From time to time I’ve written articles on the suburbs and small towns around Youngstown. East Palestine is a little further afield, about twenty miles south of Youngstown near the Pennsylvania border on the eastern edge of Columbiana County. Growing up, I mainly heard of East Palestine on Friday nights when newscasters were reporting football or basketball scores from high schools in the region. My dad loved to go on Sunday drives and we might have driven there. Now much of the world is paying attention to East Palestine as evident in this BBC story of the aftermath of the derailment on February 3 and its impact on the life and business of one East Palestine family.
The current situation continues to unfold and is receiving abundant news coverage (and should). I thought I would write about the history of the village, how it began and what it was before the crash on February 3.
The village had its beginnings in 1828, when it was named Mechanicsburg. The name only lasted until 1836 when Dr. Robert Chamberlain’s wife Rebecca wanted a “holier” sounding name and suggested the name Palestine. Village officials agreed. Under Christian influences, many area towns had names connected to places in ancient Israel, for example, nearby Enon Valley and Salem. There was just one problem with the proposed name. There was already a town in western Ohio named Palestine. Hence the village became East Palestine (pronounced East PAL-ə-STEEN). The village was incorporated in 1875.
The Chamberlains lived in the Log House at the corner of West Main Street and Walnut Street. Dr. Chamberlain came from Fairfield County, Ohio at 20, read medicine, and practiced in the area for 30 years, also serving as a railroad surveyor, a store owner, and the first postmaster and township trustee. The Log House, built in 1840, was moved in 1886 to 55 Walnut Street, where it sat until 1978 when it was given to the East Palestine Historical Society, who moved it to 555 Bacon Street.
Nearby clay pits supported a pottery business, the East Palestine Pottery Company, which became the W.S. George Pottery Company in 1909, employing many people in the town until it was closed in the 1950’s. The railroad lines, so much in the news of late, supported in the 1920’s, the growth of automobile tire manufacturing by the Edwin C. McGraw Tire Company, and a variety of other factories producing steel tanks, foundry work, electrical refractories, food products, electric wiring devices, wooden ventilators, fireproofing material, synthetic ice, and lumber. Around this time, orchard concerns also flourished and continue, along with other farms, to be part of the local economy, a part very concerned by the toxins released by the derailment.
The village reached a population topping 5,000 in 1920, attaining the status of a city, which it kept until 2011, when it reverted to a village once more, with a population of 4761 in the 2020 census. Some of the important manufacturers currently include Stocheck Incorporated, a copper fabricator; and Cardinal Welding Service, a metal fabricator; also well welders, and companies that do machining, ceramics and drilling. All told, Manta lists 324 companies under businesses in East Palestine. About 1300 students are enrolled in the East Palestine schools.
Perhaps one of the most famous of East Palestine’s residents was Martha Hill, the first director of dance at the Juilliard School. In sports, Wayne Firth Hawkins was the right handed pitcher for Cleveland in 1960 who gave up Ted Williams 500th home run. Also, all of us who love Mill Creek Park have East Palestine to thank as the birthplace of Volney Rogers.
It awaits to be seen what the long term impact will be of the derailment and the release of toxic chemicals in the streams, on the ground, and in the air around East Palestine. We will all be watching what happens here. There are few of us that do not have rail lines running through our communities. CSX has a busy line running within a quarter mile of my house. What happened in East Palestine could happen anywhere. Such a catastrophe could spell the end of a place where people work hard in a variety of pursuits. The burden is on Norfolk and Southern and our elected officials to see that doesn’t happen, and to justly reimburse the residents for what this accident has and will cost East Palestine. I want to see East Palestine celebrate its 200th birthday in 2028.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!