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
Each road trip I took offered different opportunities for County Counting, whether as a stated goal or as an amusing side project. I examined the situation carefully before departing so I could see how I might augment my lifetime list. I’d done pretty well in New England during previous visits. Nonetheless those earlier trips had occurred for different purposes. Their distinct objectives left behind a number of unsightly doughnut holes of yet-to-be-visited counties. My map looked something like this prior to my departure:
Those counties in white represented places I hadn’t captured. Some were contiguous and could be combined into sets. Overall they were spread into distinct pockets cast broadly across Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. That presented some challenges. I needed to devise a plan that aligned with race locations and minimized detours. The Mob Rule county counting website and its driving directions utility helped immensely. I could enter exact latitude/longitude coordinates while drafting prospective routes, overlaying my map of visited counties to see see how and where I needed to move. I designed a target course that in fact I finished in its entirety:
Readers familiar with highways in the northeastern United States probably noticed that I avoided the most obvious, most direct route between Virginia and New England; the dreaded Interstate 95. We left on a Friday and I didn’t want to thread the needle in narrow windows that avoided morning and afternoon rush hours in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Also, nobody could ever predict when an accident might clog I-95 with a multi-hour delay. That route was too unpredictable. Instead I decided to take a wildly inefficient path that would grant me an opportunity to fill a few doughnut holes in Pennsylvania and New York along the way.
We began heading due north into the heart of central Pennsylvania, then due east, essentially two legs of a triangle where the hypotenuse of course would have been the shorter I-95. That allowed me to pick up two clusters of previously non-visited Pennsylvania counties: first Northumberland, Montour and Columbia, and later Carbon and Monroe. Next the path cut diagonally across the lower corner of New York — although way beyond the sprawl of New York City — capturing Sullivan and Columbia (not to be confused with the Columbia County in Pennsylvania). We hadn’t arrived at our primary destination and I’d captured seven counties already!
The three New Hampshire counties were easy grabs. Carroll and Belknap needed only tiny detours. Cheshire fell directly on the path between races and I didn’t have to detour at all. Massachusetts was similarly easy. One of the races took place in Franklin County so that was certainly convenient. Hampshire County was just a short drive south so I snagged it with little effort.
Then there was Vermont
I agonized over Vermont as I planned the trip. The drive between our New Hampshire race and Vermont crossed the southern tier of both states, a direct route that would take about an hour under ordinary circumstances. I needed to drive the length of Vermont and loop around its northern tip along winding country roads to visit three scattered counties. That would turn a single hour trip into a six hour expedition for little payday. It seemed excessive and I planned to pass it up. However, little else seemed to interest me along the most direct route. I’d scoured that corner for attractions during a previous trip back in 2010, and I’m not one who generally wants to see the same place twice. How many times does someone need to visit the Phineas Gage Monument? I’d undertaken more elaborate efforts than this six hour county counting quest, I supposed, so that’s how it unfolded. We ran into a couple of interesting places along the way so it all worked out. For instance, I didn’t realize ahead of time that Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory fell directly along our path until we drove through Waterbury. Nothing said Vermont more than Ben and Jerry’s and that became a nice break after several hours on the road.
I also spotted a sign for a brewery as we drove through the town of Morrisville, the Rock Art Brewery, and the place was open. That was another nice break. Beer Geeks might wonder why we didn’t stop at Alchemist Brewing as we drove through Stowe. It was closed to the public at the time.
I am a meticulous planner. That’s just the way my mind works. Nonetheless it was enjoyable, and perhaps a bit liberating to go largely unscripted for much of a day. We discovered plenty of unexpected amusements as the path unfolded. I was exhausted as the sun set and we had another race at 6:00 am the next morning. I’d have to think twice about taking such a long detour next time for the sole purpose of counting counties.
My total hit 100% completion for three new states by the end of the trip; Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. I also filled in doughnut holes in Pennsylvania and New York, bringing the total haul of new counties to 15. I left a good reason to return, too. I am now only three counties away from finishing all of New England. Someday I’ll have to travel to the northern tip of Maine and get those final three. Maybe I could combine it with a trip to Atlantic Canada.
Several 12MC readers have alerted me to an article that I found fascinating and I’m sure the rest of you will too: Altered state: Border redraw moves 19 homes in the Carolinas.
New England articles:
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr