Highpoint to Lowpoint Revisited

The recent Highpoint to Lowpoint article generated some interest. I wanted to go into more detail when I wrote it and I didn’t get an opportunity due to various time constraints. The details would have required a lot of manual effort. Nonetheless, readers seemed to crave more so I bit the bullet and examined every state highpoint and lowpoint, the distances between them and their resulting slopes. I estimated these values in two major systems of measurement, feet per mile and metres per kilometre using a Great Circle distance calculator on the Movable Type Scripts website. The results may be examined in a shared Google Spreadsheet. Feel free to sort it any way you like. You won’t break it.

I’ll begin with a few caveats. The latitudes and longitudes for state highpoints were rather straightforward and easy to obtain from numerous sources, so no issues there. The same could not be said for lowpoints. What exact point along a seacoast should I use? Where within Death Valley’s Badwater Basin should I plant the flag? How far up a tidal estuary for several eastern states did the water remain at sea level? I made a lot of best guesses without complete precision so readers should view data as approximate and relative. Others might run the same exercise and come up with figures slightly different although general rankings should remain similar. That’s a long way of saying you shouldn’t get too hung up on the implied precision of the spreadsheet.

State Highpoint Lowpoint Distance Differences

I took that same data from the spreadsheet and created a graph. I had to reduce the image to fit into the article, however. The actual image was larger. Readers can open it in another tab or window if it’s too difficult to read.

Hawaii (overwhelmingly) and Washington demonstrated the greatest slope between highpoint and lowpoint, as referenced by reader Michael. Hawaii’s Mauna Kea was only about 17 miles (28 kilometers) from the ocean so it had an amazing downward slope of nearly 800 feet per mile (150 m/km) from mountaintop to sea. That more than doubled the result created by Washington’s Mount Rainer to Puget Sound. Reader Scott offered that Vermont probably came in third place and my calculations confirmed his suggestion. Mount Mansfield to Lake Champlain descended at 230 ft/mi (44 m/km).

Reader Jacob wondered about the farthest absolute distances between state highpoint and lowpoint, as well as the opposite of what was just discussed, the smallest slope between the two points. Both were easy to discern once I created the spreadsheet.

Black Mesa Trailhead
Black Mesa Trailhead — Leading to the Oklahoma Highpoint; my own photo

I calculated the farthest distances in Texas and Oklahoma. Both extended greater than 500 miles (800 km). Interestingly, or possibly of interest only to me, Texas was the second largest state and had the longest distance between highpoint and lowpoint. In the earlier article I discovered that Delaware, the second smallest state, had the smallest distance between highpoint and lowpoint. That was an odd coincidence, as if being in second place wasn’t good enough for either of them and they had to concoct different superlatives.

Nonetheless, I found Oklahoma more impressive than Texas for purposes of this exercise. The distances were nearly identical and yet Oklahoma was a much smaller state. Plus, I’ve actually been within close proximity to Oklahoma’s highpoint at Black Mesa when I undertook the Dust Bowl trip a couple of years ago so I had a nice photo to illustrate the point.

Fort Defiance
Fort Defiance — Illinois Lowpoint; my own photo

The smallest slope actually surprised me. Louisiana won. The angle was created by an unusual situation; the state’s lowpoint was below sea level in New Orleans so the regular method of drawing a line to the nearest seacoast wouldn’t work. Simultaneously the highpoint at Driskill Mountain wasn’t particularly high and it was located near the northwestern corner of the state, diagonally opposite of the lowpoint to maximized the distance. The downward slope equaled about 2.3 ft/mi (0.4 m/km). Two other states demonstrated slopes of less than 3 ft/mi: Illinois (I’ve been to that lowpoint) and Mississippi (been to that lowpoint too, it’s anywhere along its Gulf of Mexico shoreline).

Michigan came next at 3.5 ft/mi (0.7 m/km). I found that situation particularly fascinating in the context of the previous article where I noted the difference between the geographic placement of Minnesota and Michigan. Minnesota’s highpoint was located near Lake Superior, putting its highpoint and lowpoint in very close proximity. Michigan’s highpoint was also located near Lake Superior. However, the state of Michigan extended all the way down to Lake Erie, making the distance between high and low 400+ miles (650 km) and placing it near the bottom of the slope list.

Projects for Another Day

Other readers came up with great ideas too. Peter suggested that I run a similar analysis for nations of the world. Rob wondered about the highpoints of one state that appeared to fall in close proximity to the lowpoints of another state. I didn’t have time to explore either of these today although I might if time permits or people seem interested.

Thank you all for the thoughts and suggestions.


On March 25, 2015 · 1 Comments

I continue to make progress with the logistics supporting my recently-revealed 2015 Travel Plans. First on the docket will be a 150 mile (240 kilometre) bicycle adventure on the Great Allegheny Passage trail between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Cumberland, Maryland. I’ve been scoping the route and noticed a peculiarly-named town on the Maryland side of the border, Mount Savage (map). It seemed as if it would have fit within the theme of an earlier 12MC article from 2012, "Carnage, Slaughter and Mayhem." Too bad I didn’t discover the town until now.

Mount Savage
Mount Savage by Joseph, on Flickr (cc)

Hopefully in a few short weeks, and assuming all goes well, I will be able to substitute my own photograph for the one I borrowed above. I figured Mount Savage must have been named for someone with the not completely uncommon Savage surname. Did the surname have its roots in people who were wild, primitive, barbaric or possessing other seemingly impolite behaviors? Well yes, and no, and sort-of.

In the British Isles, Savage appeared to trace from the Latin silva (forest) then to Old French then to Middle English. Source material was scarce although a cluster of consensus implied that the word meant something similar to courageous and unconquerable during the Sixteenth Century and would have been a compliment. It shifted to its current uncouth definition later.

In Eastern Europe, Savitch and variations existed independently and were frequently associated with Jewish populations. Savitch often became Savage when immigrants bearing the name settled in the United States. The etymology was even more obscure. It may have derived from the Sava River (map), a tributary of the Danube flowing through current Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. Alternately, it may have derived from the first-name Sava, possibly a Slavic form of Saul. No source seemed definitive.

Mount Savage was named for "a land surveyor, Thomas Savage, who happened to be traveling through the area in 1736." There was an even larger town elsewhere in Maryland called simply Savage (map). Its name derived from "John Savage Williams, a Philadelphia merchant with interest in a mill on the falls of the Little Patuxent." Both of these Savage surname usages appeared to tie back to the British Isles derivation as did other examples I discovered.

Neen Savage, Shropshire, England

Ford at Neen Savage by Ollie Brown, on Flickr (cc)

I expected to find at least one Savage in the United Kingdom given the surname’s ancient pedigree. Neen Savage in Shropshire came to the forefront as the leading example (map). I teased its history from an old book, Shropshire: Its Early History and Antiquities (1864)

Neen Savage. The Celtic nene signifies a river and the word nan a brook is said to be a remnant of a primitive language. Certain it is that two of the Shropshire Neens are intersected by a stream. Neen Savage is the subject of the following entry in Domesday Book: — "The same Ralph holds Nene, and Ingelrann [holds] of him. Huni held it [in Saxon times] and was free"… Neen and Neen Savage were held by two several feoffees of Ralph de Mortemer who himself held of the king. The family of Le Savage descended from the Domesday Ingelrann hence the latter place acquired the name Neen Savage its present title.

It seemed appropriate to select an image of the ford over the body of water that inspired the Nene of Nene Savage for this part of the article.

I also learned a new word, feoffee ("a trustee who holds a fief (or ‘fee), that is to say an estate in land, for the use of a beneficial owner.") I don’t imagine I’ll get to use that one much in casual conversation.

Savage River, Tasmania, Australia.

Savage River by caspar s, on Flickr (cc)

Savage River (map) defined a body of water, a town and a national park in Tasmania. Of the name, "Although it is tempting to think that ‘savage’ was a description of the river, it is equally likely that the river was named after Job Savage, a storeman at the Pieman River sometime before 1881."

I was actually more fascinated by legends of the aforementioned Pieman River (map). Rumor had it,

The Pieman River gained its name from the notorious convict Alexander ‘The Pieman’ Pearce who was responsible for one of the few recorded instances of cannibalism in Australia. In a bizarre footnote to the history of the region Pearce and seven other convicts attempted to cross the island to Hobart where they hoped they could catch a merchant ship and escape to some ill-defined freedom. They lost their way and in the ensuing weeks all of the escapees disappeared except for Pearce. When he was recaptured unproven accusations of cannibalism were made against him. The following year Pearce escaped again accompanied by another convict, Thomas Cox. Once again Pearce found himself without food and, to solve the problem, he killed and ate Cox.

That was amazing stuff. In a land known for its characters the Pieman took the, um, cake. He was even more extreme than Captain Thunderbolt. Too bad the Pieman River wasn’t actually named for him. Never let facts get in the way of a good story.

Alexander "The Pieman" Pearce really was executed for cannibalism though.

Other Travel Plans

Some travel plans go well. Others change. The Thousand Islands trip is off. Apparently we waited too long to start looking for places to stay so maybe we’ll try that again next year although search a little earlier. Instead we will travel to Asheville, North Carolina (something may have piqued my interest there). Does anyone have any Asheville suggestions?

On March 25, 2015 · 1 Comments

Highpoint to Lowpoint

On March 22, 2015 · 5 Comments

Twelve Mile Circle received an intriguing question from reader "Cary" a few days ago. Cary, a professional mapmaker, noticed something interesting while conducting research: the amazing proximity of Minnesota’s highest point of elevation to its lowest. This led to a natural question. Was this the shortest distance between a state highpoint and a lowpoint? I’d touched on something within a similar vein way back in 2008 in "Highest and Lowest, Oh So Close" However, I’d discussed only the curious case of California with its astounding elevation difference between Mount Whitney at 14,494 feet (4,418 meters) and Death Valley at -282 ft (-86 m). The two points were separated by only 88 miles (142 kilometers).

That earlier article didn’t answer anything to determine if those 88 miles represented the absolute shortest distance between highpoints and lowpoints; it simply noted that the distance was very small. Fortunately numerous sources existed on the Intertubes so I could steal — with proper attribution of course — wonderful items such as this map that had already been prepared to assist with such a quest.

Map of USA elevations
State Highpoints and Lowpoints
Wikimedia Commons via GNU Free Documentation License

My quick eyeball assessment created a few observations. The California distance was indeed very short. It wasn’t the shortest. Minnesota was shorter and a couple of east coast states might be viable too. There was also one other curious fact. With the exception of California and Louisiana with lowpoints below sea level, the lowest elevation in each state appeared to fall somewhere along its border where it abutted another state or a large body of water. I supposed that reflected water always seeking the lowest level as it flowed downhill.


Port of Duluth
Port of Duluth, Minnesota along the state’s lowpoint. My own photo.

The Minnesota highpoint mentioned by Cary was Eagle Mountain (map) at 2,301 ft (701 m). The elevation certainly didn’t rival California’s Mt. Whitney, however the summit was only about 12.8 miles (20.6 km) from the state’s lowpoint on the shores of Lake Superior. The lake had a consistent elevation so it was only a matter of finding the closest line between mountain and shoreline.

I noticed that Michigan’s highpoint on its Upper Peninsula also fell remarkably close to Lake Superior. I felt a momentary sense of elation until I realized that Michigan touched several of the Great Lakes including Lake Erie way down at the southeastern corner of the Lower Peninsula. Lake Erie, being considerably downstream from Lake Superior, obviously had a lower elevation and thus the Michigan highpoint and lowpoint were separated by hundreds of miles.

Rhode Island

Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge
Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge by Timothy Valentine, on Flickr (cc)
Located along Rhode Island’s lowpoint

When checking for diminutives one should always examine the smallest of U.S. states, Rhode Island. Right? Little Rhody failed to reign supreme this time around. It’s highpoint was Jerimoth Hill (map). However that was located on the far western edge of the state almost all the way to Connecticut. That put it some distance from the nearest stretch of sea level elevation, which even in this very tiny state measured 19.2 miles (30.9 km) by my rough estimation.


Rehoboth Beach in the Winter
Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in the Winter
along the state’s lowpoint. My own photo.

Then came the geo-oddity magnet that was Delaware. I’ve mentioned repeatedly that I believe Delaware holds more geographic anomalies per square mile than any other place. The streak continues!

Delaware’s highpoint occurred at Ebright Azimuth (12MC’s visit). Its lowpoint was at sea level which I’ve experienced many times along its wonderful Atlantic Ocean beaches. However the highpoint (map) was certainly too far away from the Atlantic coast to make it a top contender. The Delaware River, conversely, flowed quite close to the azimuth. Could the Delaware River along that stretch have an elevation of zero? I figured it might be possible. I knew that the Potomac River at Washington, DC, in an area of similar terrain was only about six inches above sea level considerably farther inland.

I thought 12MC might have to call out to hydrologists in the audience to see if we could calculate the elevation of the Delaware River at the point closest to Ebright Azimuth. Then it dawned on me. I didn’t need to do anything like that. I simply needed to learn if the Pennsylvania lowpoint located farther upstream had an elevation at sea level or not. Many sources listed that statistic so it should be easy. Bingo! Pennsylvania’s lowpoint was at sea level on the Delaware River at the Delaware border. Therefore the Delaware River flowing through Delaware, being downstream from Pennsylvania, had to have a sea level elevation by definition. That qualified it as part of the state’s lowpoint.

A rough measurement generated a Delaware highpoint-to-lowpoint distance of approximately 4.3 miles (6.9 km).

Thank you Cary for the suggestion.

On March 22, 2015 · 5 Comments
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