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1880 History
Origin of the Name, Physical Geography, Mathematical Geography
Growth of the County, Territorial and County Roads, Table of Events

Origin of the Name

There is nothing in the whole realm of knowledge more important than the history of words, and the science of etymology affords nothing more interesting than the origin of proper names. In naming localities, and streams of water the discoverers and first settlers of America originated the plan of adopting Indian names. As new streams of water were discovered, new territories formed, and new towns laid out this plan was adhered to. The precedent thus formed by the fathers, grew into an established custom, the wisdom of which has become more and more apparent as by use the ear becomes accustomed to the sound and the eye familiar with the sight of them. By following this custom our language becomes greatly enriched, and each successive generation is reminded of a people once numerous and powerful, but now so weak and abject as to be virtually eliminated from the family of nations. These names have invariably a pleasing sound when the ear becomes accustomed to them, and their adoption is a most befitting tribute to a nation which, although savage, possessed certain characteristics that make the story of their misfortunes the most remarkable to be found on the pages of history, and the most pathetic that has been wrought by the stern vicissitudes of time.

Among the Aboriginies [sic] whose swift feet roamed these western prairies, and whose facile canoes were borne toward the great Father of Waters, long before the white man claimed this goodly heritage, was a young Indian whose early life gave much promise of future greatness. At an early age he was elevated to the dignity of chief. He was a man of great personal courage, capable of more than ordinary physical endurance, and by reason of his eloquence held the first place in the council of his nation. Moreover he was the friend of our ancestors. His voice was always for peace, and his hand ever ready to defend the life and property of the white man when menaced by his savage followers, prompted by feelings of vengeance or cupidity; and this, too, when his judgment told him that the destiny of his own race was sealed by the coming of the pale face. He was the principal chief at the treaty which guaranteed to the white man a home within the limits of the county, the history of which we are about to narrate. During the Black Hawk difficulty his voice was for peace with the white man, and his influence contributed much to shorten the war. His name was Keokuk and as an honor to this chief the county bears his name.

Physical Geography

The physical geography of Keokuk county is a topic which might be expanded into a book. Such a book from a competent author would afford a most interesting and profitable study for all students of natural history. In its physical features this county differs in many respects from any other section. Each and all of these features are found in other counties, but nowhere else are they similarly grouped and correlated, and in this respect they may properly be termed distinctive and characteristic. A productive soil, rich mines, numerous streams and extensive belts of timber furnish a diversity of natural resource sample for the employment of every phase of human industry. The large and productive prairies yield sure and abundant returns for the investment of agricultural skill and labor; the grazier [sic] is attracted by sections of graceful undulations, where all kinds of grass grow in luxuriant abundance, near streams which furnish an inexhaustible supply of living water; stone quarries supplying sufficient material for all kinds of building purposes are of easy access; for fuel and mechanical uses there is a supply of coal and timber for all time to come. The average elevation of the county is about 814 feet above the level of the sea, or about 375 feet above the low water mark in the Mississippi river at Keokuk. At a point in the northeastern part of the county, near the Washington county line, the elevation above the level of the sea is 750 feet. Beginning at this point and thence west to the highest point the rise is very marked, being as much as 130 feet; from this point to the public square in Sigourney the descent is quite marked, the difference in elevation being 91 feet. The public square in Sigourney is a little over 800 feet above the level of the sea. From Sigourney to the head-waters of Steady run, ill the south part of the county, the descent is gradual, the difference in elevation being about 75 feet. From these data it would appear that the general direction of the large streams should be eastward and the greater number of tributaries should be southward; upon investigation this will be found to be the case.

The county is watered by the two branches of Skunk river, running in a general direction from west to east through the southern part of the county, and by South English river from west to east through the northern part of the county. These streams divide the county into six water-sheds, and their tributaries afford a most ample drainage to every part of the county. The banks of these streams abound with timber, rock, and in many places bituminous coal. The water-shed south of South Skunk is for the most part a rolling prairie, broken at intervals by small streams skirted with timber, presenting a landscape of surprising beauty, and a soil unsurpassed in fertility.

The divide between the Skunk rivers, though not so inviting in appearance, possesses many advantages, not only in the richness of this alluvial soil, but in its abundant water power, its grazing lands, and its excellent timber and rock for building purposes.

The water-shed north of North Skunk is much the largest of watersheds, and embraces about one-half the territory of the county. In its southern parts, bordering on tbe river, and for a few miles back, it is the most broken part of the county; but this apparent defect is more than compensated in the richness of its soil, its abundant timber, its superior quarries of sand and lime rock, and its exhaustless coal mines.

English River—This stream enters the county near the northwest corner, flows a little south of east till it reaches a point about midway across the county; from there its course is north of east, and leaves the county near the northeast corner. It is shallow, and the channel narrow. It has a medium current and the bed is sandy without rock. The banks are low, and consist of alluvial deposit, with neither stone nor gravel. On the north side there are some small tracts of bottom land of more than ordinary fertility. These are especially desirable, as the stream seldom overflows its banks. There are no bridges of importance, and the stream can be safely forded at all seasons of the year.

Skunk River—The name comes from the Indian word Checauqua, which means skunk, and should never have been translated. There is nothing romantic nor poetical about the name, but those who think lightly of this river on account of the name, should remember that the garden city of the West derives its origin from no better source. Chicago and Chicaqua are slightly different pronunciations of an Indian word, that means the same thing. This stream is formed by the junction of two streams, designated by the names North and South Skunk, the point of confluence being in the county, about four miles from the county line. The south fork is much the larger, with this exception the streams are very similar. Their general course is eastward, the south fork being nearly directly so, while the north fork makes a considerable bend toward the north, near the center of the county. The heads of these streams are sandy, and rock is found in some places. The current is in the main very sluggish, though in certain places the fall is sufficient to afford splendid water power, which has been utilized by the establishment of mills for the manufacture of flour and lumber. At some points the land slopes gradually away from the stream, thus permitting large portions of the bottom to be overflowed during rainy seasons, and making travel across the country difficult or impossible, where there are no good roads and bridges. At other places there are rocky bluffs, which preclude the possibility of an overflow at any season of the year. These streams are properly renowned for the fish which they contain, it being no unusual thing to catch fish weighing from fifteen to twenty pounds, while there are instances in which fish weighing as much as fifty pounds have been caught. North Skunk has numerous tributaries entering it from the north. Some of the principal ones alone will be mentioned. Clear creek, so called on account of the transparency of its waters; German creek, so named after the nationality of the early settlers of this territory; Bridge creek, which received its name from the fact that it was almost impossible to cross it at any point without the medium of a bridge; Smith creek, so named after the Smith family which early settled there; Cedar creek and Coal creek, so named from the physical structure of the soil, and natural scenery. Most of these streams are characterized by lively currents, sandy bottoms and some stone. The tributaries of South Skunk enter from the south. They are not as numerous and important as the others, the following four being all worthy of mention: Richland creek, so named from the first town of the county; Rock creek, which received its name from the abundance of rock along its banks; Steady run, which received its name from the gait which it travels; and Sugar creek, which was designated on account of the sugar maples originally found along its banks.

Prairies—Over four-fifths of the surface of the county originally consisted of prairie lands, with the exception of an extensive level tract in the eastern part of the county, which would be improved by draining, also large tracts in the northwest and southeast portions of the county. The prairies are rolling and the natural drainage is abundantly sufficient to carry off the surplus water, even in the wettest seasons. There are no swamps or sloughs of any importance. These prairies are covered with a light, loamy soil of great richness, and a remarkable capacity of withstanding both drouth [sic] and an excessive amount of rain. At a depth of about four feet there is a substance of yellow clay. There are scarcely any boulders, and scarcely any stone except in the quarries, which do not interfere with cultivation.

Timber—About fifteen per cent of the county was originally timber; much of this has been cut off for fuel, and in the manufacture of native lumber. The timber which has been destroyed in this manner has been more than replaced by the rearing of artificial groves. In the cultivation of trees it has been found that soft and hard maple, elm and cottonwood flourish with great luxuriance, and groves of remarkable beauty and imposing grandeur, are now found in various parts of the county.

Stone—With the exceptions of the north part of the county there is an abundant supply of building stone. Some of the quarries contain limestone, and others sandstone. At an early date these quarries were renowned, and we find some of them located on a rough plat made by Bernhart Henn, of the United States Land Office, as early as 1852. Many permanent improvements of other counties have had their beginnings at some Keokuk county stone quarry.

Mineral paint—Eight miles southwest of the comity seat is an extensive deposit of clay, which is likely to prove a very fine quality of mineral paint. The deposit covers an area of about thirty acres, 18 sixteen feet beneath the surface, and the layer is about one foot in thickness. The clay was found while prospecting for lead, and from certain indications it would seem that the mine or bank had been marked in early days, probably by the Indians, who here procured the material from which was prepared the paint so extensively used by the Aborigines. There are some six or seven distinct colors, and a building which was painted some years ago, with a mixture of these colors, reveals the colors in a remarkable state of preservation. There are also indications that lead exist in the same locality.

 Coal—In the report of the Geological Survey, published in 1870, we find the following statement: "Although Keokuk county lies quite within the limits of the coal field, as defined upon the geological map, it is not probable that it will ever take rank among the more important coal counties of Iowa. This statement should not be understood to imply that no important deposits of coal exists within its limits, because it is a well known fact, that some good mines are already opened there. The county, however, lies near the eastern border of the field, where the coal formation would naturally be expected to be thinner, besides which, the sub-carboniferous limestone is so exposed along the valley of Skunk river as to show that there cannot be in many places, any considerable development of coal measure strata between the limestone and the drift above. Of course no coal need be sought for beneath that limestone."

This paragraph scarcely does the coal interest of the county justice; no detailed examination of the county had been made at the time, and recent investigation goes to show that while Keokuk county does not rank as the first of the coal producing counties, nevertheless, it is destined to develop a supply of this important mineral, which the quantity and quality of the material will far exceed the most sanguine expectations of the original prospectors. Extensive mines have already been opened, and are now being operated at three or four localities in various parts of the county, and these lack but the important item of suitable means of transportation, to make coal mining one of the leading industries of this section.

 Springs—A glance at any good county map, will readily convince anyone that the county is well watered. But aside from the net work of streams which traverse the county in every direction, there are innumerable springs which flow the year round, and an inexhaustible supply of water may be produced anywhere by digging or boring a distance of twenty or thirty feet.

 Sand—Sand for building purposes can readily be procured along any of the streams, and an excellent quality is found in some parts, which is now being utilized in the manufacture of an excellent quality of glass. We shall treat of this very important branch of industry further on.

 Geological formation—This county is situated partly in the sub-carboniferous grant, and partly in the middle and lower coal-measures. A line running from the northwestern part of the county diagonally across, cutting off nearly two-thirds of the county, would form a tolerably accurate boundary between the two; the southwestern part belongs to the latter. The middle and lower coal-measures, are not very distinct from each other. They both contain coal, the thickest being in the lower. They are described as being made up of beds of sandstone, shales and clay, with rarely a thin bed of limestone. The beds of coal lie between these beds of rock, just as if they were also beds of rock. There is usually a bed of shale immediately beneath the coal and clay, immediately under the shale. The sub-carboniferous group, in which a little more than one-third of the county lies is explained, after a manner, by reference to the definition of the term, sub-carboniferous, meaning below or under the coal. It consists of limestone of a greyish color, and is characterized by the presence of a peculiar class of fossils found therein.

Climate—The first two winters following the settlement of the western part of the county were remarkably mild, and favored the rapid development of the country. The winter of 1848-9 was a winter of deep snow. The climate of the county has always been regarded as uncommonly healthy, the prevalence of ague, that scourge of all new countries, being chiefly confined to the territory bordering on the larger streams. There have been seasons in which crops have suffered from an excessive amount of rain, and also times when they have been cut short by drouth [sic]; also seasons which have been attended by an unusual amount of sickness, but the people of this county have, doubtless, suffered as little from these calamities as in any other section of the State. There have been instances in which certain portions of the county have been peculiarly afflicted. Such will be mentioned under the appropriate head, at another place. Some of the older settlers think that there has been a marked change in the climate in the past quarter of a century, and this is probably the case, resulting from the marked change which has taken place in the physiognomy of the country.

Mathematical Geography

    Keokuk county is situated in the southeastern part of the State, it being in the third tier of counties, numbering from the south, and also from the east boundary of the State. The center of the county is in latitude forty-one degrees and twenty-five minutes, being nearly the same as New York city, and in longitude ninety-two degrees and ten minutes west of Greenwich, and fifteen degrees and ten minutes west of the National Capital. It is bounded on the north by Poweshiek and Iowa counties; on the east by Washington; on the south by Jefferson and Wapello; in the west by Mahaska. It is twenty-four miles square, and were the original surveys strictly accurate, it would contain 368,640 square acres of surface. In subsequent surveys, when the county was subdivided into townships, and these again into sections, it was found that there remained fractional quarters. The exact area of the county is not far from 370,000 acres. The congressional townships are sixteen in number, and there is a corresponding number of civil townships. The congressional townships are 74, 75, 76 and 77 north; ranges 10, 11, 12 and 13 west. The civil townships are Richland, Jackson, Steady Run, Benton, Warren, Lancaster, Clear Creek, Lafayette, German, Sigourney, Van Buren, Washington, Prairie, Adams, English River and Liberty. This arrangement of civil townships is the one adopted in 1847, there having been others previously made, of which we shall speak when we treat of the county organization. The boundaries of the following civil townships correspond with the congressional townships: Richland, Clear Creek, Lafayette, Liberty, English River, Adams, Prairie and Washington. The area of each is about 23,500 acres. The following, while in the main they follow the congressional boundaries, are somewhat smaller, Jackson containing about 20,990; Steady Run, 19,900; Warren, 19,950; Sigourney, 12,650; Van Buren, 19,680. Three townships are larger than the corresponding congressional township. They are Benton, containing about 25,900 acres; Lancaster, 26,275; German, 35,280. It will be seen, by reference to the map, that in this location of the townships the commissioners followed natural boundaries to a large extent. From the foregoing figures it will be seen that German township is the largest and Sigourney the smallest, the former being nearly three times as large as the latter.

Growth of the County 

The official act of the Territorial Legislature naming Keokuk county and defining the boundaries thereof, bears [the] date February 5th, 1844.  So it appears that the county was not named and laid out until nearly a year after the first settlement had been made west of the treaty line of 1837, and five years after the first settlement had been made on the "Old Strip."

The Indians had left, and the whites had not yet appeared in large numbers. Although the county contained but few citizens, yet the white man had marked it for his own.

During these years the county was in an undefined state of existence, or non-existence.  In one sense it was a county, in another it was not.  It was named and laid out.  So that, in point of fact, there was a region of territory described as Keokuk county, in the then unorganized State of Iowa, as early as January, 1844.  But there was no county organization proper, no county government, and not even many citizens for several months.  In a few months, however, the new county gained citizens, but in other respects it continued for some time in the same undefined state.

The work of organization was only begun when the county was named and laid out.  It remained to hold an election, and organize a county government.

Thus the early settlers were for a time in a peculiar situation.  They dwelt in, but were not properly citizens of, Keokuk county, since there were no county courts or other authority to control their actions, and they were still, in these respects, under the discipline of another county.

For judicial and other purposes the new county was still a part of Washington county, and so continued until its formal organization was completed.  It does not appear that there was much call for the exercise of this authority, or that the loose and ill-defined county government produced any bad results.  "The laws are for those who need them," and the early settlers dwelt together in harmony that did not call for the interference of sheriff or judge.  This is a somewhat remarkable feature of Keokuk county, and contrasts vividly with the early experience of some other counties.

The county seems to have prospered well during this period of loose, half-formed organization. The settlers were too busy with their own affairs to intermeddle with those of others, and so had little occasion to call for the authority of the law.  But it was soon apparent that the business affairs of the community called for a county organization.  Roads should be laid out, a county-seat located, and other preparations made for a thriving and prosperous future.  So in 1844 the county was formally organized in the manner spoken of more fully under the head of "organization."

The people in the county at the time of the organization were mostly Germans, or native born Americans, and from that time to the present the population has been mostly of that character.  The county filled up steadily and rapidly.  Nearly always the new-comers were poor in purse.  Few men of means came to Keokuk county in the early days.  But, although they came almost without exception poor in pocket, they brought with them industry, economy and intelligence, so that, in the course of years, wealth has been the result.  The growth of the county never slackened or came to a stand-still, except for a very short time, but continued steadily year by year.  The brunt of the pioneer battle was borne by the very early settlers, for within a few years the great hardships of pioneer life had disappeared, and the people lived in comfort.

At the time of the organization in 1844, the county contained less than 1,000 souls.  In 1847 there were 2,918, which shows an increase of about one hundred per cent each year for the three years following the organization.  In 1849 the population had increased to 3,953.  In 1850 the population was 4,822, and in 1852 it had reached the number 5,306.  In 1854, which ended the first decade of the county's history, the population had reached the remarkable number of  7,299.  This certainly shows a remarkable degree of progress and prosperity.

Passing over the next ten years, which include the war period, it will be interesting to note the increase of population a decade later.  In 1865 the population had grown to 13,996, and in 1867 to 15,429.  In 1870 the county numbered 19,434.  In 1875 the population was 20,488, and at this present time it is estimated that the number will approximate 21,500.

But the rapid increase of population is not the only datum whereby we may estimate the rapid growth of the county.  In 1850 there were in farms 21,075 acres of improved land, and 62,263 acres of unimproved.  In 1856 there were in farms, of improved land 52,517 acres, of unimproved 163,725.  In 1875 there were 208,125 acres of improved land in farms, in addition to 98,999 acres of unimproved land in farms in connection with these lands.

In 1850 there were 24,990 bushels of wheat raised, 346,650 bushels of corn, and the value of the live stock was $103,285.  In 1856, 64,113 bushels of wheat, 983,097 bushels of corn; the value of live stock was $108,073, and the value of cattle alone which were sold that year was $79,390.  In 1875 there were harvested in the county 368,528 bushels of wheat, and 3,327,282 bushels of corn.

In 1865 the total value of the personal property in the county was $1,056,328, and the value of farm lands was $1,909,794.  In 1875 the value of personal property was $1,473,649, and the value of farm lands was $3,087,215.

In 1850 there were in the county 820 dwellings and 857 families; in 1856 there were 1827 dwellings and 1889 families; in 1875 the number of dwellings was 3,690, and the number of families 3,763.

The church and school statistics also afford a datum whereby we may estimate the growth of the county, and these statistics give even a more striking illustration of its unparalleled development than the facts and figures relating to material prosperity.

In 1850 there were 39 schools, 39 teachers, 1015 pupils; $200 were raised by taxation for the maintenance of these schools, $640 from the public fund and $1,800 from other sources.  In 1875 there were 128 ungraded schools, 8 graded schools, 218 teachers, and the number of pupils in these schools was 8,042; this does not include 4 private schools, employing 6 teachers, with an enrollment of 151 pupils.  To carry on this educational system for one year, the county expended the sum of $46,911.

In 1850 there were 16 church buildings, valued at $3,450; they were as follows: Baptist, 4 churches, valued at $900; Christian, 3, valued at $800; Friends, 2, valued at $450; Methodist, 7, valued at $1,300.  At present, there is probably not a township in the county but what contains better facilities for religious meetings than the entire facilities of the county twenty years ago.

The total value of the property of the county in 1865 was $3,071,126, against $4,845,323 in 1875, showing an increase in ten years of $1,774,197, or more than 55 per cent.

Thus, from the very first, the history of the county shows a steady career of thriving, prosperous growth.  The following table of important events shows the general landmarks of the county's growth and history to the present time.

Territorial and County Roads

The fact has already been mentioned that at the first meeting of the county commissioners, in April, 1844, the county was divided into eighteen road districts, and supervisors were appointed. Prior to this time there were, of course, no county roads laid out, and what roads there were existed by common consent, with the exception of such territorial roads as were authorized by the general government, and which led through the county. There were three of these roads, as follows: one leading from Brighton, in Washington county, to Oskaloosa, in Mahaska county; a second leading from Fairfield, in Jefferson county, to Oskaloosa, in Mahaska county, via Bennett's Point, in Keokuk county; a third leading from Iowa city, in Johnson county, to Oskaloosa in Mahaska county, via Sigourney, in Keokuk county. Some of the first acts of the board of commissioners had reference to the improvement of these territorial roads. The first road record found in the proceedings of the commissioners is the following:

"Ordered by the board, that the sum of one hundred and one dollars and fifty cents be allowed to defray the expenses of the territorial road leading from Brighton, in Washington county, to Oskaloosa, in Mahaska county, so much thereof as lies in Keokuk county."

The first county roads were projected at the July meeting, 1844. The record runs as follows:

"Ordered by the board, in consequence of the petition of a number of the citizens of Keokuk county, a view of three county roads is accordingly granted, to-wit:

First, beginning at the old boundary line of said territory, near Dr. O. T. Ragland's, to extend a road on the divide between the south and north forks of Skunk river to the line of said county of Mahaska, crossing the north fork of said river at Edward Cooley's mill site, to pass on the northeast quarter of section No. 30, township 75 north, and range 11 west.

"Second: One from the town of Richland to intersect the aforesaid road on the ridge above L. B. Hughes' mill, to pass by the way of Western City, and cross the south fork at the said mill.

"Third: One from the farm of Willis C. Stone, on the line of said county adjoining the county of Jefferson, to intersect the road on the divide east of the northeast quarter of section 30, in township 75, range 11 west.

"Ordered by the board, that Jesse Gabbert, Levi Cline and Jeremiah Brown be appointed viewers, and the county surveyor of Keokuk county be appointed surveyor, to survey the ridge road from the old boundary line, near Dr. Ragland's, to the county line of Mahaska county.

"That Eli Haworth, Horace Bagley and Isaac Jones be appointed viewers, and the aforesaid county surveyor be appointed surveyor, to view and survey the Richland road to intersect the aforesaid road on the ridge above L. B. Hughes' mill.

"That Reuben Whitson, Richard Quinton and Jesse Shoemaker be appointed viewers, and the aforesaid county surveyor be appointed surveyor, to view and survey the Rock Creek road, commencing at Willis C. Stone's, to intersect the last aforesaid road.

"Ordered, that said viewers on the first aforesaid road meet at the house of O. T. Ragland on the 20th day of August next, or within five days thereafter, and proceed to view, survey and lay out said road.

"That the viewers on the next aforesaid road meet at the town of Richland on the 1st day of September next, or within five days thereafter, and proceed to view, survey and lay out the same.

"That the viewers on the last aforesaid road meet at the house of Willis C. Stone on the 10th of September next, or within five days thereafter, and proceed to view, survey and lay out the same."

Transcribed by Pat Wahl.

Table of Events

First settler, Aaron Miller, March, 1838.
Oldest settler still residing on original claim, William Bristow.  County laid out, 1844.
County formally organized, 1844.
Sigourney located, May 10, 1844.
First white child born, J. F. Scearcy, December 15, 1840.
First marriage license issued in county, April 5, 1844, Nelson Green and Elizabeth Warner.
First term of court, July 22, 1844.
First land entered, 1846.
First land transfer, February 15, 1845,
First mill erected, commenced June, 1842; finished February, 1843.  County-seat removed to Lancaster, August 7, 1846.
First newspaper published, "Western Friend," June 1, 1854.  First mail received at Sigourney, February 7, 1845.
County-seat returned to Sigourney, April 12, 1856.
Gold excitements, 1849, 1859, 1876.
Old court-house built, 1844.
Old jail built, 1848.
New court-house completed, 1858.
New jail completed, 1875.
First railroad train in Sigourney, April 9, 1872.

This brief table represents a large amount of history, and will be very instructive to those who may "ponder it fittingly."

Speaking generally, the growth of the county has been steady and continuous, although there have been, of course, times of ebb and flow.  The first period of the county's growth was one of much hardship and privation.  The California emigration, however, brought golden days to the county, and prosperity continued in high tide until the panic a few years before the war.

These were evil days for Keokuk county, there was very general discontent, and many business men in the county were ruined.  A slow recovery followed and introduced the war period.  From the close of the war up to the panic of 1873, Keokuk was again in a prosperous condition.  The county did not suffer in this directly so much as indirectly, in the general derangement of the business of the country.  But the experience was much the same as that in the former period of high times.  Property depreciated and become unsalable, and general discontent and uneasiness spread among the people. There has been nothing peculiar to Keokuk county in this experience—it has been that of the country in general.  At the present time the county is fairly started again on a career of prosperity.

So, in Keokuk county, good times have followed close upon evil times, and vice versa all through the period of its growth.  It would seem that old sage's thought would be a good thing to keep ever in mind, both in prosperity and distress: "Even this shall pass away."  Such a lesson is taught by the experience of the county, from the organization to the present time.

Transcribed by Steven McBride.

Source: The History of Keokuk County, Iowa, A History of the County, Its Cities, Towns, &c., Illustrated, 1880