Transporting a participant through a grueling six day, six state race series created a huge benefit for a geo-geek such as myself, the inherent need to cover a lot of territory. I’d driven through parts of the target area previously on a cross-country trip many years ago. I’d completed the typical tourist trek through Badlands, Mount Rushmore and Devils Tower on an Interstate 90 flyby in 1992. I didn’t have much of a chance to stop and linger during that long ago road trip. This time it would be different. I’d poke into completely obscure corners as dictated by race sites.
The series embodied two underlying premises, running and geography. The race director had to align six distinct events as close as possible to the confluence of multiple state borders to minimize travel distances, generating unusual selections removed from tourist trails. It served the needs of a very small and elite target audience; marathoners (and half-marathoners) who wished to complete a race in each of 50 US states. I held only one goal in common — the geographic portion — and that was enough. I was going to grab some rare spots on the map and leave the extreme athletic achievements to others.
We crossed a lot of state borders. Our efforts focused on passing between various small towns near state boundaries where each race would take place the following morning. Routes generally strayed away from Interstate highways although I did enjoy driving a completely legal 80 miles per hour (130 km/hr) briefly on I-90 as we left Wyoming.
I began to notice something peculiar on the lightly-traveled back country byways of the High Plains. There always seemed to be a pull-out by the side of the road at each state border where one could safely park a vehicle and walk to the boundary sign to snap a photograph. It seemed that highway officials recognized the precious few tourist attractions and went out of their way to turn anything noteworthy into a photo op. The next thing I knew, and without really trying, I’d compiled a collection of state border signs for Nebraska (above), Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota. The Nebraska sign (map) showed Chimney Rock which I will talk about in a future installment. I didn’t stop for Colorado. I’m not sure why, I think I was getting tired of the game by then.
I completed a personally memorable state milestone during the trip that I’d been chasing for awhile. I’d long since visited all 50 US states, completing that journey more than a dozen years ago. However a handful of those crossings involved lackluster efforts, barely placing a toe on the other side of the border. My Montana "visit" had been particularly egregious, a thirty second effort when I visited Yellowstone National Park on the aforementioned cross-country trip so many years ago. One of the races took place in Baker, Montana so I spent the night there. I also spent a night in South Dakota two days later, whereas previously I’d only driven across the state without stopping. With those two events, I could now say I’d stayed at least one full night in every state.
Amidon, North Dakota (map)
Notwithstanding, counties were the real stars of the trip as I colored a slew of hard-to-reach spaces on my county counting map. Our route zigged and zagged in counterintuitive directions as I steered across as many county borders as possible while eliminating doughnut holes. I realized I might not travel this way again anytime soon. This might be my only chance. I drew a nice, solid rectangle of captured counties on the eastern side of Wyoming and Montana, and the western side of North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, tallying 28 new counties in the process. My total stood at 1,301 at the end of the journey, 41.1% of counties in the United States.
As an example, the first race was held in Baker, Montana and the second race in Bowman, North Dakota. Here was the path I blazed between them.
Logic would have dictated an easy 45 minute straight-line drive to the east. Instead I drove three sides of a square for two and a half hours, capturing four new counties I would have missed otherwise: Wibaux, MT; Golden Valley, ND; Billings, ND and Stark, ND. Plus I got to visit the scenic badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. See how it worked?
That wasn’t even the most ridiculously contrived route, either. I think that honor went to day five when I drove between Chadron, Nebraska and the final race in Sterling, Colorado.
That little exercise converted a trip that should have lasted less than three hours into something extending nearly four and a half hours. However, I added four Nebraska counties that would have created a large doughnut hole otherwise: Sioux; Scotts Bluff; Banner and Kimball. The out-and-back portion also allowed me to visit Chimney Rock National Historic Site before returning to Scotts Bluff National Monument where I could cross additional county lines.
I also recorded several minor county milestone in the process.
- Counties, Plural. I have now been to counties — plural — in each of the 50 states. The fewest was Hawaii with two of five counties visited. I’m in the double digits for most states.
- Smallest of the Smallest: Wyoming had the fewest residents of any state during the 2010 Census, with a population of 563 thousand. Niobrara County had the fewest residents in Wyoming, with 2,484 people. Not only did I visit Niobrara, I stayed overnight in its county seat, Lusk. Granted there were counties in other states with smaller populations (e.g., Loving County, Texas with 82 residents). Still, I thought it was a memorable triviality to be in the least populated county in the least populated state.
- A Very Small Seat: We passed a curious sign as we drove south from the North Dakota badlands to the next race in Bowman, ND. Diminutive Amidon (map) perched along US Route 85 proclaimed itself to be the "Nation’s Smallest County Seat." Oh, and also North Dakota’s "Longest Running County Fair." I had to stop for a photo. Later I checked the claim. Wikipedia said Amidon was the smallest seat until 2010 when it was passed by Brewster, Nebraska population 17. Being the 2nd smallest seat didn’t bring the same glory, I guess, although the sign remained. At least Amidon still had the fair
Some 12MC readers recommended a visit to Carhenge since it would have fallen on the most direct route. I didn’t make it. Quite simply, county counting provided an explanation. Something had to give. I couldn’t leave any doughnut holes behind so Carhenge fell off the schedule.
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
I returned from my much-anticipated Center of the Nation journey about a week ago. Those readers who followed the 12MC Twitter account already received a steady dose of foreshadowing about this event, a final installment of my 2015 Twelve Mile Circle "season of travel." I took a lot of great trips over the last several months. It will be nice to stay at home for awhile before as I plan the next set of adventures.
Early Morning Race in Bowman, North Dakota (map)
I faced a bit of a quandary. The entire premise of this adventure focused on my efforts to chauffeur a participant in Mainly Marathon’s Center of the Nation race series from site to site. There would be six running races (Marathon, Half-Marathon or 5K options; my participant chose Half-Marathon) in each of six states in six days; September 14-19. I’d spent very little time in the selected remote corners of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado so I was on-board with the concept immediately. I could pad my County Counting score while hopefully scrounging a handful of fascinating sites scattered amongst the desolate, empty terrain.
Traveling wasn’t the issue. Rather, I’d promised to avoid any further Center of Anything articles after I posted Centre of Australia way back in 2009. At that time I noted at least five major calculations plus several minor variations that could be used to determine the center, all producing different values. I threw my hands in the air and said, "any claims to being the centre of anything on a landmass would be somewhat bogus, more entertainment than science." I continue to stand by that statement. The United States could have a huge number of centers, one for each of the myriad mathematical models for the Lower 48 States and then again for the 48 States plus Alaska and Hawaii. Yikes!
Yet the whole inspiration for the races focused on their proximity to one of several supposed Centers. I had no choice but to revisit that topic.
You thought six races in six states in six days was crazy? Check out this climber I photographed scaling Devils Tower in Wyoming (map). We spotted several climbers, tiny little dots slowly working their way up the massive cylinder. The complete audacity of their extreme physical efforts could only be fully appreciated at the other end of a telephoto lens. I couldn’t even imagine how something so steep could be scaled.
Now back to the rest of the article…
The Fake Center
South Dakota’s race in Belle Fourche (pronounced FOOSH as I quickly learned) incorporated the Center of the Nation marker within its course, a nice touch I thought (map). The course began uphill at the Visitor Center, ran past the Center of the Nation marker amid flags from every state, and finally continued onward towards a path along the town’s Riverwalk.
It was clear that the central marker in Belle Fourche had been based upon the inclusion of all 50 US States — the center for the 48 contiguous states fell farther south and east in Kansas — and I understood the method of calculation thanks to the Center for Land Use Interpretation.
This was determined as the point at which an arc connecting the geographic center of the 49 states and the geographic center of Hawaii would balance. This point was established on the admittance of Hawaii into the Union, in 1959…
The spot had been determined and recognized by the U.S. National Geodetic Survey so it was as good as any Center of the Nation, and maybe better than most. However I’ve also engaged in a bit of deception. The actual spot wasn’t located in that attractive park along the gentle river flowing through Belle Fourche. As someone quoted in a 2008 New York Times article, "In the Middle of Nowhere, a Nation’s Center" explained, "We’re not pretending to be the actual center… We’re providing a convenience."
I’d agree, it was convenient.
The Real Center
I felt a natural compulsion to visit the real center, or at least the real center as defined by one of several possible calculations that also happened to included Alaska and Hawaii. It could be found about 20 miles north of Belle Fourche in a farmer’s field, with the last several miles down a dusty gravel road (map). I noticed a pickup truck parked at a pullout as I approached. I hadn’t seen another vehicle since I’d left the highway, and amazingly someone else happened to be visiting that obscure marker at the same time. I think we both displayed the same dumbstruck look, of awed fascination that somehow we weren’t alone in our pursuit of geo-oddities.
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
Loyal reader Cary suggested an article idea that built upon a previous topic, Upstart Eclipses Namesake. In that previous posting I offered "new" places that grew more prominent than their original namesakes. Examples I proposed included New Zealand (vs. Zealand), New South Wales (vs. South Wales) and others. There were several comments and a lively discussion — for instance the relative prominence of New Jersey and Jersey seemed to depend upon the side of the Atlantic of one’s abode — and it was all good fun.
Cary’s proposal took these efforts in a different direction, literally. Instead of new places, what if we looked at directional places instead? For example, suppose there was a town of Podunk and later a new settlement grew just to its north, and people lacking originality or hoping to ride Podunk’s coattails decided to call it North Podunk. Then suppose, over time North Podunk continued to grow until it eventually became significantly larger than Podunk. Cary was even kind enough to provide examples. I’m going to simply plagiarize Cary’s ideas in a callous manner, wrap a little text around them and call it a day. I like articles where someone else provides the hard part and I get to take a small break. Keep those ideas and suggestions coming!
Palm Beach vs. West, North and South Palm Beach, Florida
Palm Beach – "Whitehall" (Flagler Mansion) by Roger W on Flickr (cc)
Palm Beach, that ritzy settlement on a sandy stretch of barrier island on the Atlantic side of south Florida, traced its founding back to the efforts of Henry Flagler. He was one of those Gilded Age gazillionaires at the tail end of the Nineteenth Century with abundant money to burn. Anyone familiar with Florida history should recognize the Flagler name. It’s everywhere. He laid the Florida East Coast Railway along the length of the state and plopped a string of luxury hotels down the tracks to Key West. He, maybe more than anyone else should be credited with opening Florida to mass tourism and settlement. Palm Beach was a crown jewel, the place he chose to build his winter mansion Whitehall in 1902 (map).
The opulence and wealth of Palm Beach attracted his well-heeled peers, however supply-and-demand with geography created limitations. There was only so much land available on a thin strip of barrier island. Parcels became obscenely expensive as wealthy industrialists seized the best spots for competing displays of extravagance. Those of lesser means built nearby in other directions, principally west across a narrow channel on the mainland. They still wanted to grasp a bit of the "exclusivity" of the Palm Beach brand, however. Thus grew additional towns of West Palm Beach, North Palm Beach and South Palm Beach. West Palm Beach has ten times more residents (about a hundred thousand) than Palm Beach (a little less than ten thousand). North Palm Beach is slightly larger (about twelve thousand). Only South Palm Beach has fewer residents (about fifteen hundred).
Certainly West Palm Beach overshadowed Palm Beach by population. However Palm Beach could still take some consolation. It’s most recent median annual family income was $137,867 while West Palm Beach was only $42,074.
Orange vs. West, East and South Orange, New Jersey
East Orange Station by Adam Moss on Flickr (cc)
The story of "The Oranges" — and that’s how the collection of New Jersey’s orange-named places are often grouped — was quite a bit different. Why Orange? Like many places named Orange it referred to William III of England, a.k.a. William of Orange. A group of breakaway Puritans left the New Haven Colony in Connecticut in 1666 and settled in lands that would later become Newark and the Oranges (map). According to the City of Orange Township, the area composing the Oranges served as an agricultural portion of Newark. The interests of the two began to diverge by the end of the Eighteenth Century, with Orange finally detaching in 1806. Internal rifts appeared within Orange over the next few decades and it too split not long after earning town status in 1860.
… Orange was permitted to establish fire, police, street and other town departments. On March 13, 1860, Dr. William Pierson was elected as the first Mayor of the Town of Orange. Almost immediately, the new town began fragmenting into smaller independent communities primarily because of local disputes about the costs of establishing the new departments. The other areas separated from the Town of Orange…
That resulted in four Oranges: Orange, West Orange, East Orange and South Orange. Today Orange has about thirty-thousand residents, West Orange has about forty-five thousand, East Orange has about sixty-five thousand and South Orange has about fifteen thousand. Thus, two of the three directional Oranges grew larger than Orange.
Demographically the Oranges are starkly divided.
Orange and East Orange are relatively urban and working-class, while South Orange and West Orange remain affluent suburban enclaves. In addition, the residents of Orange and East Orange are predominantly African American (75.1% and 89.5%, respectively), while those of South Orange and West Orange are predominantly white.
Battleford vs. North Battleford, Saskatchewan
Downtown North Battleford by waferboard on Flickr (cc)
Battleford in Saskatchewan provided another interesting tale. First I wondered about its name. Was there really a battle on a ford or was it simply some Englishman’s surname that transposed to the colonies and found its way to the Canadian prairie? Battleford (map) sat near the confluence of the North Saskatchewan and Battle Rivers, and a ford actually existed there. That solved part of the mystery. Also the "battle" wasn’t a single clash, rather it reflected an ongoing series of conflicts between Cree and Blackfoot tribes within the larger geographic footprint. Learning that, I felt comfortable and could move on with my investigation.
Poor Battleford. It should have risen to such greater prominence. Things began well at its founding in 1875 and soon it became the capital of the North-West Territories. Then came the railroad. Originally the Canadian Pacific Railway would have passed directly through Battleford, cementing its future.
But in 1881 the community’s destiny was altered with the federal government’s abrupt decision to alter the route of the trans-continental railway to cross the southern plains: as a consequence, the territorial capital was officially transferred to Regina in 1883…
Then, to add insult to injury, the Canadian Northern Railway came along in 1905 and built a line to Edmonton, placing its route on the other side of the river from Battleford. Naturally a new settlement migrated there and became North Battleford, soon eclipsing the original Battleford. Current Battleford has about five thousand residents compared to North Battleford with at about fifteen thousand. Battleford could have been Saskatchewan’s capital. Instead it became North Battleford’s smaller cousin.
Cary offered several other examples although I got tired of typing:
- North Richland Hills vs. Richland Hills in Texas
- North Tonawanda vs. Tonawanda in New York
- West Covina vs. Covina in California
- West Babylon vs. Babylon in New York
I’m sure the 12MC audience can find others. Thanks Cary!