Small Change, Big Difference

On February 25, 2015 · 12 Comments

It struck me that Cheyenne (the capital city of the U.S. state of Wyoming) and Cayenne (the capital city of the French overseas department of Guyane fran├žaise) sounded remarkably similar in name. Yet, as locations go they couldn’t have been much more dissimilar even though they were separated by only a couple of letters and a slight voice inflection.

The Old West came to mind when I thought of Cheyenne.

Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo 2014-8
Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo 2014-8 by enjoiskate8, on Flickr (cc)

Cheyenne’s name derived from Native Americans of Algonquian origin that migrated across the Great Plains in the 19th Century. Today they are located in Montana (Northern Cheyenne Nation) and Oklahoma (Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes). The etymology wasn’t entirely clear. Many believed that the name came from a Dakota Sioux phrase for the Cheyenne that was adopted by incoming settlers of European descent. It also seemed like a fine name for a town when those same settlers began rolling into Wyoming in force and platted a village in 1867.

The city of Cheyenne grew and prospered enough to become the capital of Wyoming in 1890 at statehood. Nonetheless, Wyoming remained largely rural, with open countryside dotted by cattle ranches, cowboys and romantic notions along those lines.

Cayenne, on the other hand, settled as it was on coastal South America, absorbed a decidedly equatorial flavor like the fiery red hot pepper named for it.

Cayenne, Carnival 2013 (1)
Cayenne, Carnival 2013 (1) by Andrea Privitera, on Flickr (cc)

Etymologically, Cayenne derived from Guyana, a name for the larger geographic region on the northeastern edge of the continent. In turn, Guyana likely came from an indigenous term for "land of many waters." Interestingly both Cheyenne and Cayenne had their basis in indigenous New World languages although their similarity would have to be coincidental since their language families were completely different.

The Game

I turned it into a little game. I began a brief quest to see if I could discover any other geographic designations substantially similar in pattern or pronunciation while remarkably distinct in just about every other respect. I found another good one. How about Dallas, Texas and Đà Lạt, Vietnam? Those two places would seem to exhibit tremendous differences.

Pioneer Park Cattle Drive
Pioneer Park Cattle Drive by Mike Desisto, on Flickr (cc)

I returned to the cattle and cowboy theme for Dallas. Then maybe added a few oil wells, made the cattle a longhorn, threw in a dash of J.R. Ewing, and maybe some barbeque sauce along with a few more selected cultural stereotypes. Compare that with…

Linh Son Pagoda
Linh Son Pagoda by Samson_Cheong_Kok_Chun, on Flickr (cc)

… Asian culture, Buddhist temples and rice paddies. Thus, Đà Lạt was about as far away from Dallas in every manner imaginable except alphabetically so that should be a pretty high score. If I was keeping score.

That’s how the game was played.

Some Other Examples

I spent more time than I’d care to admit trying to come up with other meaningful pairs. Some were vaguely clever and some were completely absurd.

  • Giza vs. Pisa: Considerably different although they both featured iconic structures; pyramids in the first instance and a leaning tower in the latter.
  • New York vs. Newark: Residents of those respective locales would likely argue that they shouldn’t be confused, however their differences didn’t approach anything like North America vs. Asia.
  • Santiago vs. San Diego: Here my creativity began to wane. The two didn’t sound all that much alike.
  • Paris vs. Ferris: Well, that was definitely a stretch. Ferris was a town in Texas with 2,500 residents. I hardly considered that a household name so this one began to look like desperation on my part. It got worse.
  • Manila vs. Vanilla. Now I’m joking of course although there actually was a Vanilla in Pennsylvania according to GNIS (at 39.7781488°, -77.8505523°). I included this one only because I thought Manila folders were called Vanilla folders when I was a kid. In my defense those folders did seem to have the correct approximate color, kind of a milky tan/yellow like the ice cream. It took me years to figure out that I was butchering the name.

That was fun although I ran out of ideas. This is where the Twelve Mile Circle audience can get involved. Please feel free to be creative and suggest better alternatives. I wonder if there are any triple examples?

Good Fortuna

On February 22, 2015 · 0 Comments

Fortuna was the Roman goddess of prosperity and luck. That would be an excellent name for any location hoping for some of that mojo to rub off. I was aware of a Fortuna in California (map), probably the largest Fortuna in the United States. It was settled in the heart of redwood country.

Along the Avenue of the Giants
Along the Avenue of the Giants by Images by John 'K', on Flickr (cc)

I’m sure it’s very nice and I’d love to go there someday and take a drive down the Avenue of the Giants. However this Twelve Mile Circle wasn’t about that particular Fortuna. Maybe I’ll circle back to that eventually. Not today.

Another Fortuna

Rather, I became fixated on the Fortuna I’d uncovered as I investigated the intricacies of what divided Divide County in North Dakota. There sat tiny Fortuna, population 22, all alone on the Great Plains (map). Let’s ride along on a little driving tour given by some random guy on YouTube, shall we?

Hmmm… there wasn’t much there, was there? A church, a gun club, a curling club, a few houses and a senior center.

Don’t be deceived. Look below the surface and every place is a geo-oddity. I myself live in the smallest self-governing county in the United States. I’m sure your little corner of the world has its own unusual geographic distinction too. Fortuna (pronounced For-Toona) was fortunate enough to have two unusual features, one created by nature and one caused by the arbitrary placements of lines by man.

We already discussed the first condition in County Divided: the Brush Lake Closed Basin. Fortuna fell barely within the eastern edge of this endorheic basin. Sandwiched between Arctic and Atlantic watersheds, water falling in Fortuna wouldn’t flow to either ocean. Instead it drained to nearby Brush Lake just over the border in Montana where its overland journey ended, trapped in a gouge carved by ancient glaciers during the last Ice Age.

US Time Zones via Wikimedia Commons, in the Public Domain

The second feature was somewhat more esoteric. According to North Dakota State University, Fortuna had the distinction of having the latest sunset on the summer solstice for any town in the Lower 48 United States, at 10:03 p.m. That occurred because of a confluence of a couple of different situations. Fortuna happened to be located at the far western edge of the Central Time Zone. The zone had a nub in northwestern North Dakota that made Fortuna considerably farther west than almost any other place along the time zone edge.

The exception was a corner of west Texas east of El Paso, say, somewhere like Van Horne (map). It was just a little farther west than Fortuna. However there was a different factor that more than made up the difference: latitude. I put the points into a great circle mapper and found that Fortuna was about 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometres) farther north than Van Horne. Thus, with that large of a difference I think it would be safe to speculate that sunset happened later on the summer solstice in Fortuna’s corner of North Dakota than anywhere else in the Central Time Zone. I suppose I could also check the other three U.S. time zones in the Lower 48 for their westernmost extremes although I’m simply not that motivated. The Intertubes said it was true and I left it at that.

But Wait, You Also Get This

Fortuna had history. I hardly would have expected anything of historical significance in such a remote area. Yet, ironically its remoteness actually created its importance. Out-of-sight places made ideal locations for a variety of Cold War artifacts.

Fortuna Air Force Station
Fortuna Air Force Station via Wikimedia Commons, in the Public Domain

The U.S. government constructed Fortuna Air Force Station just outside of town, a radar base operating from 1952 to 1984. It was designed to track enemy aircraft and coordinate their interception should Soviets bombers have attacked the United States. The site was completely abandoned once the Cold War faded and fell away. Ghosts of North Dakota visited the old station recently and noted,

We got word that this base was to be demolished in 2013, so we set out to photograph it before it was too late… The radar dishes and domes were removed long ago, and the site has since been heavily vandalized and scavenged. The salvage rights were sold some years back and the team that did the salvage knocked holes in the walls of most of the buildings to remove boilers and scrap metal.

The station may soon become just another patch on the plains before too long, however Veterans of the 780th AC&W Radar Squadron still keep in touch.

What does the future hold for the town of Fortuna? Perhaps something fortunate. This quadrant of North Dakota has boomed in recent years because of oil discoveries in the Bakken formation. The population of Divide County increased by more than 10% between 2010 and 2013 (the latest figures available) after decades of decline.

County Divided

On February 18, 2015 · 0 Comments

At the far northwestern corner of North Dakota, right up next to Canada and Montana sits a county with a curious name, Divide. It looked somewhat rectangular like many other counties on the sparsely-populated Great Plains where few natural features could take the place of arbitrary straight lines.

Canadian-US Boundary
Canadian-US Boundary by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr (cc)

I’d encountered Divide County vicariously one time before without even realizing it as I researched infrequent border crossings between the United States and Canada a couple of years ago. The Noonan border station in Divide County was so lonely and isolated that it had only a single pedestrian crossing during 2011 (the most current data available at the time), although it also had motor vehicle crossings of course. This photo was actually another nearby crossing in Divide — I couldn’t fine one of Noonan — although notice the obelisk marker placed by the International Boundary Commission. I don’t know where I’m going with that. I simply liked the image and it probably looked a lot like the one at Noonan so feel free to use your imagination.

The international border probably wasn’t the divide that inspired a county’s name however, in spite of modern theories like that described by Dakota Datebook in 2007:

This time a name for the new county would be determined through a contest. The winning entry came from George Gilmore, a Williston attorney. Gilmore proposed the name Divide County. The Northern Continental Divide runs through the region. The county divides the United States from Canada. It divides North Dakota from Montana. And most importantly, the new county was a product of its division.

Divide County Courthouse by jeremiah.andrick, on Flickr (cc)

The part about the contest was true enough. Both Divide County and the Town of Crosby (the seat of county government) confirmed the story. It happened in 1910. Homesteaders were just then migrating into the area. There were just enough people to warrant a new county, thus dividing Divide from larger Williams County. The contest commenced, Gilmore won $5 for his efforts, and the name stuck. The preponderance of sources I consulted mentioned two divisions as the basis for the name, the divide from Williams County, and the continental divide. The notion of state and international borders inspiring a name were apparently modern contrivances.

Divide County North Dakota
Divide County North Dakota
Created Using USGS’s National Map Viewer

The continental divide fascinated me more in this instance so I went into the National Map Viewer and selected the watershed layer. Notice the dark purple line that marked the continental divide. Many people see "continental divide" and think reflexively of the Great Divide that separated west from east, the Pacific drainage area from the Gulf of Mexico. This wasn’t that divide. Rather this was the Laurentian Divide or the Northern Divide that separated water bound for Hudson Bay from that heading down towards the Gulf of Mexico.

Divide County’s northeastern quadrant and its county seat at Crosby fell within the Souris River watershed, which flowed into the Assiniboine River River then to the Red River of the North into Lake Winnipeg, then to the Nelson River and finally into Hudson Bay. Divide’s southeastern quadrant flowed a long distance too albeit with a more familiar set of names, from local tributaries to the Missouri River to the Mississippi River, and then to the Gulf of Mexico.

What about that curious notation on the map? The Brush Lake Closed Basin? Indeed, the western part of Divide County flowed just a few miles farther west and barely crossed the border into Montana before stopping at Brush Lake where it remained. A good 20% of Divide wasn’t part of either side of the continental divide, it fell within an endorheic basin created at the tail-end of the last Ice Age as glaciers gouged the plains.

The buried outwash gravels and the deeper river terrace gravels are very porous and support a controlled groundwater irrigation area, as well as supplying Brush Lake with a continuous flow of water through large springs in the lake. Being in a closed basin, summer evaporation serves as a pump to keep groundwater flowing into the lake. And since evaporation only takes pure water out, the minerals leached from the glacial gravels remain dissolved in the lake and accumulate, giving the lake its distinct color.

Brush Lake, Montana

Maybe we should track down Gilmore’s heirs and ask for the $5 back?

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