Anyone looking at a West Virginia map would immediately notice its northern panhandle. It rose high above the rest of the state like a flagpole. This narrow splinter ran 64 miles (103 kilometres) due north, wedged tightly between Ohio and Pennsylvania. Its width also narrowed sometimes to only 4 miles (6 km).
Northern panhandle west virginia on Wikimedia Commons (cc).
Four counties occupied the space; Hancock, Brooke, Ohio and Marshall. They all aligned in a vertical sequence.
How could such a bizarre situation develop? Certainly no rational government would create such an anomaly. The usual situation existed here, the overlapping of colonial claims. Nobody really knew what existed beyond the coast. Various Kings of England simply granted a bunch of royal charters. Virginia gained a territory that went all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The charter for Pennsylvania set its farthest extent at an unexplored longitude 5 degrees west of the Delaware River. The overlap became apparent when explorers pushed inward through the Appalachian Mountains decades later. Fort Pitt, built by the British in 1759 during the French and Indian War, fell within the disputed area. Both coveted the town that formed there, Pittsburgh.
Virginia established a county structure despite the overlap. Of course, Pennsylvania refused to accept it. The dispute even continued into the Revolutionary War. The Second Continental Congress convinced the two to settle their dispute and concentrate on fighting the British instead. Pennsylvania had settled a similar problem with Maryland previously, creating the Mason & Dixon Line. The border between Pennsylvania and Virginia would extend that same line a bit farther, to five degrees west of the Delaware River. From there, they drew a line north to the Ohio River. Both sides approved the new border in 1780.
After the war, several of the former colonies including Virginia continued to claim land west of the Ohio River. Most gave up their claims voluntarily for the good of the new nation. Virginia ceded its Northwest Territory after some cajoling, and Congress accepted its offer in 1784. Virginia’s western border became the Ohio River and created the odd panhandle. Nobody intended to form the anomaly. It was a two-step process.
Birth of West Virginia
Independence Hall – Wheeling, West Virginia. Photo by Ryan Stanton on Flickr (cc)
Then came the Civil War and Virginia joined the Confederacy. Many of its western counties wanted to form their own state even before the war began. They jumped at an opportunity to remain on the Union side. The state of West Virginia was born in 1863. Interestingly the initial West Virginia capital fell within that unusual northern panhandle. They formed their new government in the Federal Custom House in Wheeling (map), now called West Virginia’s Independence Hall. Wheeling remained its capital for most of the next twenty years.
Rise of Industry
The Weirton Steel Company Works. Image provided byUpNorth Memories (cc)
The Northern Panhandle became a center of commerce and industry after the Civil War. It had a great location along the Ohio River. It also had more in common with industrial cities like nearby Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Cleveland. Factories rose to serve many needs. The biggest ones produced iron and steel, and Weirton Steel became the biggest of the bunch. It would operate for nearly a century until International Steel Group bought it in 2004. The area also fell onto hard times like other so-called Rust Belt cities. For example, the city of Weirton lost a third of its population starting at the middle of the 20th Century. The city of Wheeling lost more than half of its population.
Ohio River Bridges. Photo by cmh2315fl on Flickr (cc)
The northern panhandle mirrored the states that wedged it in place. It differed distinctly from the remainder of West Virginia.
… many people moved to Weirton and Wheeling which both had reputations for being excellent places to work. Immigrants moved into the area in the early 1900’s because of employment offered by the steel mills… By some counts, there are 50 ethnic groups in Weirton alone.
This included large communities of people from Eastern and Southern Europe like its neighbors. The U.S. Census bureau even included the two northernmost counties, Hancock and Brook, within the Pittsburgh Combined Statistical Area.
Of course, I also like this oddity because it created funny geographic names. How about the West Virginia Northern Community College?
In Latin, the word canna meant reed, the root of canalis meaning "water pipe, groove, [or] channel." The French language retained this term as it evolved from Latin, and the English language adopted it to describe a pipe for transporting liquid. This transformed to its modern English usage by the Seventeenth Century to represent an artificial waterway, as noted by the Online Etymology Dictionary.
I always thought that a canal resulted from someone digging a path through the ground to let a steady stream of water flow through it. That wasn’t necessarily the case according to technical jargon I stumbled upon. A canal connected two or more watersheds. Something called a navigation performed similar functions within a single watershed. Thus the Erie Canal connecting Lake Erie to the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson River counted as a canal. In contrast, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington, DC wouldn’t be considered a canal by that definition because it ran solely along the Potomac River. It didn’t matter that it stretched 180 miles (290 kilometres). The C&O counted as a navigation, which I’m sure would have surprised the people who designed, constructed and dubbed it a canal in the 1830’s.
The distinction didn’t make much difference to me. I decided to call them all canals.
Dismal Swamp Canal. Photo by Ryan Somma on Flickr (cc)
Nobody knows exactly when or where people built the very first canal. They traced back to the earliest times of agricultural settlement. Canals served an important purpose in ancient Mesopotamia both to control flooding and to irrigate crops. Egyptian pharaohs turned canal construction into an art form in later centuries, using them for additional purposes including transportation.
Since I couldn’t find the first canal ever built, I decided to feature the oldest canal in the United States in continuous usage. Work began on the Dismal Swamp Canal in 1793 and it soon connected North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia (map). It provided convenient access to the lumbermen who harvested large cypress trees that grew in abundance in the swamp. No less than George Washington owned a 1/12 share in the venture. This resulted in George Washington Ditch, probably the least memorable features honoring him. A national capital memorialized his name. An entire state honored him. Then there was this ditch in a swamp. I’m sure his wife wouldn’t think too highly of nearby South Martha Washington Ditch either.
Today the canal provides a link in the Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway, giving safe passage to small vessels moving up and down the Atlantic coast.
The Grand Canal. Photo by Lawrence Siu on Flickr (cc)
China’s Grand Canal (map) garnered two superlatives. No other canal extended farther and no other canal operated longer. This ancient canal stretched 1,115 miles (1,794 kilometres) and has been used continuously since the Sixth Century. UNESCO recognized the Grand Canal as a World Heritage Site, noting,
It formed the backbone of the Empire’s inland communication system, transporting grain and strategic raw materials, and supplying rice to feed the population… linking five of the most important river basins in China, including the Yellow River and the Yangtze.
The Grand Canal continues to serve a vital purpose in the Chinese economy today more than 1,500 years after its construction.
Panama Canal. Photo by MT_bulli on Flickr (cc)
Scientists used Global Positioning Satellite data to track more than 16,000 ships a few years ago. They hoped to determine the busiest ports in the world empirically, and their results pointed to the Panama Canal (map) first and the Suez Canal next. I supposed gross tonnage served as a nice proxy for busiest canal too. That distinction will only increase with the Panama Canal Expansion project that "will double the Canal’s capacity."
Millenium Ribble Link. Photo by Chris Hills on Flickr (cc)
While the canal building era seemed to reach its peak in the Nineteenth Century, new canals continue to be built even now. I couldn’t be sure which one might be the newest worldwide although I found an answer for the United Kingdom. The Millennium Ribble Link canal located outside of Preston, England opened in 2002 (map). That was almost a century after the next younger UK canal opened. It stretched only five miles (8 km), connecting the Lancaster Canal to the River Ribble. However, the canal served no economic purpose other than tourism. It provided a few miles of pleasurable passage and, more importantly, added the formerly-isolated Lancaster Canal to the hundreds of miles in the larger English canal network.
Someday the newest canal might open in Nicaragua if its prospective builders ever get their act together.
I selected Michigan for our summer holiday this year. I won’t pretend that the drive was fun or easy although depriving greedy airlines of revenue certainly enhanced the appeal. I described my distaste for airlines before and I reveled in the many hundreds of dollars I denied them with this trip and several others over the years. We loaded the Family Truckster and pointed our sights northwest on a track towards Lake Michigan.
I considered multiple factors before choosing Michigan. I always want to go someplace I haven’t covered in depth before. It needed to have interesting hooks. It needed to be low-hassle, with room to stretch out. It needed to interest the rest of the family while indulging my geo-geeky curiosity. The southwestern corner of Michigan met many of those criteria, and I will describe what we found in subsequent articles. County Counting always fell high on my list and that may have been the most important factor this time around. I’d skirted edges of Michigan previously although I’d never pushed deep into its interior.
Maybe it was the second most important factor. I’ll save that for next time. Subscribers to the 12MC Twitter feed probably already guessed the other major reason based on my frequent tweeting as I rolled along.
Grand Rapids became our home base for the week. We took the fastest route available on the way up, shooting along the Pennsylvania and Ohio Turnpikes into Michigan, and staying overnight in Cleveland along the way. I gained no new counties during this initial leg until we passed Detroit. We arrived in Grand Rapids the second day and radiated from there on side trips, filling in much of southern Michigan with county captures.
Only once did I make a specific effort to prevent a doughnut hole. I noticed that none of our daily excursions went through Barry County (map), southeast of Grand Rapids. It fell within a ring formed by Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and Lansing with no major highway running through it. I got up early one morning for a half-hour drive to fill the void. I spared the rest of the family. I’m sure sure they appreciated sleeping more than the possible irritation of leaving a stranded county behind. Somehow they didn’t feel the same pain.
We came home via a longer route, swinging south and staying overnight in Columbus before cutting through West Virginia. I picked up a bunch of new counties. I’d also never seen Ohio’s Appalachian corner either. Who knew Ohio had mountains? I plan to keep Ohio’s Hocking Hills on the list of places I want to see again someday, and them visit in a more proper manner.
Schoolcraft and Cabinets
Two distinct forces contributed to the designation of Michigan counties. Henry Schoolcraft named many of them in the mid Nineteenth Century, a curious case I discussed in Schoolcraft Daze. He made them up, drawing from pseudo-Native American etymologies blended with Latin, Greek or whatever else came to mind. The Schoolcraft counties included Alcona, Allegan, Alpena, Arenac, Iosco, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Lenawee, Oscoda and Tuscola. I captured Lenawee and re-visited Allegan.
Michigan also contained the Cabinet Counties. The Michigan Territory hoped to curry favor with President Andrew Jackson in a border dispute with Ohio involving the Toledo Strip — I’ll talk about the Strip a little more in a future installment so hang on — and named a bunch of its southern counties for Jackson and his Cabinet:
- Barry: Postmaster General
- Berrien: Attorney General
- Branch: Secretary of the Navy
- Calhoun: Vice President
- Cass: Secretary of War
- Eaton: Secretary of War (prior to Cass)
- Ingham: Secretary of the Treasury
- Jackson: President
- Livingston: Secretary of State
- Van Buren: Secretary of State (prior to Livingston; later Vice President and President)
My final count of Cabinet Counties lacked only Cass by the time I finished the trip. I’d captured Berrien and Van Buren previously, and hit the other seven for the first time during this latest excursion. Incidentally, while Jackson signed a bill making Michigan a state in 1837, the Toledo Strip went to Ohio. The county name pandering failed to produce its desired result although Michigan did get the Upper Peninsula as a consolation prize.
Grand Rapids in Kent Co., MI (my own photo)
I did well during this exercise, tallying initial visits in three different states.
- Sixteen in Michigan (Barry, Branch, Calhoun, Clinton, Eaton, Hillsdale, Ingham, Ionia, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Kent, Lenawee, Livingston, Muskegon, Oakland and Washtenaw)
- Seven in Ohio (Athens, Delaware, Hancock, Hocking, Marion, Washington and Wyandot)
- Three in West Virginia (Doddridge, Ritchie and Wood)
That came to a respectable Twenty Six new counties.
The Counties that Got Away
I could have visited more, and in fact that had been my original plan. Several years ago I visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and I thought the kids would enjoy it. However they were simply too tired from our relentless touring to drive another six hours in a single day. We hung around Grand Rapids that day instead. I willingly abandoned the opportunity to capture seven counties to preserve family peace. I took that as a sign I needed to visit again someday!
Articles in the Michigan Journey Series:
- County Adventures
- Rambling and Wandering
- Above and Below
- Do Overs
- Parting Shots
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr