Henderson, Galesboro, Summit, Coburg, Randall, LaPier--

Towns That Weren't or Were, or Where They?

What's in a name? One thinks of names for places being fairly stable. At least that is one assumes without investigation, or at least hopes. But names change, creating havoc for history and genealogists. In addition to official name changes, local names, nicknames, and just plain errors make finding the old homestead or a family's roots more troublesome that one might expect. Let's just take a quick look at some examples for Knox and Warren Counties.

Most folks know that Galesburg was not the original county seat for Knox County. Initially, it was Knoxville, more centrally located in the county. However, how many of you know that Knoxville didn't use to be ''Knoxville.'' It's original name was ''Henderson'', but was changed as the name was already in use. About the same time, although Galesburg's name was Galesburg, it appeared in print from time to time as the little upstart town west of Knoxville, known as ''Galesboro.''

Sometimes names were created for the benefit of the postal system. Tylerville, the small collection of buildings in Warren County became the host of a post office named ''Utah.'' Tylerville existed, but Utah didn't, except on paper and on maps. Utah was one of those towns that never was.

Let's look at the mighty metropolis of Rio. It was first platted in 1871 by William Robinson. It was named ''Coburg'' in honor of the Coe brothers. However, not wanting to make things too simple, the Coburg post office was known as ''North Prairie,'' with Nelson Coe being the first postmaster. Presumably, the post office had this name because that part of Knox County was once known as North Prairie. The name ''Rio'' came from a shortened version of the name ''Rio Grande'' which was a well-known geographic name following the end of the Mexican War. The shortened version, Spanish for river, seemed appropriate given the number of nearby streams. No, I don't know why it is not pronounced like the ''Rio'' in ''Rio Grande,'' but rather with a long ''i'' sound.

Altona seems to be no less uncertain as to its name. This site was laid out in 1854 by John Piatt. Adjacent to this site was another laid out just northeast of the first, set by E.B. Main and John Thompson. This was the site of the first village building, and the area was known as ''LaPier.'' However, with the coming of the railroad, the railroad insisted that the name be changed to ''Altona.'' Notwithstanding the new name of Altona, the post office was named ''Walnut Grove.'' To end this conflict, the village decided upon a new name for both the village and the post office. This name was to be ''Reno.'' This name was selected in honor of a military general. However, poor old Altona's bad luck was not to end so simply. About the same time as the decision was being reached, 3 evil-doers were captured and lynched in Indiana, who, as you may have guessed, went by the name Reno. The voters turned down the name ''Reno'' and settled for ''Altona,'' thereby giving, thank God, a single name for the village, railroad station, and post office.

Lynn Township tried to challenge the Altona story, but couldn't get it off the ground. According to an old county history, the story went something like this:

''In the early days some effort was made to attract the merchant and mechanic to a point on the south line, called Centerville (afterward platted as Milroy), but it failed of success, and there has never been a postoffice (sic), a church building, or a village within the limits of Lynn.''

If one were to tell his wife or parents that he was taking the car for a quick drive to ''Randall,'' it may be met with a blank stare. On the other hand, if you said you were going to East Galesburg, one knew where, but perhaps not why. East Galesburg was Randall until the heavy hand of the railroad decided that it would become East Galesburg. An early county history notes: ''In 1892 the railroad company changed the name of its station to East Galesburg, but that of the town remained the same as at first.'' This sentence was under a section entitled ''Randall.'' Given my limited contemporary history of Galesburg and the ''East Galesburg'' exit sign on the highway instead of ''Randall'', it appears that the railroad won another victory sometime after 1899.

Haw Creek Township offers a different version to create confusion. The settlement of Mechanicsburg was established before the village of Gilson. Mechanicsburg received the post office on May 7, 1852, and was named by the government, of course, not as ''Mechanicsburg'', but rather ''Haw Creek.'' However the Haw Creek Post Office in Mechanicsburg was only good to last for about five years, for on March 5, 1857, the post office was relocated to Gilson, then a railroad station. Mechanicsburg fell from history and ''fell asleep.'' Gilson seems to lack imagination and offers the inconsistent trend of this article. It was laid out in 1857 by Linneus Richmond and James Gilson, for whom it was named. Who knows why it wasn't named ''Richmond'' or even ''Linneus.''

Of course, everyone knows of Louisville, on the banks of the Ohio River, which owes its early success to the presence of the Ohio River Falls that interfered with the free travel of boats along the Ohio River. However, how many of you know of Louisville that lived and died just north of Abingdon in Cedar Township? Louisville was laid out on September 30, 1836 and was the chief village in the area until the growth of Abingdon killed it. There is also the former site of Saluda, north and east of Abingdon, now memorialized by a railroad sign displaying the name ''Saluda Station'' and the highway fill on the north end of Lake Bracken, known locally as the ''Saluda Fill.''

Chestnut Township has only one village to offer up for the name game. It is currently known as Hermon and was described prior to 1900 as falling prey to Abingdon and Knoxville. In 1899 it was described simply as ''nothing more than a dull, country postoffice, on the line of the Iowa Central Railway.'' But before it was Hermon, this metropolis was known as ''Harrisonville.'' It was platted by Archibald Long on May 3, 1842, who apparently was carried away by politics. The name was changed to Hermon in 1848 after arrival of the post office, so one can suspect a government name-change again.

Salem Township has ''Douglas'' that used to be known as ''Summit'' which I find to be an original name for a town in Illinois. Summit, or Douglas, was surveyed into existence in 1856 and was created in response to the Peoria and Oquawka Railroad. Uniontown was the oldest village in the township. It was laid out in 1839, near a post office established in 1837 and named ''Middle Grove.'' Uniontown failed when the railroad went through a couple of miles further north and the Illinois legislature vacated the plat in 1869. With all this name change, it seems disappointing that Yates City was named Yates City and did not change. (If you are interested, it was named for the home county- Yates County, New York- of the Babcock family who helped survey the town.)

To all these rather formal name changes and the birth and death of villages that failed to survive competition, one has to add those local names for places that never really existed in a formal sense. If you find a reference that your Irish ancestors were from ''Barefoot'' in Knox County, don't bother looking for a map. You won't find Barefoot. It is part of local oral history.

Did I remember to tell you about Shanghai City?

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online April 26, 2000

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