Twelve Mile Circle received an intriguing question from reader "Cary" a few days ago. Cary, a professional mapmaker, noticed something interesting while conducting research: the amazing proximity of Minnesota’s highest point of elevation to its lowest. This led to a natural question. Was this the shortest distance between a state highpoint and a lowpoint? I’d touched on something within a similar vein way back in 2008 in "Highest and Lowest, Oh So Close" However, I’d discussed only the curious case of California with its astounding elevation difference between Mount Whitney at 14,494 feet (4,418 meters) and Death Valley at -282 ft (-86 m). The two points were separated by only 88 miles (142 kilometers).
That earlier article didn’t answer anything to determine if those 88 miles represented the absolute shortest distance between highpoints and lowpoints; it simply noted that the distance was very small. Fortunately numerous sources existed on the Intertubes so I could steal — with proper attribution of course — wonderful items such as this map that had already been prepared to assist with such a quest.
State Highpoints and Lowpoints
Wikimedia Commons via GNU Free Documentation License
My quick eyeball assessment created a few observations. The California distance was indeed very short. It wasn’t the shortest. Minnesota was shorter and a couple of east coast states might be viable too. There was also one other curious fact. With the exception of California and Louisiana with lowpoints below sea level, the lowest elevation in each state appeared to fall somewhere along its border where it abutted another state or a large body of water. I supposed that reflected water always seeking the lowest level as it flowed downhill.
Port of Duluth, Minnesota along the state’s lowpoint. My own photo.
The Minnesota highpoint mentioned by Cary was Eagle Mountain (map) at 2,301 ft (701 m). The elevation certainly didn’t rival California’s Mt. Whitney, however the summit was only about 12.8 miles (20.6 km) from the state’s lowpoint on the shores of Lake Superior. The lake had a consistent elevation so it was only a matter of finding the closest line between mountain and shoreline.
I noticed that Michigan’s highpoint on its Upper Peninsula also fell remarkably close to Lake Superior. I felt a momentary sense of elation until I realized that Michigan touched several of the Great Lakes including Lake Erie way down at the southeastern corner of the Lower Peninsula. Lake Erie, being considerably downstream from Lake Superior, obviously had a lower elevation and thus the Michigan highpoint and lowpoint were separated by hundreds of miles.
Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge by Timothy Valentine, on Flickr (cc)
Located along Rhode Island’s lowpoint
When checking for diminutives one should always examine the smallest of U.S. states, Rhode Island. Right? Little Rhody failed to reign supreme this time around. It’s highpoint was Jerimoth Hill (map). However that was located on the far western edge of the state almost all the way to Connecticut. That put it some distance from the nearest stretch of sea level elevation, which even in this very tiny state measured 19.2 miles (30.9 km) by my rough estimation.
Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in the Winter along the state’s lowpoint. My own photo.
Then came the geo-oddity magnet that was Delaware. I’ve mentioned repeatedly that I believe Delaware holds more geographic anomalies per square mile than any other place. The streak continues!
Delaware’s highpoint occurred at Ebright Azimuth (12MC’s visit). Its lowpoint was at sea level which I’ve experienced many times along its wonderful Atlantic Ocean beaches. However the highpoint (map) was certainly too far away from the Atlantic coast to make it a top contender. The Delaware River, conversely, flowed quite close to the azimuth. Could the Delaware River along that stretch have an elevation of zero? I figured it might be possible. I knew that the Potomac River at Washington, DC, in an area of similar terrain was only about six inches above sea level considerably farther inland.
I thought 12MC might have to call out to hydrologists in the audience to see if we could calculate the elevation of the Delaware River at the point closest to Ebright Azimuth. Then it dawned on me. I didn’t need to do anything like that. I simply needed to learn if the Pennsylvania lowpoint located farther upstream had an elevation at sea level or not. Many sources listed that statistic so it should be easy. Bingo! Pennsylvania’s lowpoint was at sea level on the Delaware River at the Delaware border. Therefore the Delaware River flowing through Delaware, being downstream from Pennsylvania, had to have a sea level elevation by definition. That qualified it as part of the state’s lowpoint.
A rough measurement generated a Delaware highpoint-to-lowpoint distance of approximately 4.3 miles (6.9 km).
Thank you Cary for the suggestion.
I still hate airlines. I don’t fear flying, I simply want to withhold as much of my money as I can from those greedy [censored] until the tight squeeze of market forces compel them to start treating their passengers with a little respect. I’m pretty much at the point where I’ll drive to any destination of a thousand miles or so instead of fly. That sentiment led to another grandiose road trip over the winter holidays. Of course, the handful of readers who follow the 12MC Twitter feed already figured that out. That’s an incentive for the rest of you to subscribe to my Twitter page I guess, or maybe it’s a disincentive. I don’t know.
DC to Florida to Mississippi and Back
We took a rather unusual route to the Mississippi Gulf Coast this time, via St. Augustine, Florida. I know many readers would think of that as a crazy detour. I rationalized it a couple of different ways. First, there wasn’t a completely straight route between the Mid Atlantic and the Mississippi Gulf so the detour didn’t make all that much difference in the larger trip. Was it the most direct route? No, of course not. It wasn’t totally insane either.
Second, there were lots of cool things to see and do in St. Augustine and I knew the boys would love it. My wife actually nailed it on the head, though. "Is this a county counting thing?" she asked. Well, ahem, yes that might have had something to do with it. She was fine with the idea once I confessed the ulterior motive. We’ve been married long enough by now that she accepts my weird hobby even if she doesn’t completely understand it.
We left on Christmas day to avoid the worst of the soul-sucking horror of Interstate 95 traffic and stopped overnight somewhere in North Carolina. That evening, with few restaurant options, I chose shrimp and grits for my Christmas Dinner. That’s a thing, right? The traditional shrimp and grits Christmas Dinner? I enjoyed it anyway, and it reminded me that we were in the South. I washed it down with a Sweet Tea since we were way below the Sweet Tea Line by that point. The next day we continued to Florida and all went smoothly except for some bad traffic for the final forty-five miles of South Carolina. We made it safely to St. Augustine (map) by late afternoon.
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
Castillo de San Marcos
We stopped first at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument (map).
Americans often think of Plymouth, Massachusetts (established 1620) or Jamestown, Virginia (established 1607 – and visited by 12MC) as the "oldest" successful European settlements in the continental United States. That’s because people of English descent wrote many of the history books. As a point of fact, that honor should go to St. Augustine instead which was founded by Spanish settlers in 1565.
St. Augustine didn’t incorporate a magnificent fort from its inception. Rival European nations and their privateers conducted raids up and down the Atlantic coast. St. Augustine was sacked a couple of times by the English and threatened by the French. Spain finally had enough after the 1668 attack by Jamaican privateer Robert Searle. Construction of Castillo de San Marcos began in 1672, a full century after the original settlement of the city.
The National Park Service discussed the architecture and construction of this oldest masonry fort in the continental U.S., and its only surviving specimen from the Seventeenth Century:
… It is a prime example of the "bastion system" of fortification, the culmination of hundreds of years of military defense engineering. It is also unique for the material used in its construction. The Castillo is one of only two fortifications in the world built out of a semi-rare form of limestone called coquina… A cannon ball fired at more solid material, such as granite or brick would shatter the wall into flying shards, but cannon balls fired at the walls of the Castillo burrowed their way into the rock and stuck there, much like a bb would if fired into Styrofoam. So the thick coquina walls absorbed or deflected projectiles rather than yielding to them, providing a surprisingly long-lived fortress.
Castillo de San Marcos was constructed in a star shape with four bastions. This allowed defenders to create deadly crossfire for anyone hoping to to attack. The fort never fell during battle, however it changed hands a number of times because of political changes.
- Florida became a British territory in 1763 as part of the settlement of the Seven Years’ War.
- Florida returned to Spanish control in 1783 at the end of the American Revolutionary War (Spain had been a supporter of American independence and this was its reward).
- Florida became part of the United States through the Adams–Onís Treaty in 1821.
- Florida seceded from the U.S and joined the Confederate States of America in 1861.
- Union troops seized the undefended fort in 1862 and held it for the remainder of the war and ever since.
During all that time and up until 1933, it remained a military garrison. Only then did the property convey to the U.S. National Park Service.
Saint Augustine Lighthouse
St. Augustine Lighthouse
Our other primary stop that day was the Saint Augustine Lighthouse (map).
Everyone else, it seemed, had a similar idea. The weather was absolutely perfect on the Saturday after Christmas. All the sites were mobbed. We drove onto Anastasia Island and noticed a line of traffic stretching at least a half-mile in the opposite direction, backed up by a traffic light at the end of the bridge in St. Augustine proper. Getting onto the island was easy. Getting back would be a problem. We couldn’t do anything about it so we headed towards the lighthouse anyway. We feared the worst when we were forced to park down the street because the parking lot was completely full. Tons of people mingled around the lighthouse base although few of them ventured to the top. I suppose the 219 steps in the spiral staircase separated the tourists from the lighthouse nerds. From there, 165 feet (50 metres) above the fray, we spotted another bridge several miles away. We enjoyed a panoramic lighthouse view of the Florida coast and discovered a way to avoid the dreaded stoplight. Pro Tip: maybe skip the extra helping of mashed potatoes on Christmas so one can climb to the top of the tower and find the secret escape route.
A lighthouse stood at this spot even during the Spanish period. It was an important structure marking the inlet between two barrier island, Anastasia and Conch, so that ships could enter the Matanzas River and approach St. Augustine safely. This version was constructed in 1874 and continues to remain an active navigational aid. According to Lighthouse Friends, the tower was built using brick from Alabama, granite from Georgia, iron work forged in Philadelphia, and a first-order Fresnel lens crafted in France."
A1A Ale Works
We also visited a couple of brewpubs including A1A Ale Works in downtown St. Augustine (map).
Imagine that. Somehow we ended-up at a fort, a lighthouse, and a brewpub — all things that I "collect" and count. It sounded pretty self-indulgent although we also did plenty of things enjoyed by the other members of the family too. I’ll talk about some of those in the second part.
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.