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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
I wondered what town and state had the fewest letters in its collective name. For example, my hometown of Arlington, Virginia had 17 letters. That wasn’t very short. Why would anyone care? I don’t know. Maybe someone had a job where they had to write down their town and state repeatedly to the point where they’d want to move to a place to minimize their task. Maybe it was a Bart Simpson chalkboard thing.
But oh wise 12MC — I’m sure the audience interjects even as we speak — it wouldn’t matter whether people lived in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations or any other state for that matter, they would still shorten it to a two-letter postal abbreviation. Simply pick the shortest town name and be done with it. Forget about the state. That wouldn’t be a challenge and we don’t take the easy path on the circle. We need to do this the hard way.
States with four-letter names seemed to be the optimal starting point: Utah, Iowa and Ohio.
There were a couple of towns in Utah with three letters. One was Roy; so Roy + Utah had 7 letters. That was pretty good. The Utah History Encyclopedia explained Roy’s short name.
Twenty-one years after Roy’s first settlement, the town’s few residents met to start the wheels of progress turning by obtaining a post office. The first requirement was the selection of a permanent name for the town. Roy had been called Central City, Sandridge, the Basin, and Lakeview. One member of the group, Reverend David Peebles, a schoolteacher, recently had lost a child to death, a young boy named Roy. Peebles exerted pressure to have the town named after his son, and the local citizens were sympathetic to his plea.
Roy may have started small although it now has nearly 40,000 residents (map). It abutted Hill Air Force Base on its southeaster corner right next to the Hill Aerospace Museum which I visited previously. That signified two dimensions for me personally, (1) I’ve been to Roy although I didn’t realize it at the time because one must pass through Roy to get to the museum, and (2) I can illustrate this entry with one of my own photographs instead of borrowing one from some unsuspecting Flickr user. Roy might be in the background of that photo somewhere. Actually I think Roy might be in the opposite direction, behind me.
The other 7-letter combo was Loa, Utah (map). This town appeared previously as one of my bloggy finds. It demonstrated that I should never recommend other websites because it automatically curses them into never publishing again.
The Utah History Encyclopedia also mentioned Loa. The name "… was suggested by Franklin W. Young, who had once resided in the Hawaiian Islands and had been impressed with Mauna Loa, Hawaii’s second highest mountain."
There were many different 7-letter combos in Iowa. Ira, Iva and Ute were amongst them. I focused on Ely, Iowa (map). It had the largest population of the grouping so it seemed to deserve more attention. The The History of Linn County, Iowa (1878) had a simple explanation for the short name. "Ely was laid out June 5, 1872 by T.M. Johnson, Surveyor, on parts of Sections 30 and 31, Township 82, north Range 6, under the proprietorship of John F. Ely."
Too bad Ely wasn’t founded by Chuck D because then it would have scored even better. The awesome 5-letter combination of D, Iowa would have been unstoppable. Imagine how Iowa might may evolved if that had happened. We may never be able to work out the time/space issues necessary to transport Chuck D back to the 1870’s so he could start a town although that would be amazing.
Those vintage buildings shown in the photograph still exist by the way (Street View)
Ohio had its share of short-name towns including Aid, Fly and Ray. I was prepared to talk about Ray because it was significant enough to have its own post office (45672). That wasn’t necessary because I found something even better.
Yes, we had a winner: the six-letter combo of Ai, Ohio (map)! Some websites claimed that Ai was a ghost town. Clearly, people still lived there so how could that be true? About the name,
The origin of its name has been a local controversy: some say that it was named after the biblical city of Ai, while others believe that it was named after one of its founders, Ami Richards. Ami was a man, so others dropped the ‘M’ from his name to make the town’s name more masculine.
I had a hard time believing explanations based upon a destroyed city or androgyny. I had my own theory after watching the video. The general store featured the village’s name printed on its side in capital letters, AI. That looked a lot like A1, aka superior. That would be a great town name. Did that expression even exist when the town was founded circa 1843? Etymology Online examined A1: "… in figurative sense of "first-rate," 1837, in Dickens; from Lloyd’s of London designation for ships in first-class condition (with the letter referring to the condition of the ship and the number to that of the stores)."
I guess it might be possible. Probably not. I still like it better.
All that talk of endorheic basins in County Divided got me wondering about similar conditions in other unexpected places. It seemed farfetched to find an area lacking natural drainage to the sea on the Great Plains of North America. So did a similar condition in central Europe. I searched around and the largest place in that general vicinity appeared to be Lake Neusiedl on the border between Austria and Hungary (map), where it was called Neusiedler See in German and Fertő in Hungarian.
The basin wasn’t huge although I took what I could get for purposes of this topic.
The lake covers 315 km², of which 240 km² is on the Austrian side and 75 km² on the Hungarian side. The lake’s drainage basin has an area of about 1,120 km². From north to south, the lake is about 36 km long, and it is between 6 km and 12 km wide from east to west. On average, the lake’s surface is 115.45 m above the Adriatic Sea and the lake is no more than 1.8 m deep.
To put that in perspective, the entire drainage basin was about six times the size of Washington, DC or about one-third the size of Rhode Island. The Lake itself was somewhere about twice the size of Washington, DC. Nonetheless, although lacking in size, Lake Neusiedl packed a lot of beauty into its enclosed basin and national park that protected it.
This region around the steppe lake, with over 2 000 hours of sunshine annually, is one of the most popular holiday areas in Austria… With its unique flora and fauna, the transborder National Park offers rare plant and bird species as well as Asinara White donkeys, Grey Hungarian cattle and Mangalitza pigs, the appropriate protection and a natural habitat.
I learned soon enough that Neusiedl wasn’t completely endorheic.
A basin without a natural outlet had one major drawback: it could fill up, overflow and flood adjacent countryside. That natural cycle happened many times over the centuries. Peasants simply dealt with it, dried off and went about their normal lives. Officials finally tired of intermittent flooding at the end of the Nineteenth Century during a time when the Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary were united under the banner of the Austria-Hungary Empire. Thus came the construction of the Einserkanal (German) / Hansági-főcsatorna (Hungarian) in 1895, a canal "approximately 30 km long and 4.8 m deep on average and 7-15 m wide." It served like an overflow drain on a bathtub. The canal safely diverted excess water to the Danube River whenever the basin hit a desired capacity.
Nonetheless, the vast preponderance of outflow from Lake Neusiedl happened because of natural evaporation. Perhaps only 10% of outflow went through the artificial channel of the Einserkanal. I guess that would still make the watershed endorheic.
Brücke von Andau / Andaui-híd
The canal’s route never mattered much as long as Austria-Hungary endured. That situation changed after the First World War. Austria-Hungary found itself on the losing side and the empire split. That canal then became a portion of an international border albeit completely on the Hungarian side by a few metres. It created an effective barrier, a moat, to separate Austria from Hungary for many kilometres. That condition remained unchanged after the Second World War when Hungary fell under the Communist domination of the Soviet Union.
Then came the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, crushed by Soviet forces. Hungarians supporting the revolution or those simply fleeing violence escaped towards the border, running up against the canal. They found a single modest wooden footbridge, the Brücke von Andau (German) / Andaui-híd (Hungarian) as a passageway to freedom. About 200,000 refugees fled from Hungary and perhaps 70,000 of them used the Bridge at Andau (map) until the Soviets destroyed it. The bridge wasn’t replaced until decades later, reconstructed in commemoration of its historical importance on the 40th anniversary of the revolution.
In the local chronicle of Andau we read of these events: On Sunday, November 5, was heard the roar of tank engines and the rattling of chains of armored vehicles approached the border. The population held his breath, wondering what would happen. Our firemen moved to the border and marked them with red-white-red flags … In the next few days the first refugees arrived. From day to day the stream of refugees swelled. Thousands of them came from all over Hungary on the Einserkanal after Andau, in the freedom of the West.
The author James Michener was living in Austria at the time of the Hungarian Revolution. He interviewed witnesses and chronicled events in a nonfiction book he titled "The Bridge at Andau."