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Palmyra NY Home  / About Palmyra NY  /  History  /  "A Brief History of Palmyra"  /  1700's  /  1800's

Palmyra’s early military record really began with the War of 1812, in which 57 of our inhabitants participated. Since our town was not founded until 1789, there were no "Palmyra" people in the Revolution, although 26 of our townspeople had served in the Revolution and two in the French and Indian War (1754 - 1763). The Mexican War was not popular in the east and only Josiah J. White from Palmyra served. Palmyra cemeteries contain the graves of soldiers and sailors from every war from the Revolution to the present.

On March 31, 1815, the state legislature incorporated the Montezuma Turnpike and Bridge Company. In Wayne County, the turnpike enters at Angell’s Corners to Marengo to Lyons, to Newark, to East Palmyra and terminated at Palmyra. By early 1823 this project seems to have been completed with goods moving to and from Palmyra. Apparently, the turnpike was the victim of poor timing. Since the Erie Canal was completed to Palmyra by 1822, the use of the more expensive road methods of transportation suffered. On May 4, 1835, the legislature repealed the act incorporating the Montezuma Turnpike and Bridge Company, and for all practical purposes, the company ceased to exist.

Two major events which greatly effected Palmyra took place in 1817. From a cultural standpoint, the printing of the first issue of the "Palmyra Register" on November 26, 1817 allowed local people, businesses, municipalities, organizations, etc., an inexpensive means of communication. Incidentally, the "Register" was the first newspaper printed in Wayne County. The other event had a gigantic impact on Palmyra - that was the decision to build the Erie Canal.

Although the Erie Canal was not completed until 1825, a substantial part was available for use by Palmyra by mid 1822. According to the Palmyra Herald of June 19,1822, "our village has assumed an appearance which may be justly considered characteristic of the elevated rank to which it is destined. The canal crosses Main St. at the Eastern end where there is a large and commodious basin (Jessup) and nearly opposite the center of the village, another basin (Rogers)is now nearly completed plus at the west end of the Village is a third basin (Aldrich) directly opposite to which there is an elegant dry dock." ( A basin was similar to a bay which was constructed to allow boats to leave the main channel at the canal for the purpose of loading or unloading.)

The canal toll collector's office was originally at Jessup’s basin but was moved to Rogers and remained there for most of the life of the Erie. Some idea of the volume of canal business done at Palmyra may be determined by the Canal Commission report of 1827 which showed that the toll collected in Palmyra for that year was $84,009.96. Incidentally the collector’s salary was $1,000.00 annually.

During the canal period, roughly 1822-1853, the Palmyra area prospered tremendously. Many of the Main Street commercial buildings were constructed in the 1822 through 1830 period. Among the many occupations were farming (fruits, vegetables, grain, essence), manufacturing (boat building, rope, lumber, ashes) and forwarding. Many Palmyra merchants became very wealthy and built federal style homes which still stand today. A comparison of population from this time is interesting:

Year Rochesterville Palmyra
1816 331 2187
1820 1500 3124
1825 4274 4613

By the special act of the New York State Legislature, Wayne County was set off from Ontario County on January 28,1823. At the same time, the Town of Macedon was set off from the Town of Palmyra. The result of this was that Township 12 in Range 3 became Macedon with 23,125 acres and Palmyra Township 12 in Range 2 with 19,410 acres. Note also the notch in the south border of Palmyra Township. The Canal was through Palmyra by 1822 and when the County was set off in 1823, Ontario County wanted an outlet on the Erie Canal so the south border of Palmyra was moved northward to allow for Port Gibson, Town of Manchester, Ontario County.

An act to incorporate the Village of Palmyra was passed by the legislature on March 29,1827, however, the charter did not reach Palmyra in time for the election of trustees on the first Monday of May. As a consequence, the charter was amended in January, 1828 and the first Village Board meeting was held on February 8,1828. One of the sections of the charter provided for the appointment of "a company of firemen not exceeding 20 members." At a meeting of the Board on May 23, 1828, Palmyra Fire Company No. 1 was formed with the 20 men authorized. A fire in the cupola of the high school building on February 18, 1830 " was extinguished and the building saved by the prompt and judicious conduct of our firemen on this occasion." On November 14, 1838, the Presbyterian Meeting House caught fire and in one hour saw the large and spacious building level with the ground. Note that this building was called the Presbyterian Meeting House only because most of those who built it were Presbyterians. It was, in fact, a community structure owned by the Town.

Mr. Whitney Cross in his book, "The Burned Over District" treats with the plethora of religious activities in our area in the early to middle years of the 19th century. Of most interest to us in Palmyra, was the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons. Although the church was founded in Fayette, Seneca County, most of the spiritual experiences underlying the foundation occurred in the Palmyra area. Among the significant locations are the Sacred Grove, Hill Cumorah, The Joseph Smith Home; all of which are located in the Town of Manchester, Ontario County. In Palmyra are the Martin Harris farm, the Grandin Building in which the first edition of the Book of Mormon was published, the gravesite of Alvin Smith and sites of business locations which played a role in the lives of the Smith family while in our area. The Hill Cumorah pageant brings thousands of visitors to Palmyra annually.

In addition to Joseph Smith, Palmyra has been home to, or visited by, a number of well known persons. Included were:

Henry Wells  From 1821 through 1827, he was an apprentice at the Jessup and Palmer Tannery. In 1827, he married a Palmyra gal, Sarah (Dolly) Daggett, and they moved to Port Byron. Mr. Wells was a stammerer and developed a procedure to alleviate the condition. He returned to Palmyra in 1835-36 and opened a Stammering School. In 1841, the Wells and Pomeroy Express Company was formed. (Pomeroy was George Pomeroy, a Palmyra merchant who later formed Pomeroy’s Letter Express.) Mr. Wells went on to forms Wells Fargo Express.

George Harrington-Christy George’s mother moved to Buffalo in 1830, after her husband died in Palmyra, and opened a boarding house-dance hall. Her 12 year old son, George, born in Palmyra, became well acquainted with Edwin P "Ned" Christy who took a liking to the boy. George admired Ned so much after that he took the name Christy and continued in the minstrel business until his death in 1868 - a rich man.

James W. Austin  Mr. Austin was born in Palmyra, October 18, 1839. At age 20, he joined an expedition to Pikes Peak. His career in the west included being the Pony Express rider who carried west the news of Abraham Lincoln’s death. Among his acquaintances were Jim Bridger, Kit Carson and other famous Western frontiersmen.

Isaac Singer Biographers of Mr. Singer indicate he married Catherine Maria Haley who lived with her family in Palmyra. She became the first Mrs. Singer. Palmyra Road tax records for 1831 lists I Singer owing 2 days labor. According to the index of Patents, Isaac Singer reserved 220 patents for sewing machine innovations.

Leonard Jerome  Married Clarissa (Clara) Hall in the Western Presbyterian Church in Palmyra on April 5, 1849. Clarissa was the daughter of Ambrose Hall and the granddaughter of David and Anna Wilcox. From the Jerome Hall union a daughter, Jenny was born. Jenny and her mother frequently spent the summer in Europe. During one such visit, Jenny met and married Lord Randolph Churchill. From this union a son, Winston S. Churchill was born. Churchill frequently claimed Indian blood and although probably minuscule his great great grandmother, Anna Wilcox was part Indian.

As the fall of 1849 approached, some citizens of Palmyra decided to hold a fair in Hathaway’s grove on the west side of Cuyler Street at the south end of the street. From that beginning, the Palmyra Union Agricultural Society was formed on June 26, 1856. During the same year, the society became a stock company and remains so today. August, 1970 found the fairgrounds used as the site of the Old Fiddlers Picnic with about 7,000 attending, but in 1980 the picnic was moved to a new location. When the Palmyra Fair became the only fair remaining in the county, it became the Wayne County Fair and continues to the present.

On May 30, 1853, the people of this "isolated region" were delivered from bondage. Long before the arrival of the first railroad train from the west, quite a large number of citizens assembled at the depot to witness the arrival of the first passenger train to serve our area. The trip went as far east as Port Byron and then the passengers returned on the westbound train. With the advent of the railroad, the canal began to assume a less important commercial role for Palmyra and all of Wayne County.

John M. Jones came to Palmyra from Clyde in 1855. While in Clyde, Mr. Jones patented a "Domestic Printing Machine," a typewriter. On Jackson St. in Palmyra, Mr. Jones built a manufacturing facility to produce printing presses. Patents for the "Globe," "Peerless," "Star," and a number of others were issued to him in the 1860’s, 70’s and 80’s. With various owners, the production of job presses and paper cutters continued until about 1902. About 1925, the original foundry was torn down and houses built on the site.

A couple other businesses may be of interest. With a patent issued in 1886, Olin J. Garlock organized a company to produce mechanical sealing devices. This first business was carried on in Port Gibson until 1889 when the Garlock Packing Company moved to Palmyra. From that time until the present the enterprise has offered the people of Wayne County an opportunity for employment and has been a good neighbor.

On January 19,1892, James T. Walker of Palmyra was issued a patent No. 467454 for a photographic camera. The camera was called the Takiv since the lens and shutter could be rotated to take 4 pictures on one plate. Although this camera has advantages over other plate cameras, Mr. Eastman had produced the first roll film Kodak camera in 1888 and Mr. Walker’s company could not survive the more efficient roll film model.

Palmyra’s role during the Civil War was quite extensive aside from furnishing more than 400 men. Company B of the 33rd Infantry was raised in our town as well as a large part of the 111th regiment. The home front was busy sending food, gifts and letters to the boys far from upstate New York. One postscript may be of interest: on the evening of April 14, 1865, Dr. Samuel Sabin, a Palmyra boy recently discharged as a surgeon with the 9th Heavy Artillery, attended Ford’s Theater to see "Our American Cousin". After the attack on President Lincoln, Dr. Sabin assisted in attending the President until he was removed to the Peterson house.

When people visit Palmyra, the two things most often photographed are the four (4) churches on the corner of Main and Church and Canandaigua Streets, plus the steel flag pole. The four churches were constructed as follows: Presbyterian Church - 1832, Methodist - 1867, Baptist - 1870, Episcopal - 1872. In Robert Ripley’s "Believe It Or Not" column in 1938, he wrote that the churches on the four corners were unique in the United States. Originally the flag pole was a Republican party pole used to fly banners promoting their candidates. (The Democrats also had one but was of wood and has not survived.) The Flag Pole raising day, as it was called, was held on October 25, 1892 with a mammoth parade which included bands, Republican Clubs from many surrounding towns, plus a dinner, speakers and songs. On July 20,1970, ownership of the pole was accepted by the Village Board and has since been the property of the village.

Shortly after the flag pole raising, America found itself in what historian James Ford Rhode called "This Needless War" Spanish American War - April 17, 1886 - August 12, 1896. Palmyra’s largest contribution to this effort was the service rendered by William T. Sampson. In September, 1886, Sampson was ordered to Annapolis to serve as the Superintendent of the Naval Academy. When the USS Main was blown up, he was appointed to head the Court of Inquiry. As the war began, Sampson was appointed Commander In Chief of the North Atlantic Squadron. On April 21, 1898 he was appointed a Rear Admiral. Palmyra staged a Sampson Day on October 27, 1899 to welcome home the local son. Four years later, on May 6, 1902, the Admiral died and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, although he had expressed a wish to be buried in Palmyra.

© 1998 Bob Lowe


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