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 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
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?
The second part of my quick southern trip moved west. We began in St. Augustine, Florida a couple of days earlier and now it was time to move on to family on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. This transformed into an exercise in county counting. My completion map of Florida counties changed dramatically for the better as we proceeded farther west along Interstate 10.
Florida Counties Visited, produced using Mob Rule
I grabbed an entire northern tier of Florida counties crossed by I-10, capturing new ones from Baker to Okaloosa. This added a dozen to my list: Baker, Columbia Suwannee, Madison, Jefferson, Leon, Gadsden, Jackson, Washington, Holmes, Walton and Okaloosa. I’d also visited one additional Florida county a couple of days earlier. I got out of bed at 5 a.m. one morning and snagged Clay County since it was only about a thirty minute round-trip. I returned to the hotel before anyone else in the family even woke up. They were never the wiser. That made the complete collection of new counties a nice Lucky 13 for the trip.
The northern tier of Florida felt unlike any of my earlier Florida experiences. It was a lot more hilly than I expected; the hills weren’t large although the terrain had a definite roll. Also pine trees dominated the landscape instead of palm trees, and of course there were no ocean views. Few people lived along the route except for those near Tallahassee and Pensacola. I put the car on cruise control and piled on the miles. It took most of a day just to get out of Florida before hitting Alabama briefly and then crossing into Mississippi.
I’ve been to Southern Mississippi many times. The challenge of writing this article would be avoiding places I’ve discussed before, or at least finding a new angle.
John C. Stennis Space Center
Stennis Space Center
Anyone traveling through Mississippi on I-10 will drive right through the buffer zone of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) John C. Stennis Space Center. NASA designated 125,000 acres (195 square miles / 500 square kilometres) around the Center as a noise abatement area to dampen the deafening sounds of rocket engine testing. Private citizens still own land there and can have access to it although they cannot build homes upon it. The base itself is considerably smaller, 13,500 acres (21 mi2 / 55 km2). That space is tightly controlled and requires access through guarded gates.
I’ve watched the security evolve over the years. Anyone could drive onto the base and visit the StenniSphere, NASA’s visitor center, without any special permission prior to September 11, 2001. Of course the world changed after 9-11. NASA moved its visitor staging area to a nearby rest stop adjacent to Interstate 10. From there, tourists caught a shuttle bus which brought them onto the base and unloaded them at the StenniSphere. I guess that wasn’t secure enough or maybe it was simply an interim measure. Now, probably within the last few months, NASA opened a new visitor center next to the rest stop. It was completely outside of the base in a public area that they’ve named the INFINITY Science Center (map). Tourists can still hop on a shuttle bus for a driving tour of the large rocket testing platforms although they don’t have quite the level of freedom to roam around as before.
I’ve never been lucky enough to visit Stennis during an engine test. Testing is a bit random and isn’t announced ahead of time for security reasons. Nonetheless, the guides said any shuttle buses driving past the platforms at the right moment will stop at a safe spot to enjoy the show. Maybe next time.
Down the road a bit in Louisiana, we stopped at the Insta-Gator Ranch & Hatchery near Abita Springs (map). I’d never been there before so that was a new experience. They raise alligators commercially to be turned into handbags, wallets, boots, belts and other accessories. The entire industry was overseen by the State of Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Alligator Program.
Since the inception of the Department’s program in 1972, over 810,000 wild alligators have been harvested, over 6.5 million alligator eggs have been collected, and over 3.5 million farm raised alligators have been sold bringing in millions of dollars of revenue to landowners, trappers and farmers.
Alligators were an endangered species in Louisiana prior to the program. The population rebounded dramatically. Each commercial rancher continues to return a certain percentage of its adult alligators to the wild as a condition of the program. Four year old alligators are large enough to avoid predation so they have a very high survival rate, leading to more eggs and more alligators. Eggs are laid only once per year and they hatch in late August-ish. Ranchers from Insta-Gator fly ultralight aircraft over the marshes and swamps to spot the nests, mark them with a flag, and return to collect eggs. They then raise hatchlings to adulthood, some destined to become handbags and some destined for freedom. I’ll offer some advise for any alligators being raised commercially: get a nick or scar on your belly because that gives you an imperfection and you’ll probably be freed. Nobody wants a handbag with a blemish.
The ranch had several alligators much older and larger than the rest. Those were used for movies, television and advertisements. It burst my bubble just a bit when I learned that many of those "reality" TV shows set in swamps and bayous use farm-raised gators. The scenes are staged.
Laurel & Hardy
Laurel and Hardy in Hattiesburg, Mississippi
via Google Street View, July 2014
This one is a bit of a non sequitur. Does anyone remember back in 2013 when I featured intersecting streets that formed the names of Comedy Duos? Like, someone in
Washington , Kansas lives at the corner of Abbot & Costello? It’s not that important so don’t worry about it if you don’t.
Anyway, I spotted this road sign in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and didn’t have enough time to pull out my camera so I’ve borrowed a Google Street View image. It wasn’t quite a crossroads like in the earlier article. Laurel, in this case, was a nearby town. Hardy was one of the primary streets in Hattiesburg; it went directly past the University of Southern Mississippi. I still laughed a little when I saw the unintentional reference to Laurel & Hardy.
I examined a stack of family files online and I learned that a distant relative lived in Houston, Texas. That wasn’t completely unexpected because I’ve traced numerous family members back through there. However the records didn’t make sense as I read through them. Geographic identifiers seemed unfamiliar and out of place. I slowly realized that they referenced Houston County, not the City of Houston. Wouldn’t it make sense for Houston, the city, to actually reside within Houston County? Yes it would although that wasn’t the case. The City of Houston fell more than a hundred miles away in Harris County.
There were a handful of other instances where counties and major cities that shared their names in the same state failed to overlap. I examined the top 100 cities by population in the United States and found six occurrences, Houston included. The cities had more inhabitants than the same-named counties in every example, usually considerably larger and sometimes ridiculously larger. Invariably the counties were prefaced by "not to be confused with…" when described by sources, such as in "Houston County, not to be confused with Houston."
I attempted to rank the six examples based on two factors, the percentage difference in their respective populations and the physical distance that separated them. Then I focused my attention on the counties because they were so much more obscure than the cities. Each one had at least a single bit of interesting trivia.
Wichita County, Kansas
Grain Elevator by Eric Crowley, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Wichita County (map) had a population of 0.5% of the City of Wichita, and was located 262 miles (422 kilometres) away. That was by far the biggest difference in population and distance. Wichita won.
Kansas was notably violent in the Nineteenth Century along a lawless frontier. Fights often broke out in the western counties as they were being drawn, settled, and placed within a governance structure. Money could be made or lost based on a location where a county seat might or might not be established. The dispute in Wichita County was called the "Bloodiest of Them All." A history written as part of a Depression-era project of the Works Progress Administration, Kansas, a Guide to the Sunflower State, described the situation:
With the organization of Wichita County in 1886, the two towns became bitter rivals for the county seat. As usual, both factions resorted to extralegal measures. Gunmen were imported "to preserve order." From Dodge City the Coronado partisans brought a former sheriff while Leoti sent to wild and wooly Wallace for a crew of "fun-loving" cowboys who terrorized all law-abiding citizens… On the eve of the county seat election Coulter and six or seven other young men from Leoti loaded a case of beer into a rig and drove over to the rival town… A burst of gunfire precipitated a pitched battle in the town’s main street.
Perhaps that’s one reason why Wichita County still prohibits the sale of alcohol by the drink even though Kansas amended its Constitution to allow that about thirty years ago.
Houston County, Texas
Houston County — First County Created Under Republic of Texas, June 12th 1837 by bk1bennett, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Houston came in second place in my analysis so let’s go ahead and talk about it. Houston County (map) had a population of 1% of the City of Houston, and was located 116 miles (187 kilometres) away.
The ever-useful Handbook of Texas became indispensable once again. It noted that Houston was the first county created in the brand-new Republic of Texas in 1837. Sam Houston, President of Texas, signed the order. He won the war so he could name anything after himself, and he did. The City of Houston was founded in the same year, obviously also named for Sam Houston. The city did better, about a hundred times better at least by population.
Austin County, Texas
Old Austin County Jail, Bellville, Texas by Patrick Feller, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Texas had too few heroes from the Revolution for its very large geographic footprint, it seemed, and only so many names to share. I found a similar situation for Stephen F. Austin. Austin County (map) had a population of 3% of the City of Austin, and was located 114 miles (183 kilometres) away. The area that became the County of Austin played an important role during the years immediately prior to Texas forming into a republic in 1836. Although Washington-on-the-Brazos became the initial capital of an independent Texas upon the establishment of its constitution (as 12MC described in One Star Many Centers), San Felipe had served that same purpose as the provisional capital immediately prior to and during the revolution. San Felipe (map) was the focal point of the original Stephen F. Austin colony and it was located in what later became Austin County.
Lincoln County, Nebraska
Golden Spike Tower and Visitors Center, North Platte, Nebraska by David Becker, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Lincoln County (map) had a population of 13% of the City of Lincoln, and was located 226 miles (364 kilometres) away. It had a fairly sizable town — North Platte — so that pushed it farther down on the list. North Platte was noted for the world’s largest rail yard at Bailey Yard. Lincoln County displayed a justifiable sense of pride in its monstrous rail yard and erected the Golden Spike Tower, "an eight-story building which overlooks the expansive railroad staging area" (map). This must be nirvana for rail fans.
Boise County, Idaho
Horseshoe Bend Idaho by Richard Bauer, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Boise County (map) had a population of 3% of the City of Boise, and was located 27 miles (43 kilometres) away. The downfall of Boise County in my calculations was that it practically abutted the City of Boise, pushing it way down on the list. Boise county had two major towns, Idaho City and Horseshoe Bend. I used the term "major" loosely as neither had more than a few hundred residents. Nonetheless the fine citizens of Horseshoe Bend, being the larger of the two, attempted to grab the county seat of government by wrestling it away from Idaho City. They made at least two recent attempts, in 1974 and in 2004. However, unlike their counterparts in Kansas a century ago, their weapon of choice was a petition for referendum rather than a gang of drunken cowboys with guns. Their attempts failed. They might have had been more successful with drunken cowboys.
Richmond County, Virginia
Richmond County Courthouses by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Richmond County (map) had a population of 4% of the City of Richmond, and was located 52 miles (84 kilometres) away. Interestingly, the two Richmond places in Virginia represented different things. Richmond County, formed in 1692, derived its name from Charles Lennox, 1st Duke of Richmond. The City of Richmond, founded in 1737, was named for the town of Richmond in the southwestern part of London, England. I’m sure if I tried hard enough I could probably connect those two Richmonds together somewhere back in English history. I took a basic glance and followed threads back from both directions and grew tired of the task. Someone with more patience than I should feel free to give it a go.
I’ll mention two other possibilities that I discovered and discounted: Baltimore City vs. Baltimore County in Maryland and St. Louis City vs. St. Louis County in Missouri. Those were both instances where a city split from a county and became an independent entity. Those didn’t feel like the same situation presented elsewhere.