, 50, formerly of Elmira, says. “There’s no place with a 28,000 population that is pumping out talent like Elmira. It’s incredible.”
Cameron Collins currently lives, works and writes in St. Louis, MO, but he’ll always consider himself an upstate New Yorker.
He grew up on Logan Street and attended Booth School, Ernie Davis Middle School and Elmira Free Academy throughout the 1970s and 80s. Then Cameron left the Southern Tier to attend the University of Dayton in Ohio, majoring in Fine Art Photography and American History.
Although, he wanted to return to his hometown after college, his parents discouraged him.
“There were no jobs for a photography/history major in Elmira,” he explains. “I planned to eventually move to Chicago or New York City, but St. Louis is very affordable with lots to do, and so many great people, that I fell in love with the area. Between me, my roommate and another friend that moved in, we were able to rent a 4-bedroom house for about $200/month each.”
So instead, he settled in St. Louis, rooming with a couple of college friends. After observing that his friends who moved to Chicago were spending their entire paycheck on a cramped apartment, while he shared an entire house with two friends and STILL had enough money for a few pints at the neighborhood pub and tickets to a baseball game, Cameron ended up making St. Louis his home.
“I fell in love with the city and its history,” he says.
Cameron had a brush with history of his own when he met future POTUS, then-Senator Barack Obama, in 2006 while volunteering for Claire McCaskill’s campaign. As a volunteer he got invited to a rally and got to shake Obama’s hand.
When he first moved to St. Louis in 1995, Cameron bounced around the city getting acquainted with his new home and finding out what he wanted in life, apropos of most twenty-something’s trying to figure out their place in the world. Eventually, he became interested in the city’s wealth of interesting history, especially related to one of his favorite pastimes, drinking. In 2012, he started the online column Distilled History, A Drinking Blog with a History Problem, to explore some of St. Louis more colorful legends related to libations. Although the blog focused on regional history, he was able to include a couple of popular posts about some really interesting hometown history about Langdon Mansion and the water therapy spa on Elmira’s Water Cure Hill, that he researched and wrote during his visits home to see his mother, Susan Collins.
“The two blog posts I wrote about Elmira history … about Langdon Mansion and the Water Cure resort – are among my favorite blog posts of all time,” Cameron says. “Those two posts are a delight for me. Elmira has some really cool history.”
Cameron was particularly excited to hear from some of his former Elmira Free Academy teachers who, having read his blog, reached out to confirm that the student they knew was, indeed, the blog’s author.
“Even today, I still get emails from Elmirans telling me they remember stories about those historical places.”
The blog resonated with St. Louisans, and after winning a Riverfront Times Web Award in 2012 for best personal blog, his readership went crazy and Cameron started getting requests to doing presentations about St. Louis history all around town. Eventually local publisher Reedy Press took notice and contacted him in 2015 about writing a book on St. Louis history.
Cameron’s first book “Lost Treasures of St. Louis,” is a menagerie of long-gone places, events and items once identified with the Gateway City that includes rarely seen photos and artifacts, and was well-received. His skillful and engaging prose, as well as some glowing reviews from regional periodicals like St. Louis Magazine, helped make it one of the best-selling hard copy books Reedy Press has published to date.
After the success of his first book, Cameron was asked to co-author two other books on the region, “St. Louis Brews: The History of Brewing in the Gateway City, 3rd Edition,” and “Scenes of Historic Wonder: St. Louis.”
He’s currently working on his fourth book, an as-yet-untitled book about St. Louis birds, scheduled to come out in spring 2022. One of his recent hobbies has Cameron exploring the region, taking amazing pictures of the birds he encounters in a variety of urban and natural habitats. His stunning shots of regional birds will be available in paperback, and he thinks it’ll be a great gift for all audiences.
“I think this one’s gonna sell big,” he said, chuckling. “Nobody can get mad at birds.”
Cameron’s day job for the past two years has been as a Process Analyst at Centene, a multi-line managed care enterprise that serves as a major intermediary for both government-sponsored and privately insured health care programs. He’s an analyst who creates workflow processes that instruct medical claims analysts what to do. For example, Cameron helped write the workflow instructions to process COVID claims across the country. He particularly enjoys working for Centene because of its progressive, forward-thinking policies like the fact that, of approximately 80,000 employees, 75% are women and 50% identify themselves as people of color.
It’s been three years since Cameron last visited Elmira, when he had returned to help his mom pack up the 17-room Victorian house where she resided to move with him to St. Louis.
“We love this town,” he said, wistfully. “We both miss it dearly.”
“I miss hills. I miss driving up around the Finger Lakes. Elmira is filled with so much great history!”
He also mentioned, with fondness, the people of his hometown, that remind him of the wonderful community spirit Elmira has always had. People like Katie Boland, Elmira businesswomen and philanthropist, who hosted Cameron’s father’s wake at Horigan’s after his death in 2008. “It was an epic celebration,” he reminisced.
Folks like Boland, and her mother Bunny, and stepfather Carl Vallely, who’ve continued to nurture and build interest in community preservation of its history, give Cameron hope that his hometown can overcome the economic and social issues that continue to plague the area.
While he imagines returning to live in his hometown someday, Cameron’s pretty content with his current life in St. Louis.
For the past three years, he’s lived in a blended household with his mom and their three cats Wu Zhao, Noko and Ivan Grayslacks, in St. Louis, MO. And, while they may sometimes drive each other crazy, they were grateful to have been together throughout the pandemic.
Most recently, Cameron’s developed a habit for gardening. With his mother’s supervision, he and an experienced gardener, Jasmin, have created a serene outdoor garden space to enjoy with family and friends.