The Forgotten Town of Palmyra


Palmyra was a ghost town in the 1880s, as related by a group of farm boys who took a fishing trip there on a summer day. I wish I could have seen this pioneer town on the Wabash River It was the county's first seat of government and platted in 1815. Before that, Palmyra, supposedly named after a town in New York where some of the first residents lived, was a French trading post which began in the year 1789. In its heyday, the population was estimated at 1,500 people and there was a company of Illinois Territorial Militia stationed there. John Starkey is one of the persons named to be in that company.


Seth Gard and Peter Keen purchased land in fractions of Sections 4 and 5, T1 S, R 12 W at the Vincennes Land office on December 5, 1814. The price was $1,015. This was the beginning of Seth Gard Land Company, formed to develop the county seat on the Wabash River. On December 12, other partners purchased shares of the new company as equal partners: Jervaise (Gervase/Jarvis) Hazelton, Levi Compton and John Waggoner. They also purchased the right to the land from the local Piankishaw Indians for $10 worth of trade goods negotiated with the chief Nankipo. The Indians moved nearby to Hanging Rock which would have been visible from the mouth of Crawfish Creek where Palmyra would be located. The Indians warned that it was not a healthy location, but the die was cast.


Lots were surveyed, platted and submitted to the Territorial government at Kaskaskia on April 22, 1815. A 20-acre town site had to be donated for the county government and the proceeds donated to the territorial government to pay for government expenses. Town lots sold for $15. Growth was encouraged by giving away odd numbered lots to anyone who would build a log cabin of hewed logs which the proprietors would furnish. It had to meet certain specifications, be completed in two years and occupied for three months. There must have been much speculation in town lots at the time as anyone who wanted to locate in Wabash County would be landing there by keelboat or crossing the river from Indiana and purchasing land through the land office in Palmyra. Ads ran in area newspapers to encourage settlers. Nathaniel Claypool became the agent for Seth Gard Land Company.


There were many businesses located in Palmyra--a post office, hotel/tavern, the land office, two stores, a branch of the Bank of Illinois (established in 1821), warehouses and grog shops and a racetrack which was west of town. The race track was a place of much entertainment for local folks. The Indians came to race their ponies against the white settlers and there were sporting events like wrestling, tomahawk throwing and shooting competitions held on Saturdays. Ransom Higgins and August Tougau/Lovellette excelled at wrestling contests. Both were about 6 foot 6 inches tall. Jeremiah Wood and John Barney were the best at shooting matches.


At the first court session, which was similar to today's county commissioners meetings, fees were set for meals and drinks at the nearby tavern, a license was granted to operate a ferry across the Wabash and a group of citizens were appointed to plan a road to Shawneetown in the south and to Valle's Ford on the Wabash to the north. The group for the road north was John Compton, William B. Smith (owner of the land now in Allendale), and Alexander Wood. Those working on the plan for the road south were Ransom Higgins, Levi Compton and John Campbell. Ransom Higgins and John Stillwell were appointed supervisors of he poor. Interestingly, the county poor farm was later located just southwest of the section where Palmyra was located in the NW quarter of Section 8. This is still county land. Rates were established for taxes to be levied for county government purposes.


Between 1815 and 1821 Palmyra was a very busy and thriving place. But there was trouble in paradise. The town was located on low land which tended to breed mosquitoes during certain times of the year. Milk sick or milk fever killed lots of the people in frontier villages. At that time it was not known that cows eating a local plant called white snake root would produce milk which caused milk sickness to anyone who drank the milk or any products made from the milk. There was a good spring nearby which came out of a sandstone outcropping on Crawfish Creek but people began to think it was poisoned and moved away after losing members of their family. There was a large cemetery but the location is not known. It was said to be southwest of the village near Crawfish Creek on a bluff. John Starkey, the militia member, took his seven year old daughter, Mary, to be raised by the Barney family at Friendsville. She was the only surviving member of his family.


Seth Gard decided to set up a new town, called Centerville, four miles west, on a hill, away from the Wabash. This was a healthier area and more centrally located in the county,. He worked to get Centerville as the new county seat. An election to relocate the county seat was held in 1821 but unfortunately the vote was to move the county seat to Albion, a thriving town of British immigrants, located in the western part of Edwards County.


By 1828 Palmyra was no more. The town was deserted although most of the houses still stood and were sound. Many clapboards on the houses had been removed for other uses since sawmills were still scarce and transportation was difficult during those times. A visitor who came for a baptismal ceremony on the Wabash or perhaps Crawfish Creek described what he found there.


The town was only inhabited by birds, animals and snakes. A true ghost town. Even sadder, is the site's later fate. It served as the Mt,. Carmel city dump. Now it is farm ground and can be seen to the east of Illinois Route 1, just north of the Crawfish Creek bridge. A large bolder placed by the roadside on the old Route 1 near Crawfish Creek marked the town site. It was dedicated by the local Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in the 1920s. After a move to a roadside park which closed, the 6,000 lb. stone with its plaque and an aerial photo are now located in the courtyard at the Wabash County Museum at 320 N. Market Street in Mount Carmel.