On November 25, 2015 · 0 Comments

A visitor landed on Twelve Mile Circle from Surprise. That was the actual name of the town; Surprise, Arizona. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised because more than a hundred thousand people lived there, yet I’d never heard of it. I also learned during my search that Surprise was a surprisingly common designation with 238 surprises lurking in the Geographic Names Information System alone. They included mountains, lakes, mines, basins, beaches, and of course populated places as well as just about every other feature imaginable. I picked a select few for further exploration and then moved on to a couple of international examples.

Surprise, Arizona

Naturally I wondered how a town could become a Surprise (map) and fortunately it provided a handy explanation.

Our city of over 120,000 people was just one square mile of farmland back in 1938 when Flora Mae Statler founded it. So why did she call us Surprise? According to Statler’s daughter Elizabeth Wusich Stoft, her mother once commented "she would be surprised if the town ever amounted to much." With our success, she would indeed be surprised and proud!

Surprise became one of the fastest growing cities in Arizona, a state already noteworthy for its remarkable growth. The US Census Bureau reported only thirty thousand residents as of 2000. Its recent growth could only be described as explosive.

A name like surprise offered opportunities for puns and odd juxtapositions. For instance the town held an annual Surprise party that wasn’t actually a surprise party. It was always announced ahead of time (December 4-5 this year). They also had a Surprise Women’s Heritage Trail. In most places, surprising women on a trail might become a matter for the police instead of a recognition of women’s history.

Surprise, Nebraska

Surprise, Nebraska Center Street 2
Surprise, Nebraska Center Street 2 on Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain

Events unfolded in a less pleasant surprise for the Surprise in Nebraska. It started well enough in the 19th Century according to Virtual Nebraska.

It wasn’t until 1881 that George Miller and several members of his family decided to built a dam on the small, spring-fed stream not far from the headwaters of the Big Blue River. They hoped to be able to impound enough water to operate a grist mill. It is said that Miller was not only pleased, but also quite surprised to get enough water power for such an enterprise, so he gave his mill the name "Surprise."

The settlement grew into a nice town (map) a few years later when the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad Company laid tracks through the area and built a depot there. Then Surprise began to suffer like much of the Great Plains with a slow outward migration of its residents. Peaking with a population above three hundred, Surprise declined with every Census starting in 1910, leaving only 43 souls at the 2010 Census.

Surprise Valley, California

Surprise Valley Cedarville trading post CA (0858)
Surprise Valley Cedarville trading post CA by Don Barrett on Flickr (cc)

I shifted to a larger geographic footprint for the third example, a 70 by 10 mile (112 by 16 kilometre) area in northern California called Surprise Valley, sandwiched between the Warner and Hayes mountain ranges (map). It encompassed several rural towns in Modoc County, including Cedarville, Eagleville, Fort Bidwell and Lake City.

The local Chamber of Commerce described how the area came to be settled.

A bad drought that occurred in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys in 1864 caused much of the livestock there to perish. Owners offered up to half their cattle herds to anyone who would take the animals into the high country to grass and water. Men who saw this as an opportunity to have their own ranches and herds recalled the big grassy valley they had passed through while on the wagon train to California.

I also found a Bureau of Land Management brochure that offered an explanation for the name. Prospectors heading towards the California goldfields suffered immense hardships as they trudged overland through the hostile Great Basin. "It was a welcome and unexpected surprise to see the trees, good water and grassy meadows in the valley below the high mountains we now call the Warners."

Mount Surprise, Queensland

Undara Lave Tubes-20
Undara Lava Tubes by Gouldy99 on Flickr (cc)

I found plenty of other surprises outside of the United States including Mount Surprise (map) in Queensland, Australia. It was a mountain, for sure, as well as a nearby town with the same name. They were set pretty much in the middle of nowhere, with the town becoming a home for fewer than two hundred. Tourists traveled there for fossicking. I had no idea what fossicking entailed so I looked it up. It was an Australian term for prospecting, much to my disappointment. People liked to search for gemstones at Mount Surprise. If not, they could explore lava tubes at nearby Undara Volcanic National Park.

Explore Australia discussed the name.

Mount Surprise is a historic rail town in the Gulf Savannah. Its name comes from the surprise the Aboriginal people felt when they were resting at the base of the mountain and the loud white people of Ezra Firth’s pioneer party arrived in 1864.

That seemed more than a little bogus to me although I couldn’t find a better explanation.

Surprise, Saskatchewan

I didn’t want 12MC readers in Canada to feel left out in the cold so I selected a surprise there, too. Surprise, Saskatchewan (map) barely existed although the Canadian Geographical Names Data Base still included an entry for it. The Rural Municipality (RM) of Enterprise No. 142 had only 160 residents and most of them lived in Richmound ("The Town With U In It"). Surprise? Maybe just a few buildings, mostly overgrown by prairie. The video I found claimed that the original settlers were surprised to find a complete lack of trees which surprised me because the prairie wasn’t exactly known for trees.

This Surprise shouldn’t be confused with the Rural Municipality of Surprise Valley No. 9, located farther south in Saskatchewan along the US Border.

So many surprises.

Geography Ablaze

On November 15, 2015 · 3 Comments

Loyal reader Ken has attended Burning Man a number of times and suggested I highlight some of the geographic quirks associated with it. He was even kind enough to provide the topics! I’ve never experienced Burning Man so I was grateful to begin this article with a pre-packaged outline. All of the ideas below came from Ken except for the last little tidbit. I simply took his suggestions and put them in different words along with a few graphics. It also took me a lot longer to get around to this than I would have hoped. I always appreciate reader suggestions although it takes me awhile to figure out how to include them sometimes.

What is Burning Man? Well, it’s this (and so much more):

Burn Night and the citizens of Black Rock City: a panorama, 2009
Burn Night and the citizens of Black Rock City: a panorama, 2009 by Neil Girling on Flickr (cc)

It’s a week-long gathering held annually on the Black Rock Desert playa in western Nevada (map). I’m not sure I can adequately describes what takes place there. Maybe 12MC attendees can post their recollections in the comments. I’ll simply borrow the description that Burning Man uses for itself.

Once a year, tens of thousands of people gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to create Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. In this crucible of creativity, all are welcome.

I did mention Burning Man in Twelve Mile Circle a couple of years ago. I believed that it could serve as a modern proxy for the nineteenth century Camp Meeting phenomenon. The focus shifted away from religious devotion in its current incarnation although it still retained the desire of people to band together in community each year. In one new twist, it followed a "leave no trace" philosophy. Every artifact of Black Rock City must be removed at the conclusion of each festival.

Black Rock City

2012 Black Rock City Theme Camps and Villages map
2012 Black Rock City Theme Camps and Villages map by Alexander on Flickr (cc)

I wondered how I might describe the geographic layout of Black Rock City without a map because "Burning Man does not maintain a portfolio of ‘stock’ or PR images" with proper licensing. I figured a photograph of a map would constitute fair use so that’s the route I took instead of borrowing the much better map on the Burning Man site that might possibly run astray of a copyright.

The layout was quite logical. Radial streets followed the pattern of an analog clock in fifteen minute increments. Circumference streets began with Esplanade closest to the center and then proceeded in alphabetical order outward from the center. The alphabet streets changed each year based on the chosen art theme. In 2015 they were Arcade, Ballyhoo, Carny, Donniker, Ersatz, Freak Show, Geek, Hanky Pank, Illusion, Jolly, Kook and Laffing Sal, to fit the Carnival of Mirrors theme.

Finding someone in a crowd of tens of thousands would be a daunting task ordinarily. The layout simplified efforts. Let’s say, and I’ll pick something randomly from the 2015 Unofficial Map of Black Rock, someone wanted to visit her friend at Ganesh Camp. She would simply wander over to 3:30 & G(eek).

County Road Conundrum

Portion of Washoe County Road 34 within Pershing Co.

The road leading up from Gerlach to Black Rock City, as Ken noted, was signed Washoe County Route 34. Nonetheless several miles of the road highlighted above — including the portion nearest Burning Man — strayed into Pershing County. 12MC had observed similar situations before such as New York stealing roads from its neighbors. It was nice to see another example albeit at the county level. I found a photograph that corroborated Ken’s recollection. I can’t reproduce it here because of its copyright notice although I could certainly link to it and let readers check it for themselves. Clearly this spot at the entrance to the festival was physically located in Pershing County and nonetheless signed Washoe.

Did Pershing contribute to road maintenance for the segment on its own side of the border? I don’t know. Washoe certainly had more financial resources, seeing how Reno was included within its borders. Washoe was a long, skinny county and CR34 connected its northern portions to the remainder. The road ran all the way from Gerlach up to the Oregon border, 120 miles, with only eight miles in Pershing. Additionally the Pershing portion didn’t serve anything in Pershing except for an ephemeral Black Rock City once a year. I thought Pershing might have a case for not paying for maintenance although I didn’t know that to be true.

Fly Geyser

Fly Geyser
Fly Geyser by photosbyflick on Flickr (cc)

Fly Geyser was an interesting attraction along CR34, not too far removed from Black Rock City. Geothermal activity created the wild design and coloration. However, it wasn’t natural. People exploring for geothermal energy sources failed to plug the well either intentionally or accidentally. Hot water continued to spew to the surface, creating a geyser cone from dissolved minerals. The attraction can be seen from the road although the site isn’t open to the public anymore (map). It looked like something that would fit within Burning Man itself.


Recent Freedom of Information Act requests confirmed that Federal Bureau of Investigation agents conducted surveillance on Burning Man for the last several years. Apparently they’ve tested some of their new toys there along with placing undercover agents amongst the guests to watch the happenings. Next year Ken can play “guess the FBI agent” as he wanders across the playa. Is it the lady meditating in the yurt or the dude twirling fire batons? Inquiring minds want to know.

Equally odd, think about it from the perspective of the FBI agents who get paid to attend Burning Man and blend in with the crowd. I bet they have a lot of volunteers.

Eric Henn Murals

On November 8, 2015 · 3 Comments

A couple of articles featured Circleville, Ohio earlier this year, Square the Circle and Circleville Survived. I’d honed in on this otherwise nondescript town because anything with a circle was fair game for Twelve Mile Circle, and I actually discovered a few fascinating tidbits, confirming once again that geo-oddities existed everywhere. One such item included a remarkable trompe l’oeil mural of a nostalgic old-timey scene of what the town may have looked like a century ago. It had been commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Circleville’s Pumpkin Show

Circleville  Ohio downtown Mural
Circleville Ohio downtown Mural by excelglen, on Flickr (cc)

The artist was Eric Henn of Eric Henn Murals, and a Circleville native. I’d wanted to post an article about other Eric Henn artworks right away. That wouldn’t have been unprecedented, either. I’ve featured other artists of outdoor wonders such as The Visual Genius of Dave Oswald. Unfortunately, at the time, I couldn’t find enough photographs with the proper Creative Commons licensing to display them here. An article about artwork without images would have been a problem so I set the idea aside, revisited it from time-to-time, and just recently found enough examples to continue.

The Eric Henn portfolio focused on outdoor structures including buildings, petroleum storage tanks and water towers. I managed to find a representative sample and some additional background information for a few that piqued my interests.


Brick Arches Mural - Franklin, Ohio
Brick Arches Mural – Franklin, Ohio by J. Stephen Conn on Flickr (cc)

About 90 miles west of Circleville, in Franklin, Ohio, stood a great concentration of Eric Henn murals. Local residents were justifiably proud of them too, as noted by the local Convention & Visitors Bureau:

City of Murals Tour. Take a self-guided walking tour around the city of Franklin, Ohio for a day and you’ll understand why it’s called the "City of Murals." Ten beautiful murals depicting different scenes throughout the history of the city can be found all around town. The murals, most found on the exterior of buildings, were painted by nationally known local muralist Eric Henn, and include the only Ohio Bicentennial mural in the state that is not on a barn.

Apparently Mr. Henn relocated from Circleville to Franklin at some point in his life and went about creating murals in his new home town. The image I selected on the Huntington Bank Building (map and Street View) won some type of National Municipal Mural Award although I couldn’t find further information about it. Nontraditional outdoor artwork like this had an issue, however. Harsh weather will take a toll eventually and some of the Franklin murals were a little worse for wear although restoration efforts were underway.

Petroleum Tanks

Savannah Globe
Savannah Globe by Dizzy Girl on Flickr (cc)

It would probably be obvious to most 12MC readers that a globe mural would fascinate me the most. This portrait of earth applied to an old natural gas holding station in Savannah, Georgia replaced an earlier and less realistic version created by another artist that had fallen into disrepair (map).

Once dubbed the largest world in the world — 60 feet in diameter — the globe was operable until the 1970s. By then, a well-known part of Savannah’s geography, the globe was maintained by the gas company until the early 90s. When A to Z Coating bought the rusting structure, it asked businesses to help it get the planet back in shape. More than a year later, the time has finally come…

Eric Henn Murals was commissioned to paint the globe in its new form in 1999. A minor controversy ensued when the image included a hurricane just off of the coast of Savannah. I would have thought the controversy might have been related to the application of a potentially catastrophic storm about to slam into the city. No, apparently that wasn’t a problem. Rather the hurricane had been painted as rotating in the wrong direction, as if it were moving out to sea. A quick touch-up resolved the situation and the storm charted a course to Savannah. The storm, incidentally, can be seen quite clearly on Street View.

Water Towers

Mt. Jackson, Virginia has an apple basket water tower #latergram
Mt. Jackson, Virginia has an apple basket water tower by Andrew Wiseman on Flickr (cc)

I hate driving on Interstate 81 in Virginia — HATE it — with frequent hills that bunch up intense truck traffic. It’s probably second only to Interstate 95 on my list of evil roads to avoid unless absolutely necessary. However, I know I’m just about done with the horrible experience when I pass the apple basket water tower in Mount Jackson (map and Street View). The design made perfect sense. Apples have long been a fixture of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, with an annual Apple Blossom Festival and everything.

Originally the tower had been decorated with large vinyl stickers that started to decay after many years of exposure to the elements. Mt. Jackson hired Eric Henn Murals to replace the design with paint applied freestyle. The special paint cost $400 a gallon and was expected to last 30 years. He completed the effort in January 2015 after about three months of work. One of the local television stations had a nice video describing his efforts. Henn was also commissioned recently to restore the famous Gaffney Peachoid along Interstate 85 in South Carolina, perhaps the most iconic roadside water tower anywhere.

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