Four corners, four steeples
Palmyra  is a village and surrounding town in the Finger Lakes region of New York. In the nineteenth century, it was a center for religious revivalism, but today it's one of the most-visited villages along the Erie Canal. Palmyra is the birthplace of the Mormon church and claims to be the only community in the U.S. that has a four-corner intersection with a church at each one.
In the late 1780s, a group of settlers from Connecticut tried to stake the state's claim to land in northeastern Pennsylvania, due to overlapping provincial charters. Among those Connecticuters was one John Swift, a Revolutionary War veteran. In 1789, with the venture in Pennsylvania bearing little fruit, Swift decamped for Western New York, where the Phelps and Gorham Purchase had large tracts of land for sale.
He purchased a tract (as did his fellow John Jenkins, though Swift soon bought him out) and in 1790 became the first permanent resident of what is now the Town of Palmyra. Swift's land was centered on Ganargua Creek, and the community that sprouted up was initially known as Swift's Landing.
After a brief period known as Tolland, Swift's brother-in-law proposed the name Palmyra, and that is how the town was incorporated in 1796. The town center grew slowly until 1825, when the Erie Canal opened. The canal's route took it right through Palmyra, necessitating an aqueduct over Ganargua Creek. Energized by the new waterway, the village was quickly incorporated, in 1827.
During the period in which the Canal was built, at the height of the Second Great Awakening, the area between Rochester and Syracuse became a hotbed for religious fervor, known as the Burned-Over District. Palmyra was a particularly prolific source of the newly devout. In the mid 1820s, a local young adult named Joseph Smith (whose family lived just over the county line in nearby Manchester) claimed to have been visited by an angel, and directed to a set of buried artifacts on Hill Cumorah. Among those artifacts, it is claimed, was a set of golden plates, which Smith alone could translate. His translation became the Book of Mormon, which was published for the first time in Palmyra in 1830.
Despite that milestone, the area never embraced Smith's nascent religion (he had moved away in 1827 and never returned), and it wasn't until the year 2000 that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints built a temple here. But the founding is commemorated every year with the Hill Cumorah Pageant.
The Grandin Print Shop, where the Book of Mormon was first printed
Although RTS—Rochester's municipal bus system—does run a bus out to Palmyra twice daily on weekdays, it's timed for commuters, not tourists. You'll most likely be taking a car.
As it does throughout Western New York, New York State Route 31 parallels the Erie Canal through Palmyra, making it your best option for arriving from the east or west. It enters from Lyons from the east and from Macedon from the west. From the north and south, New York State Route 21 will get you to Palmyra, connecting to Williamson and Marion northward and to Manchester and Canandaigua southward.
If you're coming from farther afield, you'll want to take the east-west New York State Thruway (Interstate 90). Take Exit 43 and follow Route 21 north for about six miles.
Once you're in town, free public parking is available in a number of lots along Route 31 (Main Street) and at the public parks.
If you have a boat, you can take a scenic cruise into Palmyra along the historic Erie Canal, which runs right through town. Dock at the Port of Palmyra Marina, just east of the Division Street bridge.
Palmyra's downtown area is quite walkable, and that's where you'll find most of the shops, eateries, and lodging. If you're exploring the canal, the Erie Canal Heritage Trail is great for walking or biking, though it's over a mile from the downtown/marina area to the far end of Aqueduct Park.
If you want to head south to the Latter-day Saints sites, take your car or bike; they're three or four miles away, along a country road with no sidewalks.
The word "charming" is perhaps overused in tourism brochures to describe exactly the sort of village that Palmyra is. If you're easily charmed by such sites, then Palmyra won't disappoint. In truth, though, there's not a lot here that you can't find in other similar canalside villages throughout the region.
Still, Palmyra's claim to be the Queen of Erie Canal Towns is not entirely unfounded. You can easily spend a day here browsing the shops, strolling the canal, and taking in the sights and sounds. Traffic is relatively light, and there are few cookie-cutter retail chains spoiling the atmosphere.
- Four corners, four steeples, Main St at Church St/Canandaigua St. Hey, when you're in a small town, sometimes the most trivial things can become tourist attractions. There's one church on each corner of this intersection, and the village claims that no place else in the country can boast the same. The 1832 Western Presbyterian Church, 1867 First United Methodist Church, 1870 First Baptist Church, and 1873 Zion Episcopal Church aren't connected in any other way, and there's no tour or admission fee that lets you explore them all. But the sight is a popular one for photographers, if nothing else.
- Aqueduct Park, (Rt 31 west to village line). So named due to the still-standing aqueduct that carried the original Erie Canal—Clinton's Ditch—over "Mud Creek" (part of Ganargua Creek), Aqueduct Park is a treasure trove for Canal buffs. For starters, the aqueduct itself is quite a sight. Modern Lock 29 is also here, for those who like to watch boats lock up and down. There's a man-made waterfall where the modern canal spills over into the creek. Also here is the historic Aldrich Change Bridge; though it no longer crosses the canal, it was originally built when the original canal was widened in 1840 (the widened canal allowed no room for the south-bank towpath through the village of Palmyra, so the bridge was needed for the mules to change sides).
- Swift's Landing, 4100 Hogback Hill Rd (Rt 31 east to Galloway Rd, north across the canal). Swift's Landing on Ganargua Creek is where John Swift started settlement of the town; today it's a quiet 17-acre park that sits between the Creek and the Canal.
- Historic Palmyra Museum Complex, 132 Market St, ☎ +1 315 [email protected], . The complex encompasses four separate museums, each presenting a different aspect of life in old Palmyra. Single museum: Adults $3, Ages 12-17 and seniors $2; Trail Ticket (all four museums): $7 and $5. Children under 12 free with adult.
- Palmyra Historical Museum, 132 Market St. Late Spring - Fall: Tu-Sa 11AM-4PM; Fall - Spring: Tu-Th 10AM-5PM; or by appointment. The flagship museum of the complex houses a number of permanent exhibits on local history and artifacts. Topics include the Erie Canal, the Underground Railroad, women's suffrage, and the Book of Mormon. Another exhibit details the unique connection Sir Winston Churchill had to Palmyra.
- William Phelps General Store and Home Museum, 140 Market St. Late Spring - Fall: Tu-Sa 11AM-4PM; Fall - Spring: Tu-Th 10AM-5PM; or by appointment. A former boarding house and tavern, the Phelps General Store was locked up in 1940 and left untouched for decades, leaving the contents almost exactly as they would have looked in decades past. The apartment upstairs appears much as it did when the Phelps family first occupied it, without any of the common modern conveniences like indoor plumbing.
- Print Shop Museum, 140 Market St. Late Spring - Fall: Tu-Sa 11AM-4PM; Fall - Spring: Tu-Th 10AM-5PM; or by appointment. John M. Jones sold printing equipment from this location for 63 years; today, examples of those items are on display at the museum.
- Alling Coverlet Musuem, 122 William St. Jun 1 - mid-Sep (except Jul 4): daily 1PM-4PM, Sa-Mo call first; mid-Sep - Jun 1: Tu-Th, call first. The hand-woven coverlet collection of Mrs. Merle Alling constitutes the core of this museum's assets, which also includes exhibits on quilting and weaving. A small gift shop features woven goods and books.
- Village Park, 149 E Main St (between Church St & William St). The Village Park is in many ways the center of community activity in the village. Nearly every weekend it seems like there's something going on there, from outdoor movies to Farmers' Markets to bandstand concerts to community garage sales. Playground and picnic facilities available.
- Sexton Park (Prospect Hill), Johnson St. Much larger than Village Park, Sexton Park sits on Prospect Hill, a glacial drumlin much like Hill Cumorah to the south. It's a large wooded park popular with picnickers.
Latter-day Saints sites
The Smith Log Cabin on the Joseph Smith Farm
- Hill Cumorah and Historic Sites, . The Smith family farm was over a mile south of the village, straddling the border between the Towns of Palmyra and Manchester; Hill Cumorah is another couple of miles south. Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains a small visitors center at Hill Cumorah, along with an assortment of historical sites around the area. There is no admission fee for any of the sites, and staff members are always on hand to provide (free) guided tours.
- Hill Cumorah Visitors Center, 603 Route 21 (4 mi S of village, 2 mi N of Thruway Exit 43), ☎ +1 315 597-5851. M-Sa 9AM-9PM, Su 12:30PM-9PM; close 2 hr earlier Nov-Mar. Hill Cumorah, one of thousands of glacial drumlins found throughout the region, is said to be the location where Joseph Smith found the gold plates that he translated into the Book of Mormon. The elegant but modern visitors center is at the foot of the hill, and it contains a number of exhibits and displays related to the church and its history. Free guided tours daily.
- Joseph Smith Farm, 843 Stafford Rd (Rt 21 S to Temple Rd, then W to Stafford Rd; turn right; parking on left), ☎ +1 315 597-4383. M-Sa 9AM-7PM, Su 12:30PM-9PM; close 2 hr earlier Nov-Mar. The farm property has been restored to resemble what it would have looked like in 1830. You can start at the welcome center, with an introduction to the history of Joseph Smith's family and views of the whole farm complex. The Smith Frame Home (1825) still stands, and a replica of the 1818 Smith Log Home is nearby. Free guided tours daily.
- Sacred Grove. The exact spot where Smith received his first vision is not known, but it was somewhere within the woods west of the farm. What is left of the grove is maintained by the church, open and free to anyone who wants to walk its trails. No guided tours.
- Grandin Printing Shop, 217 E Main St, ☎ +1 315 597-5982. M-Sa 9AM-7PM, Su 12:30PM-9PM; close 2 hr earlier Nov-Mar. Even though Smith had moved away to Pennsylvania in 1827, it was at Egbert B. Grandin's print shop that the first edition of the Book of Mormon was printed in 1830. Today, the restored print shop houses a press, bindery, and even the shop where the first Book was sold. Free guided tours daily.
- The church also maintains the Peter Whitmer Farm, 27 miles (43 km) east-southeast of Palmyra in Waterloo, and the Aaronic Priesthood Restoration Site in Oakland, Pennsylvania.
- Palmyra Temple, 2720 Temple Rd (Rt 21 S to Temple Rd), ☎ +1 315 597-6001 ([email protected]), . Despite being the location of the church's founding, no temple was built in the area until the year 2000. Even then, it was the first such Temple built in the entire state. Keep in mind that only Mormons who are in good standing with the Church are permitted inside the Temple itself. The beautifully maintained grounds and gardens, however, are open to all.
- Hike or Bike on the Erie Canal Path
- Hill Cummorah Pageant - Each summer in mid July The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints puts on the Hill Cumorah Pageant, a big outdoor play about the origins of the church. Mormons from all over the country come to perform in it. It is free and worth experiencing if you happen to be in the area. You can usually expect some proselytizing inside the pageant from the church members and outside the pageant from the other Christian churches that want to keep you from going in.