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Peter Britton Establishes Petersburgh (What Cheer)


Posted By: Deborah Gilbert (email)
Date: 9/4/2016 at 13:20:52

What Cheer: 100 Years 1865-1965

It was said that an Indian trail ran across the north part of the present town of What Cheer, the Sauk and Fox having left the area before May 1, 1843. Long before 1850 there was a trapper's cabin in the grove north of the site of the present south hill school building, and its ruins were traceable until late in the century.

Credited with being the village's first settler was George Washington Sampson, known as 'Wash' Sampson. April 27, 1847, he bought the southwest quarter of section 10, township 76, range 13, which is along the south side of the creek. His patent was dated May 1, 1848. It was the sight of coal, jutting bare-faced out of a hillside in the Old Town area which brought this first sale of government land. Naturally enough, the creek which meandered between the hills came to be known as Coal creek. Later, 'Wash' sold part of the land to his son Ezekial and Amaziah Covey.

William Clubb came from Indiana in 1848. His cola land embraced 80 acres with a vein of coal six feet thick. from 1850 to '56 more families came. Ebenezer Weeks bought land in 1853 at $3 per acre. Mr. and Mrs. E. Nelson came from Abington, Illinois, the same year and took a government claim 2 1/2 miles east. Among the early settlers were: John Smith, James Humes, John Kitzmann, Thomas Heston, M. R. Harbison, Thomas Thornbow of near Springfield, Absolom Waddle, Y. P. Ellis, Charlie Mohme, High Brinly, David McCune, the Leg family, Linus Dunbar, Dave Dunbar, John Garrett, Ezra Dotty, Abel Woods and John Wallow. Linus Dunbar often told of how he hunted on the thickly wooded south hill where the school is now.

Those were the staunch men who helped build the settlement; but the most colorful of all was Peter Britton.

In 1807, Peter Britton was born in England. An eccentric and adventurous bachelor, he came to America in 1855 and located in Washington Township at the site of the future town. He built a slab shanty on the east bank of Coal creek in the general vicinity of the bridge that is now south of the town park and opened a slope coal mine. The first to help him dig coal were E. Nelson, Y. N. Nelson, John Harbison, Thomas Heston and Charlie Mohme. Britton adn a man named Wallace built a trestle from the mine and out over the creek so they could push the coal cars out by hand, up a slight incline, and dump them on the opposite side of the creek. Not far from the bachelor's shanty, David McCune and William Cochrane operated the first mill. This was to become the center of activity in the little town and was to play an important part in its history.

Britton made good in the bustling little mining community and acquired extensive land holdings, including land he had purchased from Abel Woods and John Wallow. His enterprising nature led him in 1865 to transfer ownership of part of this land to the public and lay out a town. His natural pride in this venture justifiably prompted him to use his own first name in christening the town Petersburgh. The town was east of his slab shanty and southeast of the previous town park.

Petersburgh had four streets, two eat and west and two north and south. North street was 45 feet wide. Mill, West and East streets were 50 feet wide. The first area platted had 14 lots. There were three blocks, each with four lots, with an additional two out lots. The next area platted consisted of nine blocks to the east of the firt area, four of them having two lots each and the other five blocks having three lots each. Running north and south through the second area were two alleys, one 20 feet wide and the other 6 1/2 feet.

Named for the indispensable business enterprise that was located near it, Mill street was the town's business street, and it was soon bustling with activity. Prouty owned the first general store, and James Coughlin had a saloon. William Flathers built a double log house to be used as a hotel. Terry Hart opened a photograph gallery. There were houses on both sides of the street for two blocks east of the business section, and the 12-block town was filled with buildings.

To the east of Petersburg was later added the Weeks addition, named for Ebenezer Weeks, another early landowner. He was for many years the principal owner of the largest coal bank in the area. He died March 23, 1876. Together, Petersburg and the Weeks addition are known today as Old Town.

In 1865 Petersburgh wasn't nearly as much of a town as Springfield which was three miles south and a mile west. Both Springfield and Indianapolis, among the oldest towns in the county, were laid out in 1845 -- 20 years before Petersburhg. However, the little coal mining town was growing, and this growth was to bring a needed service to the community -- a service that would lead to a change in the town's name. The neighborhood of the McCune mill was to be the scene of lively discussions as the populace sought to decide what that name might be.


Keokuk Documents maintained by Lynn Diemer-Mathews.
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