I enjoyed walking through Grand Rapids, Michigan early each morning before most people crawled out of bed. It offered opportunities to explore quiet corners at my own pace and discover sites that I bet most visitors never would have noticed. Naturally I put my own geo-oddity spin on things, observing peculiarities that fit the offbeat themes of Twelve Mile Circle.
Why Grand? Why Rapids?
Long before I arrived I wondered how Grand Rapids got its name. I couldn’t see rapids, grand or otherwise, as I scanned satellite images of the city. It took a little searching although I uncovered an explanation eventually from the Grand Rapids Historical Commission, quoting from a 1913 source.
This sharp fall or decline in the river bed at Grand Rapids is disguised because of the power canals on each side of the river which take up the water and carry it through many factories and out through numerous tail races, so that the name "Grand Rapids" is not suggested any more by the present appearance of the river.
The Grand River running through downtown Grand Rapids fell about 17 feet between current-day Sixth Street and Wealthy Street, a distance of about 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometres). Modern controls masked the drop with a series of terraced ledges. Nonetheless, the elevation truly dropped. I observed this for myself at Fish Ladder Park, a brutalist contraption that let migrating fish push upriver past one of the higher drops (map).
I didn’t realize that Grand Rapids placed so much pride in its logo until I walked around town awhile. I noticed it everywhere.
Lots of street signs included the emblem on their left sides, placed before to the name of the street. It seemed to be a geographic representation to me. I interpreted the blue line as the Grand River, perhaps with the squiggled portion noting the "rapids." Maybe the yellow circle represented a larger metropolitan area radiating from the city center in all directions?
That red blob became a Rorschach test. My geo-centric brain figured it could signify the original historic city boundaries or something. My son the animal lover thought the left knob could be a fish tail symbolizing fish swimming through the rapids. Notions like that filled my mind during those early morning walks. I daydreamed little non sequiturs, a wonderful way to get away from everything mentally and clear away the complexities of modern life.
Look, the logo even appeared on manhole covers, trash cans, and city vehicles. I tried to ignore them after awhile even though it became increasingly difficult as it appeared in even more places. Also I learned that maybe I had a thing for manhole cover designs, following on my discovery last year in Nantucket (photo). I’ll have to pay more attention in the future.
The whole mystery could have been solved if I’d simply searched on the Intertubes where the answer hid in plain site. Instead I preferred to wander around the city hoping to figure it out on my own, only to forget all about it as soon as I got near a computer. Silly me.
La Grande Vitesse; by Russell Sekeet on Flickr (cc)
The city clearly said,
The City of Grand Rapids’ logo was designed by Joseph Kinnebrew, an internationally-recognized sculptor and painter. It incorporates a yellow sun, blue river, and a red representation of the "La Grande Vitesse" sculpture by Alexander Calder, which was erected in downtown Grand Rapids on Calder Plaza in 1969.
I let that be a lesson to myself. Next time I will act on my curiosity immediately instead of waiting until I returned home to research an article. I passed within maybe two blocks of the Calder sculpture (map) and never saw it. That became a big missed opportunity. I would have made an effort had I known about it.
The Original Boundary
Grand Rapids remembered its past. I didn’t find the entirety of its original 1850 boundaries during my morning strolls although I discovered a couple of them. One ran down Eastern Avenue Southeast (map). From its name and placement relative to downtown, I assumed it must have been the original eastern boundary although I couldn’t see a street with that name on an 1853 map that I found online. Wealthy Street also featured similar boundary signs and that vintage map did reference it by name as the city’s southern border.
Wealthy Street seemed oddly named. It was nice although it hardly seemed wealthy. Certainly other streets in Grand Rapids featured many more stately homes constructed during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Grand Rapids Magazine provided the answer.
Jefferson Morrison was a merchant in the early days of Grand Rapids. He named two streets in the city: one to honor himself (Jefferson Avenue) and one to honor his wife, Wealthy (Wealthy Street). Mrs. Morrison’s unusual first name proved to be somewhat ironic, as the family went into serious debt after building an extravagant house between modern-day Ionia and Monroe avenues.
Wealthy didn’t describe a street as much as it described a woman who stayed Wealthy even if she no longer remained wealthy, and the street remained Wealthy long after people forgot about Wealthy Morrison.
Why would parents name their child Wealthy? That mystery, alas, remained unsolved.
The Inexplicable Sign
Then I found the inexplicable sign on Eureka Avenue, a short one-way street through a suburban neighborhood (map). Residents couldn’t park on the eastern side of Eureka Avenue on odd days during the winter months, except for several hours in the evening. A similar prohibition applied to the western side on even days. I figured it must have been related to snow removal. Hopefully most people living on Eureka Avenue had driveways. Moving parked cars from one side of the road to the other every day for five months of the year would get old after awhile. Also, no other street seemed to have this prohibition. I pondered that one for awhile too.
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
The second time I searched on the exact phrase the "Last place in [geographic area] to"… while leaving the remainder of the statement blank, I focused on countries in Asia. I knew it would be more difficult than the examination of England. However, I didn’t figure it would be nearly impossible. Many countries produced not a single occurrence. I found a few examples after extensive searching, instances both fascinating and completely unpredictable.
Last Place in China where Glyptostrobus Grows in the Wild
Glyptostrobus pensilis by Chris_Williams_PhD on Flickr (cc)
I’d never heard of the conifer Glyptostrobus pensilis, a native of subtropical southeast China and small slivers of Laos and Vietnam. I’d never heard of an organization called the American Conifer Society either, yet it existed as did the tree from China. The Society said,
Commonly called Chinese Water Pine and Chinese Swamp Cypress, both misnomers… The genus formerly had a much wider range, covering most of the Northern Hemisphere, including the high Arctic during the Paleocene and Eocene… Chinese Swamp cypress is nearly extinct in the wild due to overcutting for its valuable decay-resistant, scented wood, but it is also fairly widely planted along the banks of rice paddies where its roots help to stabilize the banks by reducing soil erosion.
Glyptostrobus pensilis survived to become the only remaining species of the genus Glyptostrobus. Dendrologists once thought Glyptostrobus went extinct in the wild in its native Chinese habitat however small clusters continued to cling to life in mangrove swamps near Zhuhai (map), perhaps its final stand. Fortunately gardeners and arborists also cultivated Glyptostrobus as an ornamental tree in plenty of other places, including China. It can grow throughout much of the southeastern United States and in parts of the Pacific Northwest, too. The specimen in the photograph grew at the US National Arboretum in Washington, DC.
Just don’t go looking for Glyptostrobus in the wild in China except in Zhuhai.
Last Place in Japan Banning Women
大峯 (Mt. Omine) by Kemm Ell Zee on Flickr (cc)
A modern industrial nation banning women seemed oddly anachronistic, yet a place in Japan continued its 1,3000 year prohibition unabated. Women weren’t allowed on the peak of a mountain within the Omine range, in the Kansai region of Honshu (map). Officially called Mount Sanjo although more popularly called Mount Omine, the summit sheltered the monastery of Ominesanji, the holiest place of Shugendo Buddhists.
"It’s not about discrimination," explained the monk who led my expedition when I questioned him about the "No Women Admitted" sign. "In the past, this was a dangerous mountain with bears, rock falls and other hazards. People still die on this mountain today. The ‘ban’ is there to protect women in the way you would want to protect your mother or sister or wife from danger. It also exists so that we do not get distracted from our practice…"
All other Japanese monasteries lifted their prohibitions years ago. Ominesanji never changed. The ban didn’t have the force of law — and women were known to ignore the signs occasionally — although the monks of Mount Omine still considered those disregarding their traditions as severely breaching local etiquette.
Last place in Indonesia to See the Total Solar Eclipse of 2016
Total Solar Eclipse 2016 in Indonesia by skyseeker on Flickr (cc)
The moon passed between the earth and the sun on March 8-9, 2016, creating a narrow band of total darkness across a swatch of the South Pacific. Widespread areas of Oceania and southeast Asia witnessed the event partially. Very little land, generally only the open ocean, fell within the full blackout. Parts of Indonesia did experience the maximum effects of the eclipse. The tiny island of Pulau Fani (map) became the last place in the nation to go completely dark, for 2 minutes and 14 seconds. I’d never heard of Pulau Fani and I suspected many in the Twelve Mile Circle audience hadn’t either. I found very little information about the island although it had a listing on Indonesian Wikipedia. Roughly translated,
Pulau Fani is the outer islands of Indonesia, located in the Pacific Ocean and is bordered by the state Palau… For the latest data existing seasonal population numbers there are 11 households.
I also learned that a total eclipse will cross the United States on August 21, 2017. I think I need to find a way to visit my relatives in Charleston, South Carolina where a total blackout will occur.
Last place in Cambodia to Fall to the Khmer Rouge
big_preah_vihear by lokryan on Flickr (cc)
The Khmer Rouge, an army of Communist agitators, rebelled against Cambodia’s Khmer Republic beginning in the mid 1960s. The Khmer Republic didn’t have sufficient unity or the strength to contain the Khmer Rouge as the years passed, and finally fell to it in 1975. The last vestige of the old Khmer Republic lingered for a few weeks longer at a single place, at the Preah Vihear Temple (ប្រាសាទព្រះវិហារ).
Ironically, Preah Vihear (map) might actually belong in Thailand. It was built as a Hindu temple atop a summit in the Dangrek Mountains in the 11th Century. Nine hundred years later, French colonialists in Cambodia negotiated with the Rattanakosin Kingdom of Siam to establish a border. Part of it followed the spine of Dangrek Mountains. Oddly, the map placed Preah Vihear within Cambodia even though it fell on Siam’s side of the watershed as did the primary path leading to it. Siam, renamed Thailand, later disputed this designation and appealed to the International Court of Justice. The ICJ sided with Cambodia in 1962, declaring that someone should have raised concerns back in 1907 after the original survey. Thailand waited too long to push its claim.
Preah Vihear provided a great natural defensive position. Attackers could not approach the temple from the Cambodian side without scaling cliffs. Forces loyal to the Khmer Republic held out for more than a month until the Khmer Rouge dislodged them with intensive shelling. They had an easy escape route, though. They simply walked a few metres across the border into Thailand. Tragically, the victorious Communists would perpetrated a horrible national genocide where as many as three million people died before Vietnamese forces toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Of course I had to visit Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg. The Twelve Mile Circle audience loved geo-oddities and I needed to deliver. I’d been to New England several times and I’ve plumbed its depths for nuggets repeatedly. What was left? Well, this lake with a really long name for one. That wasn’t the only remarkable feature in this corner where three states connected, this easily accessible area with an overabundance of lovely features all neatly aligned and waiting for my appearance. It became a day for geo-oddites.
Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg offered 45 characters of awesomeness too good to pass up, or perhaps more accurately 45-ish characters as there were several different spelling variations. I’ve often seen this touted as the longest place name in the United States and I had to experience it in person. We trudged down to Massachusetts to check it out (map). The lake itself wasn’t all that remarkable; it was certainly a pretty gem sparkling in the early afternoon sun although it competed with many other wonderful lakes sprinkled about the countryside. Its real distinguishing feature was its name.
Many people have written about the unusual name and their accounts littered the Intertubes, including some appearing in respectable publications like the New York Times. Fact needed to be separated from fiction. The cold, hard truth was that Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg contained an element of fiction. Numerous sources traced its long-form name back to newspaperman Laurence J. Daly who edited the local periodical, The Webster Times. He’d concocted a fanciful tale on a slow news day in the early 20th Century about an agreement between Native American tribes, claiming the full translation meant "you fish on your side, I fish on my side and nobody fish in the middle." It sounded great but it wasn’t accurate.
It took a while but, gradually, the You-I-Nobody fantasy built a head of steam, aired on national radio broadcasts, rewritten in newspapers everywhere, and buoyed by a "Ripley’s Believe It or Not" illustration. People with Webster-area roots began mailing clips about Mr. Daly’s tale to the editor of the Webster Times, Laurence J. Daly, he recalled in my presence more than once.
The U.S. Geological Survey recorded the body of water officially as Chaubunagungamaug in the Geographic Names Information System. That was an impressive string of 17 characters although far short of 45. It also included some additional history.
In 1642, Woodward and Saffery, the first surveyors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called it "The Great Pond." In 1645, Connecticut Governor John Winthrop called it "The Lakes of Quabage." In a 1707 survey, John Chandler recorded the name as “Chaubunnagungamoug.”
Various translations of the shorter string, Chaubunnagungamoug, referenced the Algonquian language spoken by local Nipmuc Indians, and generated meanings such as Place of the Boundaries or Lake Divided by Islands. GNIS also recognized Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg and similar spellings as legitimate variants. Did I actually visit the place with the longest name in the United States? Well, maybe. I didn’t have to go out of my way to experience it so it wasn’t like it involved any special effort.
I was much more interested in some unfinished business, the only object skipped in 2012 during an epic Craziest Geo-Oddity Adventure Ever. I hit every conceivable geographic feature of importance in Connecticut on a single day as I circled the state with Steve from Connecticut Museum Quest (now simply CTMQ). I truly believed that we were the first people ever to undertake that quest and it may never be surpassed. The Connecticut-Massachusetts-Rhode Island tripoint had been on our original itinerary (map) and we failed to capture it. We had to abandon our final objective with daylight running short and exhaustion kicking-in. I seemed to recall being quietly content with that decision at the time. We’d seen enough.
Steve reminded me of our omission when I put out a call for my 2016 travel plans. The CTMARI Tripoint absolutely had to make the cut. The goal was never about Lake Chargogga-whatever, it just happened to fall along a convenient line as I charted our course towards Connecticut’s Quiet Corner where I could reach the tripoint. I relied upon Steve’s CTMARI page for directions and you should too. Not only did it include the clearest, easiest path to the tripoint, it also included an account of the Great East Thompson Train Wreck of 1891, "The only time in US railroading history that FOUR trains crashed into each other!" Go over there and read it. I’ll wait.
We followed Steve’s recommendations, had a relaxing walk through the woods, and arrived at the tripoint just as expected. The cellular network extended nicely to this corner despite its perceived remoteness and I fired-off a self-congratulatory tweet with photo to the world. I could now finally call the journey to all Connecticut Extremes complete.
I’m certainly no peak bagger although I’ve managed to summit a few state highpoints over the years, usually those requiring minimal effort because I’m lazy and unmotivated. It’s always an added bonus if I can drive all the way to the top. I think my total stood at 6 state highpoints prior to this trip: Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina and Tennessee. Plus the District of Columbia. Then I added Rhode Island.
Jerimoth Hill would never be described as a challenging summit requiring great technical expertise. Literally, it was merely one crest amongst many rolling hills at the far northwestern corner of Rhode Island (map). It happened to extend a few feet higher than others nearby when someone drew artificial lines a few centuries ago to create a colony that later became a state. Still, at 811 feet (247 metres), Rhode Island had a higher elevation than Mississippi, Louisiana, Delaware and Florida. It used to be a running joke in the highpointer community that fewer people had reached the summit of lowly Jerimoth Hill than the peak of Mt. Everest. A crotchety landowner blocked access to the summit at the the point of a gun for decades, eventually allowing people to visit on special days once or twice a year. He passed away several years ago and it became the property of the state of Rhode Island after a series of real estate transactions. Now anyone can park by the side of Old Hartford Pike and walk a gentle trail through fragrant pine forest a few hundred yards to the marker.
In reality it’s completely unremarkable and practically indistinguishable from any other knoll nearby. However, I gave the Rhode Island highpointers all due credit for doing their best to make their summit special. I got the sense that their treatment was more than a little tongue-in-cheek, with its stone cairns, summit register box and Himalayan prayer flags like one would expect on much more exalted mountaintops. Still, Jerimoth Hill counted as a state highpoint just as much as Denali and I doubt I’ll ever travel to Alaska and climb to 20,310 feet (6,190 m). I took my short stroll through the woods to a small boulder and I deemed it a success.
Easy Road Trip
Best of all, these three geo-oddities were aligned neatly and in close proximity. Anyone should be able to replicate my feat. I imagined it might be a nice day-trip for 12MC readers from Boston or Hartford.
New England articles:
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr