Biggest Unvisited

On October 22, 2017 · 5 Comments

A couple of years ago I wrote about my Airport Visits. At that time I came oh-so-close to capturing Love Field in Dallas, Texas. A weather delay and a change of route dashed that achievement. However a work trip to Dallas last week finally righted that wrong. I flew down there on Southwest Airlines and naturally landed at and later departed from Love Field. It didn’t change anything in the earlier article, I figured. Houston’s Hobby Airport remained the largest airport in the United States I’d yet to use. Although something did change, something subtle.

Since that last article, Love Field surpassed Hobby in passenger counts. Unbeknownst to me, Love Field became my largest unvisited airport for awhile, although my recent visit corrected the situation. I’ve now traveled through the top 32 largest airports in the U.S., with Hobby dropping one spot to 33rd. It remained unvisited.

Houston’s Hobby Airport


Old Terminal at Hobby Airport
Old Terminal at Hobby Airport. Photo by BFS Man on Flickr (cc)

Actually, I’m not sure I will ever set foot in Hobby (map). I used to have a reason to go to Houston when family lived nearby. Unfortunately my grandmother passed away a few years ago at the age of 102. Then remaining family members moved to New Mexico for their retirement years. I just don’t see any trips near Houston on the horizon. So progress on this list will probably end. Plus, even if I did return, I’d likely use the much larger George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Southwest Airlines still uses Hobby extensively although most others focus on the other one.

Hobby began as Houston’s original commercial airport in the 1920’s albeit with a different name and under private ownership. It didn’t become Hobby until the city purchased it in the 1930’s. William P. Hobby, its namesake, had connections both to Texas and to Houston. He served as Governor of Texas in 1917 before his fortieth birthday. Afterwards, I guess because he felt he hadn’t accomplished enough already, he became publisher of the Houston Post newspaper. Naming the local airport for him seemed fitting.


Fresno County, California


The Best Little City in the USA, Plate 3
The Best Little City in the USA. Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr (cc)

That got me thinking about some of the other largest places in the United States I’d never visited. I’ve done a lot of county counting over the years. The total stood at 1,428 as of the time I wrote this, or 45.5% of counties available. However, I’d never considered the largest of the remaining unvisited. I had to actually create a spreadsheet to figure it out. When I sorted the results I learned the answer: Fresno County, California. More than 900 thousand people resided in the county so I’d missed a pretty significant place.

In my defense, there didn’t appear to be a lot of reasons to target Fresno. Sure, a lot of people lived there although it seemed to lack specific attractions unless agriculture in California’s Central Valley seemed exciting. People who are more familiar with the area are free to correct me. I’m sure it’s a nice place and I hate to give it short shrift.

It did have an attraction of a sort, I supposed. As Historic Fresno reported,

The Fresno Sanitary Landfill is the oldest "true" sanitary landfill in the United States, and the oldest compartmentalized municipal landfill in the western United States… [it] is a National Historic Landmark as well as in the National Register of Historic Places.

Someday I’m sure I’ll find myself in the area and of course I’ll capture Fresno. I might just check out the Historic Landfill too (map).


Oklahoma City, Oklahoma


Oklahoma City National Memorial
Oklahoma City National Memorial. Photo by Phil Roeder on Flickr (cc)

The largest unvisited city in the United States on my list was Oklahoma City (map). I liked this place because of the whole nesting of Oklahoma City in Oklahoma County in the state of Oklahoma. It didn’t exist until 1889 when the big "Land Run" commenced and it blossomed overnight. The city grew so quickly that it became the state capital in 1907. Today about 600 thousand people live there.

I’m trying to convince my family that we should go there for our family vacation next summer. I select a different state each year and I’ve already made my initial pitch for Oklahoma. It didn’t generate a lot of interest. I don’t know why. I found a couple of zoos for my older son and some military museums for my younger son. For my wife I compiled a list of breweries and brewpubs I knew she’d enjoy. Still, well, we’ll just have to see. Nobody else suggested a state so I might just win this one by default. I believe we have some Twelve Mile Circle readers from Oklahoma City. Please give me a few good reasons to visit and help me make my case. I think the family would enjoy it.

Make Tracks Through Blair

On October 15, 2017 · 1 Comments

Our first day in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania went so well that I wondered how I would top it. Its neighbor, Blair County gave it a good run for the money though. I came up with a really good one-day itinerary too, all aligned with a railroad theme. On top of that it followed a leisurely route, covering just thirty miles (fifty kilometres) in its entirety.

I warned the kids they’d probably get tired of trains by the end of the day although they seemed to enjoy it. Well, not the last stop. We dropped them off at the hotel before that one.

Allegheny Portage Railroad


Allegheny Portage Railroad
Allegheny Portage Railroad

I talked enough about the Allegheny Portage Railroad recently so I’ll just summarize things briefly. Canals on opposing sides of the Allegheny Mountains faced a dilemma. Quite simply, water didn’t flow uphill. Entrepreneurs developed an inventive solution though. They loaded canal boats onto rail cars and tugged them up and over the hills with pulleys similar to tow ropes found on modern ski slopes (map). Primitive railroad engines (photo) pulled the loaded cars between inclines. This inventive portage across the gap measured nearly 37 miles (60 km) between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown.

The Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site preserved the remains of Incline 6, at the system’s elevation summit right on the Eastern Continental Divide. This included a reconstruction of an Engine House that powered a rope (later a wire) on a loop. Cars attached to the rope so they could travel uphill or downhill depending on where they were heading.

Then we walked down a wide grassy path along where the railroad once ran. This led down to the Skew Arch Bridge (photo). Here, the Huntington, Cambria and Indiana Turnpike used to cross above the railroad. Teamsters pulling wagons on the turnpike had trouble making 90 degree turns so builders placed a bridge at an oblique angle. That skew provided the bridge’s name.

Back uphill, we walked a short distance past the Engine House to a home built by Samuel Lemon in the early 1830’s (photo). There he operated a popular tavern catering to travelers on the portage. County lines followed the summit through here so I claim a bonus county — Cambria! — simply by walking to the Lemon House.

An Optional Site

We passed one more site soon after we left the park, a turnoff for the Gallitzin Tunnels Park & Museum. I didn’t know about it ahead of time so we’d already passed it before it dawned on me. It would have been a good stop. The original tunnel built there in 1854 spelled the end of the Allegheny Portage Railroad and its canals. Nobody needed them once a train could cover the same territory a lot quicker.


Horseshoe Curve


Horseshoe Curve
Horseshoe Curve

Next came Horseshoe Curve. All of the promotional material described the curve (map) as "World Famous" so I took them at their word. It did impress me. Here, three tracks hugged the hillside, providing a manageable grade all the way to the Allegheny summit a few miles away. This became one of the most heavily used tracks in the United States when it opened, a position it still held more than a century and a half later. There simply weren’t that many good places to cross the mountains.

A visitor center included a small museum although the curve itself was the main attraction. Railfans came out in force. They sat in lawn chairs with their cameras and video equipment, waiting for each train to rumble along. It truly was an impressive spectacle. I felt surrounded by trains as they wrapped around the curve. We even got to experience two trains descending simultaneously, a coal train moving slowly as an intermodal train passed it.

A Funicular Too!


Horseshoe Curve
Funiculars Passing at Horseshoe Curve Park

The visitor center rested at the base of the hill while the train spotting area sat farther uphill next to the tracks. People could either walk up a long flight of stairs or take the funicular. This offered a nice little attraction while making the park handicapped accessible. Who wouldn’t want to ride the funicular, anyway? It didn’t compare to my adventures on the Monongahela Incline in Pittsburgh although it seemed to fit nicely within the rail theme of the day. This one featured a single set of tracks that split apart as the counterweighted cars passed each other.


Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum


Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum
Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum

The same group that managed the Horseshoe Curve viewing area also managed the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum in town. We got the combo ticket for both and saved a few bucks. Until I toured the museum (map) I didn’t truly appreciate the importance of the Pennsylvania Railroad to the city of Altoona. Essentially, Altoona wouldn’t have existed otherwise. The railroad founded Altoona at a strategic point at the base of the Allegheny crossing. It later built the Altoona Works there, a massive facility used to build, test, repair and maintain locomotives. More than 16,000 people labored at the Altoona Works during its highpoint in the 1920’s.

The Pennsy influenced practically every facet of Altoona, about as close to a company town as one could imagine. However Altoona began its decline earlier than many Rust Belt cities. First came the Great Depression. Then came the railroad’s switch from steam power to diesel locomotives. The new locomotives required much less maintenance and many fewer laborers at the Altoona Works. Finally came a general decline in railroading altogether. Altoona reached a peak population in 1930 when 83,000 people lived there. It dropped residents in every Census thereafter, leaving an estimated population of 45,000 by 2016.


Railroad City Brewing Company


Railroad City Brewing Company
Railroad City Brewing Company

We wrapped up the day, continuing the railroad theme, with a visit to Railroad City Brewing Company in downtown Altoona (map). Somehow that seemed appropriate.

We called our visit to Blair County a success.

Autumn in Huntingdon

On October 12, 2017 · 2 Comments

I completed the little adventure I described in County Hunter a few days ago. The first leg involved a course through previously unvisited Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. Don’t confuse this with Huntington (with a T) elsewhere in Pennsylvania, a township in Adams County near Gettysburg. I kept messing up searches because my mind wanted to spell it the wrong way too. Nonetheless, everything worked out and I found plenty to do Huntingdon, the one with a D. The weather cooperated in early Autumn, the leaves showed signs of color, and the county brimmed with seasonal activities. Our drive up from the Washington, DC area that morning left us with too little time to see everything. We needed to select carefully.

St. Mary’s Covered Bridge


St. Mary's Covered Bridge
St. Mary’s Covered Bridge

I planned a route directly through the heart of the county. It took us from the wonderfully named Burnt Cabins, as we crossed the border heading north on U.S. Route 522, then northwest on U.S. Route 22 through the actual town of Huntingdon, and onward towards Altoona in the neighboring county (route). I looked for the usual attractions I liked to track on my many lists, of course. Covered bridges seemed to be a thing with me lately so I found the only remaining covered bridge in Huntingdon County online and added it to my itinerary. Really, how could I do otherwise? The bridge crossed Shade Creek on Covered Bridge Road just as it had since 1896, within eyesight of our route. It required no detour whatsoever and offered easy parking (map). Perfect.

The bridge sat just across the road from St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Orbisonia. I just loved some of those place names in Huntingdon. Anyway, locals called it St. Mary’s Covered Bridge for the appropriate reason, or Shade Gap Bridge or even the unimaginative official name, Huntingdon County Bridge No. 8. I may have seen more imposing, more architecturally distinct, more historically significant covered bridges before although I didn’t have to go out of my way for this one either. It did feature a rather unusual two-tone paint job too. All-in-all the bridge offered a satisfactory start to my hunt through Huntingdon. It merited a brief stop for photos.


Rockhill Trolley Museum


Rockhill Trolley Museum
Rockhill Trolley Museum

It look all of ten minutes to drive up to Rockhill Furnace borough once we left the bridge (map). I wanted to see the Rockhill Trolley Museum. I wondered why a museum dedicated to preserving trolleys existed in such an out-of-the-way place. Trolleys provided urban and sometime suburban transportation in the days before buses overtook them. The concept never would have worked in a town of 400 in the middle of rolling Pennsylvania farmland. Nonetheless, the trolley museum found a home there, with plenty of space to restore old cars plus a couple of miles of suitable track and overhead electrical wires to run them.

By chance, our visit coincided with the museum’s annual Fall Spectacular weekend. That meant they let some of their rare equipment that usually sat in storage see some daylight and run the rails briefly again. People could ride them, too. A ticket lasted for the entire day and visitors could take as many trips on the old trolleys as they could stand. One ride seemed just fine for us though. We took a 1931 Brill Bullet Tram once operated by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) in the Philadelphia area. Then we explored the rail yard for awhile.

Many other visitors qualified as true railfans (or trainspotters to the UK audience). They flocked to the museum on this special weekend both to ride the trolleys and to photograph them in action. People with cameras and video equipment lined the track anytime a trolley started rolling. I didn’t share that level of passion although I certainly understood it. After all, I have similar enthusiasm for other things not necessarily considered mainstream, like this whole County Counting obsession that led me to Huntingdon in the first place.


Lincoln Caverns


Lincoln Caverns
Lincoln Caverns Ready for Halloween

The boys liked visiting caves and I found one along our direct path (map). We arrived at Lincoln Caverns about a half-hour after we left the trolleys. It featured something special for the season too, a spooky Halloween theme called Ghosts & Goblins. We didn’t know this ahead of time. Ordinarily I wouldn’t mind it although I do find contrived hauntings a bit silly. My one son, however, didn’t like spooky stuff at all. He simply wanted to see the cave. Fortunately the good folks at Lincoln Caverns gladly offered a regular tour without the frights and scares, and gory creatures jumping from behind stalagmites with bloody butchers’ knives and such. It did feel a bit odd to have someone in a werewolf costume describe cave features although it seemed an appropriate compromise and we all enjoyed and appreciated it.

Lincoln Caverns also included a second smaller cave called Whisper Rocks in the same admission. This one, just uphill a few hundred feet, didn’t share the Halloween theme. It was a completely normal tour led by someone without a costume. Afterwards, our guide walked us down a wooded path to an open field nearby. There we climbed onto a wagon pulled by a tractor for an old-fashioned hayride. I totally didn’t expected that. It was part of the same seasonal package: a spooky cave; a normal cave and a little hayride. What a nice way to end an enjoyable afternoon during my first ever visit to Huntingdon County. Thank you, Huntingdon. It was a pleasure.

Onward to Blair County!

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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