When I was asked to chauffeur a runner to a half-marathon with a course that crossed between the conjoined cities of Bluefield on the border between Virginia and West Virginia, how could I say no? A long weekend of fall foliage and geo-oddities? I felt like I was dropped into an episode of Weekend Roady.
Lotito City Park, Bluefield
To be clear, I’m not a runner. Even so I’ve enjoyed traveling with the athletic gang at several Mainly Marathon events. These journeys took me to some out-of-the-way corners of the nation including the Dust Bowl and the Lower Mississippi; five races (marathon or half-marathon options) in five days in five states. The newest event was the debut of the Appalachian Series. I would have loved to have stayed for all five races although we could only attend the first two before heading home, the races in West Virginia and Virginia.
Those two races involved the exact same course through Lotito City Park on both sides of the border in Bluefield. It counted as West Virginia on the first day and Virginia on the second day, or vice versa. That’s the way 50-state racers count things. Only one state can be claimed per race.
Play Tennis in Two States
I had to find ways to amuse myself as the runners ran the course. That wasn’t a problem with a state border drawn directly through it. Oh look, isn’t that a tennis court with the boundary cutting through it? Why, yes it is.
Little things like trying to count the number of times I could split myself with the borderline offered countless entertainment options. This was an image from the northwestern corner of that same tennis court, with West Virginia to the left side of the diagonal and Virginia to the right (and me in both). That was another weird thing: a border quirk at Bluefield made Virginia west and West Virginia east.
It wasn’t all about racing all weekend. By chance, we discovered an Oktoberfest celebration being held in the nearby town of Bramwell (map). Bramwell was originally one of the many towns of West Virginia that arose because of its proximity to the coalfields. It differed from many others though because of the wealthy owners that settled there.
Bramwell is best known for having the largest number of millionaires per capita of any town in America in the late 1800s. Bramwell once had as many as thirteen millionaires living there at one time in the early 20th century. The magnificent homes that remain there today testify to this wealth.
It was a wonderful setting for an Autumn festival. I was also pleasantly surprised at the quality of craft beers brewed in West Virginia.
I’d never been to this area before so I made a series of minor jogs during the weekend to further pad my County Counting list. In Virginia I collected Bland, Giles and Tazewell Counties. In West Virginia I collected McDowell, Mercer, Monroe and Wyoming Counties. The jog to Wyoming County was the most memorable. The narrow twisting roads ran through genuine Appalachian settlements verging on stereotype, ambled past strip mines and climbed over mountain ridges (map). I was shocked that it remained paved and never swtiched to gravel or mud. After getting stuck behind the third coal truck I figured it out. The road didn’t exist serve the needs of residents so much as the mines.
The foliage approached peak Autumn glory, improving each day of our visit. That became a perfect excuse for a picnic at Pinnacle Rock State Park, located on a ridge between Bluefield and Bramwell (map). We climbed up to the overlook and saw nothing but forest to the horizon.
We rounded out the long weekend with a visit to Pipestem Resort State Park. Pipestem included the "County Line Trail" that crossed between Mercer and Summers Counties a couple of different times. We didn’t have an opportunity to hike it because of the rain. However, precipitation didn’t spoil the weekend and it didn’t rain the entire time. It just happened that one of the intermittent storms passed through the park at the wrong time so it limited our activities for awhile.
The tram running from the Canyon Rim Center down to Mountain Creek Lodge was operational though (map), and the views were fantastic between frantic efforts to wipe condensation from the windows. On the river valley far below, the Bluestone River overflowed its banks after several days of stormy weather.
I mentioned a place where 81° west longitude crossed US Interstate 81 in a recent article. I visited the golden spot in person on the way home (map). Of course I did.
The format today will be similar to the "Odds and Ends" series, a veritable pu pu platter of tasty tidbits. The primary difference will be that inspiration came almost entirely from the far corners of the 12MC army. I still have several other reader contributions waiting in the wings too. Please be patient if you mailed something to 12MC in the last couple of months. I’ll get to everything eventually.
Kilkenny Castle. My Own Photo.
I encountered placenames in Ireland with the prefix "Kil-" nearly everywhere during my recent overseas adventure. These included the towns of Kilkenny and Killarney plus the County of Kildare. The prefix occurred too frequently to happen by random chance, I figured.
Some quick research solved the mystery. In Irish Gaelic the prefix meant "Church." The same was true apparently for Scottish Gaelic and originally spelled Cill. For example a surname like Kilpatrick might translate as something like the Church of St. Patrick.
It reminded me of the suffix -kill one sees sporadically in eastern areas of the United States originally settled by the Dutch, including parts of Pennsylvania and Delaware. Examples would include the Schuylkill River that flows through Philadelphia as well as everyone’s favorite, the seemingly redundant (although actually not) Murderkill River of Delaware. Kill in this context meant a creek or a riverbed.
Funny how the same basic word could have such drastically different meanings in English, Irish and Dutch.
A Long Way to Go
Sunset over Mooselookmeguntic Lake by Rob Albright, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license
Reader Joe wondered about the longest town name in the United States. He came across an article that suggested Bellefontaine Neighbors (map), a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. It claimed to have "the longest name of any incorporated place in the United States" at 22 letters.
The situation became much more complicated as I explored it. Essentially the title came down to what set of qualifiers one wanted to use. Bellefontaine Neighbors settled on "incorporated place" to stake its claim. I referred to the US Board on Geographic Names, which offered Winchester-on-the-Severn, Maryland as the longest name with a hyphen (24 characters) and a tie between Mooselookmeguntic, Maine and Kleinfeltersville, Pennsylvania for continuous uninterrupted letters (17 characters) as the longest names for populated places in the United States.
Those of course paled in comparison to Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu, New Zealand (85 characters) and Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Wales (58 characters).
Bellefontaine was pronounced Bell-fount-in, by the way.
Simpson County Offset
Simpson County Offset
Some readers provided both an observation and an explanation. Such was the case with reader Mike. I’d noticed the "Simpson County Offset" before although I had no idea how it could have originated and never pursued it. The roots went all the way back to colonial times and the border between Virginia and North Carolina, a line that extended all the way to the Pacific Ocean, theoretically. Later that line formed the basis of the border between Tennessee and Kentucky, and it wasn’t completely straight because of various surveying errors.
A series of corrections had to be made including within a section separating Simpson County, Kentucky from Sumner County, Tennessee. One particularly cantankerous farmer refused to believe his land could ever be in Kentucky.
By 1830 it became obvious that the line was in the wrong place, which is why surveyors were sent to the area to redraw the line. Those surveyors determined about where the boundary line was supposed to be but wisely recommended in their report that the official border be left where it was… However, this didn’t settle the matter. A generation after this survey, … a settler named Middleton continued to claim that 101 acres of his property that protruded into Kentucky was rightfully in Tennessee. Two surveyors sent to the area to settle the dispute in 1859 agreed with him.
Now we know.
Water for Water
view towards downtown Denver from Cherry Creek Dam road by Scorpions and Centaurs, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license
Reader Ken lives near Denver, Colorado and it dawned on him that Cherry Creek Reservoir (map) was an example of a body of water named for a smaller body of water. He wondered if this was unique, or at least unusual.
I discovered a number of similar instances in the Geographic Names Information System. It might be interesting to determine the largest water feature named for a smaller water feature. Nothing came to mind off the top of my head. Maybe the 12MC audience has some suggestions.
Parting of the Waters
By United States Geological Survey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Richard, who described himself as a "long time reader/lurker" mentioned the Parting of the Waters (map). This was very interesting. Deep in the Bridger-Teton National Forest of Wyoming, "North Two Ocean Creek flows down from a plateau, slams into the Continental Divide in the form of the summit ridge of Two Ocean Pass and then splits into two: the aptly named Atlantic Creek and Pacific Creek." At that spot, water flowing down from Two Ocean Creek stood about an equal chance of ending up either in the Atlantic watershed or Pacific watershed.
It got me to ponder how a seemingly innocuous twist of fate could produce vastly different outcomes.
I got an inquiry recently from reader "Aaron O." I took immediate interest because he sparked my Wolf Island visit during the Riverboat Adventure the last time we corresponded. He was a county counter like many of us on 12MC including myself, and he’d encountered a curious coincidence during his collections.
Jasper County bordered Newton County in Texas. Fine, nothing special there. This year he concentrated on Mississippi though, and once again he noticed a Jasper County bordered on a Newton County. Consulting a map, he observed that Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Indiana and Missouri each had a Jasper County and a Newton County that shared a common border. Building on Aaron’s efforts, I began my research and saw that two states, Illinois and Iowa, also had a Jasper County (with no corresponding Newton County) that located their local seat of government in a town named Newton. What was going on?
I’d never noticed the pattern before and I didn’t understand the connection although it happened too frequently to be left to chance. However, the nexus would have been obvious to someone living in the United States two centuries ago. Jasper and Newton referred to Sergeants William Jasper and John Newton, as I found through additional Internet sleuthing, historical figures from the American Revolutionary War.(¹) Jasper was genuinely valiant. Newton was a nobody, elevated in stature through creative fiction that included the alleged connection between the two men.
Fort Moultrie. A poor quality video I took a few years ago
It was still early during the American Revolution when Colonel William Moultrie hastily constructed and never quite completed an earthen fort reinforced with palmetto logs on Sullivan’s Island to protect the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina (map). British warships attacked his positions in June 1776. Palmetto, as it occurred, served as an excellent defensive material. The spongy wood and sandy soil absorbed the impact of incoming cannonballs and deflected them harmlessly with minimal effect on the fortification walls. Meanwhile American artillery returned fire, pounding and damaging the British fleet. British forces retreated after a full day of futile bombardment and wouldn’t return to Charleston for another four years.
On the official flag of South Carolina, "The palmetto tree symbolized Colonel Moultrie’s heroic defense of the palmetto-log fort on Sullivan’s Island against the attack of the British fleet…"
The Palmetto State by Wendy, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license
William Jasper served under Col. Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island as part of the defensive forces preventing a British invasion. The Americans raised their flag, the "Moultrie Flag" — essentially the current South Carolina flag minus the palmetto tree — above a parapet and the battle commenced. A British shell shattered the flagstaff during the fight, knocking the Moultrie Flag to the ground. Jasper grabbed the flag, attached it to a makeshift flagstaff, climbed atop a parapet and held it in place. His actions became a rallying point for American defenders during the siege and his bravery became well-known afterwards.
Jasper Monument by Dizzy Girl, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license
Jasper tried a similar feat at the siege of Savannah, Georgia in 1779. Once more he found himself in a position to race to the top of a parapet and affix a flag. This time, however, he was shot and killed although not before he finish his task. This cemented his legacy, he became a revered hero with numerous posthumous honors, a statue was erected in Savannah, and all eight Jasper Counties in the United States were named for him.
John Newton and the William Jasper Connection
John Newton benefited from a largely-fictionalized revisionist history courtesy of Parson Mason Locke Weems. Parson Weems wrote highly romanticized accounts of early American history at the beginning of 19th Century. Modern standards would probably characterize this genre as "historical fiction" although back then it was simply history and presented as such. He’d listened to or concocted fanciful tales and presented them as fact. Most famously, it included the allegorical account of George Washington and the cherry tree which he claimed he’d heard from an elderly woman who said she was a distant Washington cousin.(²)
Weems wrote immensely popular and influential "biographies" of Washington and other leading historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, William Penn, and more importantly to this account, Francis Marion. General Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox" served originally under Moultrie at Sullivan’s Island, then at the Siege of Savannah and later as the leader of an unconventional force that bedeviled British troops throughout South Carolina. He is often credited with being instrumental to the development of modern guerrilla warfare.
What Weems did for Washington, he also did for Marion. Chapter VI of "The life of General Francis Marion, a celebrated partisan officer" presented an account of Jasper and Newton.
Sergeants Jasper and Newton Rescuing American Prisoners from the British
by John Blake White (1781 – 1859)
United States Senate Collection
In this story, William Jasper had a loyalist brother who served in the British army at the Ebenezer garrison (map), near Savannah. Jasper would secretly visit his brother undetected for days at a time then report his findings back to the Americans. He brought John Newton along on his final trip behind enemy lines. While at the British garrison, they spotted the arrival a group of American prisoners captured in Savannah who were destined for execution, included a young woman and her child. British troops later marched the group away from the garrison presumably to be hanged. Jasper and Newton waited at a nearby spring where they supposed the group would relax before completing their march. They caught the resting guards by surprise, overpowered them, and released the prisoners, which they then led back across the Savannah River to freedom.
The heroic story struck a chord with American audiences.
Go ahead and read the original story. It won’t take more than a few minutes and it will provide an good indication of Weems’ fanciful, over-the-top style. I dare you to read it without rolling your eyes.
Too bad it wasn’t true. No similar account ever made it into written records on either side of the conflict at the time. Jasper was already revered for his bravery so it seemed unlikely that his peers wouldn’t have noticed him slipping behind enemy lines and returning with freed prisoners. Weems either heard an after-the-fact friend-of-a-friend tale like the Washington cherry tree story or he made it up on his own.
Nonetheless, the story linked Jasper to Newton inextricably in the American psyche during the first half of the 19th Century. Weems’ publications were so influential that fiction became fact. This coincided with a rapid expansion of the U.S. population and ongoing formation of county structures. Although Weems is largely forgotten today, his sway was great enough that it influenced several states to create both a Jasper County and a Newton County adjacent to each other.
(¹) Newton County, Mississippi claimed that it was named for Sir Isaac Newton. While I don’t have evidence, I suspect it was named originally for John Newton like all of the others and it was changed at a later date. This would be similar to King County, Washington named originally for William Rufus King and later changed to Martin Luther King, Jr.
(²) This tale is widely known to anyone raised in the United States. I doubt the same folklore applies elsewhere so I’ll briefly summarize. George Washington as a small child, according to Weems, received a hatchet as a gift and started chopping on various objects like any small child would want to do. This included his father’s prized cherry tree. When confronted he was alleged to respond, "I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet." Weems used this as an object lesson to convey Washington’s moral fiber, that even when wrong he would confess his mistakes and deal with the consequences rather than deceive or hide the truth. My father, the king of bad puns used to tell a joke that I’ll presume was popular in the 1940’s, with the punchline "I cannot tell a lie. Popeye did it."