Towns named Elgin can be found in Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica, Australia, and South Africa. In the USA you will find Elgin towns in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina (2), Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.
The oldest of all the communities named Elgin lies along the River Lossie in northern Scotland. The site of a thirteenth century cathedral, now in ruins, it was chartered as a Royal burgh in 1234. Elgin is pronounced with a hard “g,” as in “begin.” Leading industries include whisky distilling, woolen manufacture. The population of Elgin is about 25,000.
Many ancient Scots came from Ireland, bringing with them their Gaelic language. It is possible that the name Elgin is a combination of Elg or Eilg, the poetic name for Ireland, and in, meaning little-Little Ireland. Another suggestion is that it is named after Helgy, one of the Norsemen who raided the British Isles.
Elgin, Scotland, whatever the source of its name, was not the immediate origin for the name of Elgin, Illinois, which was inspired by a hymn tune. Seventeenth century Protestant church music set metrical versions of the Psalms to tunes which were not attached to any particular psalm. All psalms of eight syllables in the first line and six in the next could be sung to these so-called common tunes, some of which were named after cities and towns in Scotland, including Elgin. James T. Gifford, the devoutly religious founder of Elgin, Illinois, was a Congregationalist whose Puritan ancestors had sung common tunes for generations. When be came West in 1835 to establish his new settlement on the Fox River, he chose his favourite hymn tune for its name. “I had been a great admirer of that tune from boyhood,” he explained, “and the name Elgin had ever fallen upon my ear with musical effect.”
Elgin, Illinois, now has more residents than the combined population of all the many other Elgins in the world. There are a dozen incorporated cities and villages named Elgin in the United States as well as a few post offices and crossroads. Several other Elgins which once existed have disappeared.
The frequent occurrence of Elgin on maps of this country is due in part to the relative fame of this Illinois city (“Known the World Over” was once the slogan of their Chamber of Commerce) and to its being suitable as a “railroad name.” Its brevity and familiarity to trainmen who used the Elgin watch may have led to its adoption for a new station as lines were extended. Among these railroad towns are Elgin, Minnesota, founded after a branch reached the place in 1878, and Elgin, Kansas, which became a major shipping point for cattle after the tracks arrived in 1885.
The village of Elgin, Ohio, was platted and a post office established when the Chicago and Altantic railroad opened a depot in 1883. Population peaked during an oil boom about the turn of the century when there were three hotels, three saloons, and a dance hall.
Located high in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon is an Elgin that serves fruit growers and lumbermen. It became a shipping and distributing point for an extensive territory with the coming of the railroad. This community was named after the melancholy song, “Lost on the Lady Elgin”, about the wreck of a vessel on Lake Michigan.
The steamer, Lady Elgin, was rammed during the stormy night of September 8, 1860, by the schooner Augusta about ten miles off Winnetka. The Lady Elgin, with about 350 passengers on board, was returning to Milwaukee from an excursion trip to Chicago. The collision tore the steamer’s hull open below the water line, and the ship sank within a half hour. A total of 155 passengers and crewmen were saved, while 297 lives were lost. Nearly 200 residents of Milwaukee’s Irish Third Ward perished in the disaster. The song, by Henry Clay Work, was popular during the Civil War years. Here’s a sample of the lyrics:
Lost on the Lady Elgin
Sleeping to wake no more
Numbered with those three hundred
Who failed to reach the shore.
The name of Elgin, Nebraska, was a second choice. The first selection, Eggleston, didn’t meet with post office approval. A postmaster in a neighboring community was consulted. Running his finger down the list of post offices in the official guide, he lighted upon Elgin, Illinois, for his suggestion. The village, organized in 1887, is known as the Vetch Capital of the Nation.
Elgin, North Dakota, is a Russian-German town. Its original name, Shanley, was discarded when the Northern Pacific came through because of its similarity to another station on the line, Stanley. A new name was being discussed by a group waiting for a train one day when one of their number, looking at his watch, suggested Elgin. Like Elgin, Illinois, the North Dakota town has been ravaged by a tornado. In 1978 a twister killed five and caused heavy damage.
The Elgin in Pennsylvania was incorporated in 1876 and was possibly the name of an early resident. The former CeeGee, Oklahoma, had its name changed to Elgin in 1902. It was proposed by a citizen who had been visiting the Watch City in Illinois.
Blaney, South Carolina, changed its name to Elgin in 1962 when the Elgin National Watch Company announced the opening of an assembly plant in the village. Watch making operations ended five years later, but Blaney is still Elgin.
“Capital of Iowa’s Little Switzerland,” Elgin, Iowa, was laid out in 1851-1852 by M. V. Burdick, a surveyor who asked permission to name the new town after his former home in Elgin, Illinois. Located in the billy northeastern section of the state, Elgin is nestled in the valley of the Turkey River. Many of the residents are descendants of German-speaking Swiss settlers. An annual event is Sweet Corn Day.
The only Elgin in the United States to be pronounced with the hard “g” is located in Texas. It was founded in 1873 along a railroad connecting Houston and Austin and was named after Robert Morris Elgin. Of Scottish descent, he was the rail line’s land commissioner. This Elgin’s largest industry is brick making, and the surrounding area produces watermelons, cantalopes, sweet potatoes, and cotton. Elgin High School’s athletic teams are known as the Wildcats.
One of the least pretentious of the American Elgins is the Arizona entry. About the time this hamlet and the surrounding area served as the setting for the John Wayne film, Red River, it consisted of a few adobe houses and a combined filling station, general store, and post office.
Are you from an Elgin elsewhere? We’d love to hear from you!