Gravity Hills

On April 29, 2012 · 5 Comments

Many years ago I had an acquaintance who was an accomplished magician. I got to see him practice various magic ticks as he perfected his craft and of course I learned the secrets behind many of the illusions as a result. The human brain likes to believe what it thinks it sees. The trick often reveals itself as one moves to an angle not normally available to the audience. I never tired of the illusions even when I understood the mechanics. If anything, I became more enthralled with the amount of practice, skill and timing necessary to make all of the moving parts come together in a convincing manner.

I think of "gravity hills" much the same way, with Mother Nature substituting as the magician. Gravity hills go by many names — magnetic hills, mystery spots, ghost roads, electric hills and so on — and they all describe the same basic phenomenon. It’s an optical illusion where a slight downhill appears to be an uphill. The topography, horizon, road cut, floral growth, and angle of pathway all conspire to fool the eye.

Many people ascribe gravity hills to supernatural explanations. Why they jump reflexively to an ethereal cause as their first resort is for someone else to determine. I’m simply an observer who notes that a quick Internet search will reveal countless gullible people willing to take the phenomenon too literally. There’s some weird magnetic or electrical force at work in their opinion, or a disgruntled ghost associated with some improbably legend, an alien or extraterrestrial vortex to to a different dimension, or any number of strange, devious or evil explanations. The truth is rather more mundane.

One often sees individual gravity hills described as rare or even unique. Actually, there are many such places identified worldwide. Some of them are easier to perceive than others, and of course those are the ones that become word-of-mouth or even literal tourist attractions. There are any number of lists and collections one can consult to experience a gravity hill nearby. Minor ones exist everywhere, though. I often experience the feeling of driving slightly uphill even when I know the road is completely flat as I move through long, open stretches of lightly-traveled highway. I’m not sure if I have a propensity for spotting such things or whether this is common to everyone.

Let’s take a look at a few examples, bearing in mind that Google may or may not capture the phenomenon adequately. I’ll limit myself to one instance per country so please don’t take offense if I don’t happen to mention your personal favorite. Feel free to post a link or Street View image in the comments if you like.

Electric Brae, Ayrshire, Scotland

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"Brae" is a Scottish term for a hillside. "Electric" comes from a time when people didn’t quite understand electrical forces and considered that to be a possible explanation. This gravity hill became somewhat of a local attraction. Authorities posted a stone marker to help people locate the brae and better understand the phenomenon: "Whilest there is this slope of 1 in 86 upwards from the bend at the Glen, the configuration of the land on either side of the road provides an optical illusion making it look as if the slope is going the other way. Therefore, a stationary car on the road with the brakes off will appear to move slowly uphill."

The marker can be observed on the left side of this Street View image.

Gravity Hill, Moonbi, New South Wales, Australia

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Does a gravity hills operate in the opposite direction Down Under? No, that’s my poor attempt at humor. The phenomenon appears exactly the same way as it would in the Northern Hemisphere.

The International Directory of Magnetic Hills, Gravity Hills, Mystery Hills and Magnetic Mountains says, that for the gravity hill outside of Moonbi: "With caution, position your car at a point nearest the southbound lane and put your car in neutral, take your foot off the brake and you will experience the thrill of your car not only climbing the hill by itself, but gaining speed as it goes. Look out for other traffic and make sure you stop before your car rolls on to the northbound lane."

Australia’s New England Highway splits into northbound and southbound lanes in a mountainous area about five kilometres north of Moonbi. The phenomenon occurs on an access road that connects the two sides of the split highway and allows traffic from both directions to divert to an observation deck at Moonbi Lookout.

The Street View image does appear to go slightly uphill. I guess.

Magnetic Hill, Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

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One needs to travel to North America to realize the true potential of a local geographic oddity: roadside attraction as money-making opportunity. I say that lovingly. I’ll alter my path in a heartbeat when I know something unusual can be found nearby, and Magnetic Hill in Moncton is but a stone’s throw from the Trans-Canada Highway. Oh yes, I’ll be stopping here if I’m ever in the area.

Those crafty citizens of Moncton purchased Magnetic Hill and diverted the highway around it. The city owns it. They’ve used it as an anchor for an ever-expanding universe of tourist attractions: zoo, water park, golf course, replica fishing village, shops and restaurants that practically overshadow the phenomenon itself.

Spook Hill, Lake Wales, Florida, USA

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However it’s hard to beat the Canadian’s neighbors to the south when it comes to cheezy over-the-top tourist traps. New Brunswick’s Magnetic Hill seems positively high-class compared to some of its counterparts in the United States, to wit:

Again, don’t get me wrong, I define cheezy as "good."

Nonetheless, I’ll focus on a free, easily-accessible gravity hill. I could have chosen literally hundreds of examples in the U.S. but I’ve chosen Spook Hill because it has a level of local government recognition and support. They’re proud enough of their gravity hill that they’ve named the local school accordingly. Check out Spook Hill Elementary School with its Casper the Friendly Ghost logo.

Spook Hill received a flurry of coverage after the Wall Street Journal featured it in a 1990 article (often referenced, unfortunately I couldn’t find an online link to it). It also has nice coverage in Roadside Americana. One simply needs to park a car at the sign on the right side of the Street View image, put it into neutral, and let gravity take its natural course. It’s dispelled the same way any gravity hill can be debunked. As SunCam explained, "We took a carpenter’s level to Spook Hill and discovered that what was ‘up’ was really ‘down.’ The lay of the terrain around Spook Hill is responsible for the illusion. If you approach the hill from the opposite direction and survey the surroundings you can clearly see how the illusion works. In conclusion, cars do not roll up hill; they are actually rolling down hill."

Like any good magic trick however, knowing the secret doesn’t have to spoil the fun.

Semi-Practical Exclaves Galore!

On April 26, 2012 · 15 Comments

I mentioned a semi-practical exclave in Australia a few days ago. This was a spot in New South Wales where a resident in an automobile could exit his neighborhood without ever leaving NSW, but could return only via Queensland. I noted somewhat tongue-in-cheek that the "…situation becomes very special, perhaps unique, meaning I didn’t bother looking for any other occurrences: the curious case of a semi-practical exclave… it’s a practical exclave going in one direction but not in the other."

Of course when I’m too lazy to look for other instances and lay it out there as somewhat of an unstated challenge, then it’s almost certain that a loyal follower of the Twelve Mile Circle audience will find an example. Usually it’s an even better example.

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Let’s give some credit to "Voyager9270" who posted a comment in response: "There is an international version of the semi-practical exclave you describe above in Beebe Plain, Vt. and Stanstead, Quebec." Sure enough, Voyager9270 was absolutely correct. Canusa Street / Rue Canusa (Québec Route 247) runs directly along the border between the United States (Vermont) and Canada (Québec) for about a kilometre. It curves further into Canada to the east and it terminates at a T-intersection with Beebee Plain Road to the west, where there is also a border station.

Thus, a U.S. citizen on the Vermont side of Canusa Street lives in an international semi-practical exclave arrangement with an added level of inconvenience. Drivers can arrive from the rest of the United States without a problem. The right side of Canusa Street is completely within the United States. Leaving one’s home is another issue. Turning left onto Rue Canusa from a driveway in Vermont, heading back to the rest of the United States, places a driver on the Québec side of the road. This didn’t use to be a problem in the days before 9-11 when this border town loosely formed a single community. Now, however, a driver from the Vermont side of Canusa Street needs to clear a border station in order to re-enter the United States.

A couple of other interesting albeit completely irrelevant features I uncovered.

  • Beebe Plain is named for the town’s founder, Zeba Beebe, which I though was a great name.
  • Canusa is quite obviously a portmanteau of Canada-USA, and loyal readers know I loves me a good portmanteau.

There I was. I felt compelled to search for additional semi-practical exclaves now that I’d been armed with the knowledge that perhaps they might not be all that unusual after all. However I’d also figured out a secret pattern that I could use to identify them: find places where the border ran straight down the middle of a road. Not every property along the line would form a semi-practical exclave but it would certainly increase the odds. I added a corollary. Look for dead-end streets that branched from the border road that might create entire semi-practical neighborhoods.

There aren’t very many geo-oddity blogs. We’re a pretty small community. Not surprisingly, my search began to cross paths with the Basement Geographer. He’d already posted a couple of similar articles dealing with borders stung down the middle of roads: Bisected and Bilateral: Streets Shared By Two Countries, Part I (The Americas) and Bisected and Bilateral: Streets Shared By Two Countries, Part II (Europe and the Middle East). I didn’t want to tread on ground already covered there (even if I was taking a slightly different tack) so go read those articles because they’re great. I’m sure you could use them to find lots of semi-practical exclaves at those locations while you’re at it.

That left me with the challenge of finding roads overlain upon borders in places not already featured. I did manage to find a couple.

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The situation occurs on the border between England and Wales in Saltney, appropriately enough along Boundary Lane. This means "that houses on the west side of the street are in the Flintshire County Council area and in the North Wales Police jurisdiction, while those on the east side are in the Cheshire West and Chester unitary authority area and in the Cheshire Police jurisdiction."

Not every property along Boundary Lane qualifies as a semi-practical exclave. Many connect to other roadways that anchor them to their homelands. In England, Stanley Park Dr. and its various branches form a semi-practical exclave. In Wales, streets such as Larch Way, Douglas Place, Cwrt Terfyn seem to fit the definition as well.

Kansas City might be the most promising location, though. The dueling Kansas Cities, one in Kansas and one in Missouri, blend together almost seamlessly along State Line Road.

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State Line Road hugs the boarder for an astounding 12.5 miles (20 kmilometres) unbroken. This creates probably hundreds of properties that would qualify as semi-practical exclaves.

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Here is one easy example. It’s an entire apartment complex on the Missouri side of the line. State Line Road might be the longest urban road split down the middle by a border (meaning I didn’t bother looking for any longer occurrences).

Alabama Capitals

On April 24, 2012 · 7 Comments

It took awhile for some new states admitted to the United States to settle down with a mature governance structure. Alabama fit that pattern. It had five capital cities in less than thirty years.

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Alabama Capitol Building in Montgomery

Montgomery is the Alabama capital today. It has grown in size and stature to a couple hundred thousand residents within the city proper and probably about the same in the outskirts of the the larger metropolitan area. Capital cities have a natural advantage within their states: they become company towns where politicians controlling the levers of power serve as a primary industry.

Two of the early Alabama capitals seem to have done well even though they lost their status, but the other two never recovered. There’s no telling what they may have become had they remained the capital city of Alabama.

St. Stephens (Territorial Capital), 1817-1819

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Alabama was a territory of the United States only for a brief period, from 1817 through 1819. Its only territorial capital was St. Stephens. The territorial government chose a location on the Tombigbee River at a point where boats couldn’t travel any further upstream from Mobile and the Gulf of Mexico. That was a common way to assure a prosperous settlement back in the days when water served as a primary means of transportation. The Spanish, who previously controlled this portion of the continent certainly understood the potential when they established a fort at this spot on the Tombigbee during the late 18th Century. Thus St. Stephens became a natural choice when the United States gained control and carved Alabama from the Mississippi Territory. Ultimately, however, lawmakers selected a more central location when Alabama became a state. St. Stephens declined into obscurity.

Old St. Stephens Historical Park marks the spot today.

Huntsville (Temporary State Capital), 1819-1820

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Delegates gathered in Huntsville to draft a state constitution when Alabama entered the Union in 1819. They selected Cahaba (alternately spelled Cahawba) as the Alabama state capital for its more central location and its position at the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers. The obvious problem was the Cahaba didn’t exist. It was wilderness. Thus, Huntsville served as a temporary capital for a single legislative session until suitable facilities could be constructed in Cahaba.

The constitutional convention met at a vacant cabinet shop that is now part of the Alabama Constitution Village living history museum.

Cahaba/Cahawba, 1820-1826

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Cahaba became the first permanent capital of Alabama. The confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers might have sounded beneficial in theory but someone must not have noticed that it was within a frequent flood plain that also had a reputation for waterborne disease. Settlers started moving to Cahaba where streets had been arranged in a nice grid for them. Legislators gathered and began their tasks. Homes and businesses rose upon neatly-outlined properties. Then the inevitable happened: a flood struck the new capital city. Detractors used that as an opportunity to move the seat of government elsewhere. Nonetheless, Cahaba held-on and even grew in size until the Civil War. It became a shipping point for cotton heading downriver to the port of Mobile and as a stop along a prominent railroad line.

Notice the Google Map with the nice street grid and all of the individual property lines. Now switch that into satellite view. The streets still exist primarily as bare earthen paths but the lots have been abandoned. Cahaba is nothing more than a ghost town today.

The town went into decline as a result of the war plus additional flooding. A former slave purchased the town in the late 19th Century (certainly a poetic change of fate) and he demolished most of what remained. Only a few ruins mark the town today. They are part of the Old Cahawba Archaeological Park.

This new capital city built so boldly from scratch within the wilderness ultimately failed.

Tuscaloosa, 1826-1846

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Tuscaloosa came next. It had been incorporated in 1819 so it wasn’t appreciably older than Cahaba. Yet it fared much better that Cahaba when it also lost its status as a capital city. More than two hundred thousand people live in and around Tuscaloosa in modern times compared to zero for Cahaba. Much of that had to do with an event that occurred in Tuscaloosa while it still reigned as a capital city: the founding of the University of Alabama in 1831. Could Cahaba still be thriving today if the University been founded a decade earlier? It’s an interesting proposition.

Nonetheless, Tuscaloosa was unable to retain its status. The capital shifted to Montgomery twenty years later. This recognized the importance of geography in a state where cotton dominated, as described in the Encyclopedia of Alabama. The ruins of the Tuscaloosa Capitol Building are now located in Historic Capitol Park.

The seat of Alabama government has remained in Montgomery since 1846.

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