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The Rise and Fall of Elba
By JON MUSGRAVE
Gallatin Co. ILGenWeb
T here's not much known about Elba.

Located on the south side of the North Fork of the Saline River in Section 16-7s-8e, Elba survived for nearly a century before the big flood of 1937 swept away nearly all of the physical evidence of the village. In his book Ghost Towns of Southern Illinois, Glenn Sneed describes the village as being laid out in the south half of the southeast quarter of the southwest quarter of Section 33. However, modern topographical maps show the townsite on the south side of the northwest quarter of the southeast quarter. It's possible the town moved over time. Sneed did an excellent job of compiling folklore surround the various ghost towns in the region. However it's regrettable that he often made transcription mistakes when it came to section number and descriptions. The original deed needs to be checked to verify the location.

According to Sneed, Asa B. Tarrant and his wife Mary E., platted the village of 15 lots on November 17, 1863. A second plat added an additional eight lots in a survey of July 17, 1865. The two plats should be found in Gallatin County Deed Books W, page 578, and Y, page 199. The plats provide the name of Elba, a small Italian island in the Mediterranean memorialized in history as the final imprisonment site for the deposed French Emperor Napoleon.

It's not clear when the first settlement of Elba began. Lorenzo Edwards patented the first 40 acres in Section 33, in the southeast quarter of the southeast quarter, generally on the south side of Oak Creek, on May 23, 1837. William McGee patented the second 40 acre track, this time in the southeast quarter of the northeast quarter, which today is generally on the north side of the North Fork, which runs roughly straight east along the half section line from the center of Section 33 to its east edge. After McGhee's purchase on Dec. 6, 1838, another 13 years would pass before someone else would enter any land in the area of Elba. It's possible that this land was considered swampland and was withheld from the public until the 1850s. That did occur elsewhere. Asa B. Tarrant did purchase the southeast quarter of the southwest quarter on September 19, 1854.

According to Sneed's unidentified source, "a Mr. Maddley" built the first-known store at the site of Elba in 1855, just south of the North Fork bridge. The following year "Maddley" opened the Christmasville post office in the store where he also served as postmaster. The book, Illinois Place Names, gives the name of the post office as "Christmansville". Normally, Illinois Place Names is a more reliable source than Sneed (who also described Elba as being on the "middle" fork of the Saline River rather than the North Fork - the middle fork is the main channel that flows along the south side of Equality.) However, the 1869 Campbell's Topographical & Sectional Map of Saline, Gallatin, Hardin and Pope Counties, Illinois lists the site of Elba under the name "Christmasville P.O." Whatever the exact name, the post office began operations on April 25, 1856 and closed October 16, 1861, six months after the start of the Civil War.

Besides "Mr. Maddley" who is probably the W. Matherly who appears on the 1876 state atlas map of Gallatin County, Sneed's source also recalled a blacksmith named Mr. Files, who "was a good smith, but was socially handicapped because he had married an Indian woman. That was a time when such marriages were condemned." It's during the time of the Civil War that Elba earned its epithet of "Hell's Half Acre." Again, Sneed provides the story, but not the source:

During the Civil War, Elba experienced much drunkenness among the rogues. There were many southern sympathizers in the neighborhood. One day there was a flag raising in Elba. As the flag was being fastened to the rope, a young man was holding it reverently in his arms. Then an old man staggered out of one of the saloons in a drunken stupor and spat on the flag. Another man pulled a revolver and shot the old man in the forehead, just above the bridge of the nose. He died instantly. A rider mounted his horse and started for the sheriff in Shawneetown. Some young men arrested the assailant and started picking a jury. The jury picked, a trial was held and the man was condemned to be hanged. Before the execution was carried out the sheriff arrived and took charge of matters. Because of this incident and others, products of the eight saloons, Elba acquired the name "Hell's Half Acre."

Meanwhile, another post office opened a little more than three miles away, where the road from Elba joined a more major north-south road, the Shawneetown to McLeansboro Road that ran up the east side of the North Fork. A little to the north the road split again. One branch continued to the northwest crossing Cane Creek at the Buffalo crossing or ford. The second ran northward to what became Omaha. In between these two road intersections opened the post office of Buffalo on March 6, 1857. Though in a neighboring township, following the closing of the Christmasville post office, Buffalo provided the closest postal facility. Sneed's source for Buffalo recalled the post office proved to be popular during the war as it could provide the latest news from the battlefields from the daily St. Louis newspapers. Almost a year after the war's end the post office suddenly moved south to the site of Elba and took the town's name on March 31, 1866. It's probable that the Buffalo postmaster simply moved his store to Elba and took the post office with him.

With the war over and a post office as its own, Elba quickly grew as the trade center for White Oak Township or Precinct. Sneed's source recalled, "Elba grew until in addition to the store and blacksmith shop it had a sawmill, stave mill, two hotels or inns, eight saloons, a drugstore and thirty houses. The stagecoach stopped daily and in 1870 the population was 125." In 1875, the Mercantile Agency Reference Book for Illinois listed one business of importance, Tate Bros. General Store, with a pecuniary strength between $5,000 and $10,000 and a credit rating of fair. Besides Matherly, the 1876 atlas also showed William E. Scott's residence in Elba.

The 1876 atlas also listed a number of patrons and their occupations, places of nativity, as well as the year they settled in Illinois. The following men are listed for the area served by the Elba P.O.

  • C. H. Beam, a merchant and Illinois native born in 1853.
  • Jasper Bowling, a Kentucky-born teacher who moved to Illinois in 1833.
  • F. E. Bozarth, a farmer and Illinois native born in 1854.
  • William Matherly, a Tennessee-born farmer who settled in Illinois in 1854.
  • W. F. Scott, a Tennessee-born physician who came to Illinois in 1836.
  • Robert Tate, a merchant and Illinois native born in 1853.
  • A. G. Trousdale, a farmer and Illinois native born in 1837.
  • John Yost, a farmer and sheriff of Gallatin County who was born in Illinois in 1840. (The atlas shows Yost's residence about a mile to the west of Elba.)
  • Most likely, Elba had already begun its decline by this time. The railroad running through the new towns of Ridgway and Omaha shifted commerce to the east. Likewise the new railroad running through Equality, also revitalized the commercial opportunities to the south. Elba became destined to serve as nothing more than a small market town for the surrounding farmers. At some point Matherly's store burnt down and he rebuilt a second, smaller one.

    The post office closed February 25, 1879, but reopened 10 months later on December 19. By 1887, the writers of county history noted Elba, along with Buffalo and Hell's Half Acre as one of a "few other places, not villages dignified with names." Elba's heyday was over, but the post office survived until its final closure on August 15, 1907. As the town faded some families moved on to other opportunities, including a number who emigrated to plains of North Dakota. By the time Sneed began researching for his 1977 book only two houses remained in Elba, each populated by one man. The schoolhouse stood in ruins and roofless block building proved to be all that was left of the village.

    Sources
    1887. History of Gallatin, Saline, Hamilton, Franklin and Williamson Counties, Illinois. Chicago: Goodspeed Publishing Co. 126.

    James N. Adams, comp., William E. Keller, ed. 1989. Illinois Place Names. Springfield, Ill.: Illinois State Historical Society. 306, 321, 351.

    R. A. Campbell. 1869. "Campbell's Topographical & Sectional Map of Saline, Gallatin, Hardin, and Pope Counties [Ill.]" Jon Musgrave Collection.

    R. G. Dun & Co. 1875. The Mercantile Agency Reference Book for Illinois. New York: Dun, Barlow & Co.; transcribed by Carol Lee Yarbrough, 2000. Online at http://www.carolyar.com/Illinois/Lists/MercantileGallatin.htm.

    Glen Miner. 1974. Gallatin County Cemeteries. Privately Published. Online at http://homepages.rootsweb.com/~davidca/Gall-cem/cem.htm.

    Jon Musgrave. 2002. Handbook of Old Gallatin County and Southeastern Illinois. Marion, Ill.: IllinoisHistory.com. 78.

    Glenn J. Sneed. 1977. Ghost Towns of Southern Illinois. Johnston City, Ill.: A.E.R.P., Publisher. 36, 38.

    Warner & Beers, Union Atlas Co. 1876. "Map of Gallatin and Hardin counties." Atlas of Illinois. Chicago: Warner & Beers. 134.

    Illinois Public Domain Lands Tract Sales Database. Illinois State Archives. Illinois Secretary of State's Office.

    Links
    Downtown Elba — This picture appears to come from the late 19th Century and show the downtown would have looked liked.

    Emigration to North Dakota — A number of Elba families moved to North Dakota in the 1890s and the early 20th Century.

    North Fork Bridge — This is the covered bridge which spanned across the North Fork of the Saline River at Elba in the late 19th Century and/or early 20th Century. The view is looking upstream [Date unknown].

    North Fork Bridge — This is a second picture of the bridge at Elba, but this one focuses on one end. Based on the high water and the damage to the bridge, this was probably taken following a major flood (possibly the big one of 1898), though it could have been an earlier flood, or just the annual high water. This view looks downstream and is the opposite side of the bridge that's shown in the photo above.

    Elba School — Class picture from unknown year but believed to be from the late 1800s. A second class photo is also online. It's from a period between 1910 and 1915. Richard E. Williams has also donated lists of students and teachers prepared by his uncle Walter Williams who attended school at Elba between 1884 and 1894. There's a list of his fellow students, the teachers, his classmates who later married, as well as those who had passed away before 1952. Also included is a poem he wrote in 1952 to his brother recalling their days at Elba.



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