Arizona’s Wandering Capital

On December 27, 2015 · 2 Comments

The article I discovered was more than a year old, although it was new to me when I spotted it. The title intrigued me, Did You Know: Capital Of Arizona Moved 4 Times Before Settling In Phoenix. No, actually I didn’t know that. I’ve featured similar stories of wandering capitals for other states such as Ohio, Georgia and Alabama. Why not one about Arizona capitals too? The article provided a nice overview so that I could explore some of the stranger aspects and then the actual locations of its multiple former capitol buildings.

Mesilla, New Mexico

Wpdms arizona new mexico territories 1863 idx.png
Wpdms arizona new mexico territories 1863 idx“.
Licensed under Wikimedia Commons.

For instance, the first Arizona capital was actually located in New Mexico although not according to the United States government. The Confederate States of America had a surprisingly strong presence in the neglected farthest southern reaches of the western desert. The New Mexico territory encompassed an area occupied by modern New Mexico and Arizona at the time. The Confederates claimed the southern half as Arizona during the Civil War, placing their eastern capital in Mesilla when troops under Col. John Baylor arrived in February 1862. No signs remained of their original capitol building although it stood where the historic Fountain Theater was constructed in the 1870’s and still operates today (map). The Confederate government wouldn’t last long there. Union troops drove Baylor and his rebellious forces into Texas a few months later.


Sharlot Hall Museum: Governor’s Mansion
Sharlot Hall Museum: Governor’s Mansion by Rosa Say on Flickr (cc)

The United States government looked unfavorably upon the Confederate incursion as one would expect. It diluted Confederate sympathies by cleaving Arizona from the western half of New Mexico rather than the southern half. Prescott became the Arizona capital in late 1863 at nearby Fort Whipple (map), an Army base. A few months later the capital moved into the town of Prescott proper and into more suitable accommodations. A large log building served as the seat of government as well as the governor’s home. It was sold as a private residence when no longer needed, when the capital finally wandered away to a new location for good. The building was preserved at its original location and now forms the backbone of the Sharlot Hall Museum (map).

As the museum explained,

The log house served as both home and office for Territorial Governor John Goodwin and Secretary Richard McCormick. In September 1865, when Goodwin was elected Territorial Delegate to Congress and returned to the east, McCormick brought his new wife Margaret out from New Jersey, and he soon became our second territorial governor… In 1867, the Territorial Capital was transferred to Tucson, and Governor McCormick went with it.


Charles O Brown House
Charles O Brown House by javacolleen on Flickr (cc)

The capital would remain in Tucson for the next decade, from 1867-1877 (it had also served as the western Confederate capital briefly during the war). However, Arizona didn’t build a dedicated structure to house the territorial government. The permanent location for its seat of government continued to remain unsettled, with political forces nearly evenly divided between choosing Prescott and Tucson. Instead the territorial government met in several privately-owned facilities spread throughout the town at any given time, most famously the Congress Hall Saloon. I had a difficult time finding the exact location of the saloon because it was torn down in the early 1900’s. However I finally did track the site down to a spot along one of Tucson’s major road — Congress Street (named for the saloon). The cross streets were Congress and Meyer (map) although Meyer no longer extends through there anymore.

The Congress Hall Saloon played a prominent role in the history of Tucson. Charles Brown was its proprietor, and his home still exists at 40 W. Broadway Boulevard, a couple of blocks to the east of the old saloon. Not only did the saloon serve as an informal territorial capital it also hosted an 1871 meeting "of prominent townsmen… during which the municipality of Tucson was organized and officers elected." It was one of the few structures of a suitable size in an emerging frontier town so it didn’t matter that alcohol served as its primary purpose for existence.


Arizona Capitol Museum
Arizona Capitol Museum by Matthew Hendley on Flickr (cc)

Political wrangling continued. The capital moved back to Prescott in 1877 where it remained until 1889. Finally, the legislature settled on Phoenix. This time the location stuck. This was a compromise choice placed about halfway between Prescott and Tucson. If politicians couldn’t decide on one town or the other at least they could stick it in the middle. A new capitol building (map) soon emerged on the spot and remained in service until the 1960’s when replaced by the current capitol building adjacent to it. The original Phoenix structure then became the Arizona Capitol Museum.

Old sympathies died hard on the frontier and more than a few recalcitrant Confederates remained in Arizona decades after the Civil War ended. Arizona became a state on February 14, 1912. That was fifty years to the day from when Colonel Baylor declared a Confederate Arizona on February 14, 1862, establishing its capital in Mesilla.

White House Christmas Tour

On December 20, 2015 · 2 Comments

Every once in awhile my proximity to the nation’s capital results in interesting opportunities. I got a chance to visit the White House somewhat by luck to see the 2015 Christmas decorations displayed for public viewing. This was the standard public tour — I’m no VIP just an average citizen — although it happened to occur during a particularly scenic time of the year. It also served as a reminder that the White House was more than a residence for the President; it was also the people’s house and a museum.

I won’t be discussing any geo-oddities today so feel free to come back when I post the next article, or enjoy some holiday photos I took as I walked through rooms on exhibit.

I’d been to the grounds of the White House several times before, most recently for the Easter Egg Roll in 2013, although I’d never been inside the actual building. I’d never gotten around to it in spite of living in the Washington, DC area my entire life. Getting tickets always seemed like such an chore. However this time I practically had tickets handed to me so I couldn’t turn them down. Now I believe I’ve completed perhaps every tourist attraction in my hometown, which is saying a lot.

National Christmas Tree

White House Christmas Tour 2015

We arrived with plenty of time to spare so we began our adventure by strolling down to the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse. The wife and kids enjoyed wandering amongst the many state and territorial trees while I took a short detour over to the Zero Milestone marker to pay my respects. Certainly there was time to find the closest piece of weird geography before starting our tour.

East Visitor Landing

White House Christmas Tour 2015

Envision the strictest possible airport security imaginable and that’s what it was like trying to get onto the White House grounds. They’d collected enough personal information ahead of time to completely steal my identity if that’s what they’d really wanted. I guess we checked out because we saw ourselves on the list and they let us proceed to the first of several sequential security lines. This included two separate positive identification checks, a stroll past sniffing dogs, and finally a passage through the magnetometer. I joked that we’d probably get through all of the lines only to discover that we’d reach the end of the tour; we’d find ourselves back on Pennsylvania Avenue after the final check. The ordeal of getting into the White House took longer than the time we actually spent inside, although I wasn’t complaining. I’d actually been concerned ahead of time that maybe the tour might be canceled due to recent events so I was fine with it taking as long as necessary.

Finally we made it up to the East Visitor Landing, greeted by giant cutout penguins as we entered the doorway.

East Colonnade

White House Christmas Tour 2015

One recent change made me happy, and made this article possible. The White House had prohibited visitor photographs for more than forty years before lifting the ban in July. I wasn’t allowed to bring my good camera or use a flash, although my mobile phone camera passed muster and served well enough. I began snapping as soon as I entered the East Colonnade and I didn’t stop until I exited on the front lawn. I figured I might never get another chance.

The colonnade featured hand-cut paper snowflakes dangling from the ceiling. Naturally I had to find the Virginia snowflake.

East Garden Room

White House Christmas Tour 2015

I felt sorry for the bust of Abraham Lincoln stuck behind a Christmas tree. He had a better view during the rest of the year, of the south lawn and the Washington Monument in the distance.

Vermeil Room

White House Christmas Tour 2015

Vermeil seemed to be an unusual word. What was it, and why would anyone name a room for it? The explanation was pretty mundane: it was a fancy name for gold plated silverware. Someone gifted of set of silverware to the White House that was placed in the room. The name stuck.

East Room

White House Christmas Tour 2015

The East Room was the largest room in the White House. If you’ve ever seen a photo of a reception held by the President it’s likely to have occurred within this room. It occupied the entire short width of the White House with views both of the north and south lawns from its windows. That’s when I realized that the White House may be a large residence although it wasn’t a particularly large building. Those famous receptions must get pretty crowded. The average ballroom in a mid-tier hotel would likely be larger than the stately East Room. I imagined the East Room was probably decorated a lot nicer, though.

Green Room

White House Christmas Tour 2015

Then we came to three rooms named for different colors, the first being the Green Room. Notice, indeed it was green.

Blue Room

White House Christmas Tour 2015

Following came the Blue Room. The tree here was considered the "official" White House Christmas tree. I don’t know what distinguished it from the several dozen other trees spread throughout the house, or whether the title went with the Blue Room itself. This tree, according to the brochure we received, was a Fraser fir from Lehighton, Pennsylvania. It certainly looked resplendent.

Red Room

White House Christmas Tour 2015

Could the Twelve Mile Circle audience guess the name of this room? Why yes, of course, it was the Red Room, the most distinctly hued of the three colored rooms. The Red Room was associated with Dolly Madison in particular, wife of the fourth President of the United States, James Madison. Christmas decorations mirrored the crimson theme, with strands of cranberries and garlands of red apples and pomegranates. I know it was probably terrible that all I could think of was REDRUM from The Shining whenever I heard Red Room. I didn’t want to say anything out loud though. I’m sure the Secret Service agents wouldn’t have appreciated it.

State Dining Room

White House Christmas Tour 2015

I think I liked the State Dining Room most off all, with its giant nutcrackers and a scaled version of the White House made of gingerbread. This was a smaller space than the East Room and was used for more intimate receptions.

The End

White House Christmas Tour 2015

Before long, once completing our leisurely stroll through the public rooms, we found ourselves out on the front lawn. It amazed me to stand right there in front of the White House at such a famous, iconic position. What an incredible privilege. How many other nations open the homes of their leaders to public tours?

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours.

Center of Power

On December 2, 2015 · 4 Comments

Pioneers migrating into the central sections of the United States during the Nineteenth Century found a unique opportunity to shape their governance. Counties formed across the prairie in precise straight lines, with the local seat of government often platted somewhere conveniently in the middle. Names bestowed upon these geographic slices frequently reflected prominent local businessmen or national politicians or even Native Americans that had been displaced in the process. Sometimes their names represented more practical considerations. Nothing would be more unimaginative than naming a centrally-located county seat Center or some variation.

I found several such county seats. Invariably their etymologies reflected their central placement within a surrounding county. That failed to excite me so I took it for granted and tried to find something more interesting, something actually worth mentioning. I investigated a few and left the rest for others.

Center, Shelby Co., Texas

Welcome to Center
Welcome to Center by J. Stephen Conn on Flickr (cc)

I began with Center (maps), the seat of government in Shelby County, Texas, because that’s where I first noticed the trend. It inspired the search for others. One of my favorite sources, The Handbook of Texas included an anecdote about its status.

In an election called in January 1866 Center was voted the new county seat, but a number of people disputed the results, and no action was taken for some months. Finally, in August of that year some Center residents stole the county records and moved them to Center, thereby permanently establishing Center as the county seat.

Shelby was one of the original counties dating to the founding of the Republic of Texas. The town fell within a gray, somewhat lawless area during that time. Vigilantes ran roughshod through Shelby and Center during an era that became known as the Regulator-Moderator War, "a feud in Harrison and Shelby counties in the Redlands of East Texas from 1839 to 1844."

Center also happened to sit about eleven miles from Shelbyville. Simpsons fans would understand the significance of that because Shelbyville was a town neighboring Springfield. One could add Center to the long and tenuous list of possible settings for Springfield, the fictional hometown of the Simpsons.

Central City, Gilpin Co., Colorado

Central City, Colorado
Central City, Colorado by Jasperdo on Flickr (cc)

The "Richest Square Mile on Earth" (map) commonly described the layout of Central City, Colorado once the 1859 gold rush put it on the map:

John Gregory discovered "The Gregory Lode" in a gulch near Central City. Within two weeks, the gold rush was on and within two months the population grew to 10,000 people seeking their fortunes. William Byers, founder of the Rocky Mountain News, and some companions pitched their tents on open ground squarely in the center of the mining district. Thus Central City was born and was soon the leading mining center in Colorado.

Many of those old Western boomtowns crashed after prospectors stripped everything of value from the soil. Central City faced similar challenges and hoped to find salvation in a different form in the late 20th Century; gambling. The town attracted several casinos. Their neighboring town, Black Hawk, came to the same conclusion and also courted high rollers. Unfortunately for Central City, only one road led into town from Denver and that’s where most of the gamblers lived. Drivers had to travel through Black Hawk first and most of them never even made it to Central City. That wouldn’t last. Central City built a new road, an expressway, several miles long that bypassed Black Hawk and attached directly to Interstate 70 in 2004.

Centerville, Hickman Co., Tennessee

Grinder's Switch Depot
Grinder's Switch Depot by Brent Moore on Flickr (cc)

The usual story. Centreville fell at the approximate center of Hickman County. It was also the hometown of comedian Minnie Pearl and it featured heavily in her comedy routines albeit under a different name. I imagined many 12MC readers wouldn’t be familiar with her trademark appearance and catch phrases. Perhaps a snippet from her biography from the Country Music Hall of Fame might set the proper context:

Minnie Pearl, a member of the Grand Ole Opry cast from 1940 until her death in 1996, was country music’s preeminent comedian and one of the most widely recognized comic performers American culture has ever produced. With her straw hat and its dangling $1.98 price tag, her representation of herself as a man-chasing spinster in the small town of Grinder’s Switch, TN, and her great-hearted holler of "How-DEE! I’m just so proud to be here" as she took to the Opry stage, Pearl became an icon of rural America even as she lovingly satirized its ways.

She’d been born Sarah Ophelia Colley in 1912 in Centerville where her father owned a successful lumber company. The future Minnie Pearl enjoyed watching lumber from her father’s sawmill being loaded onto rail cars on a spur track that attached to the main railroad. The side track was known as Grinder’s Switch (map) — a real place near Centerville — that she later incorporated into her humorous routines as a proxy for a generic hillbilly backwater. It became an integral part of her fictional persona. In reality Ms. Colley was a well-educated college graduate from a prosperous family.

Centerville, Appanoose Co., Iowa

Centerville, Iowa, East State Street
Centerville, Iowa, East State Street by photolibrarian on Flickr (cc)

The county seat for Appanoose Co. deserved a special mention for what it was not; the Centerville name didn’t relate to its location (map). Or did it?

Several sources including A Dictionary of Iowa Place-Names insisted that the original name had been Chaldea and that its new name was supposed to be Sentorville or Senterville in recognition of a Tennessee politician/minister (possibly William Tandy Senter). The story explained that the town filed incorporation papers in the 1850’s and a bureaucrat somewhere along the line mistook Senterville for a spelling error and "corrected" it to Centerville. It would be hard to imagine someone creating such an oddly specific story and yet the namesake politician never had anything to do with Iowa. Oh, and Centerville was platted smack-dab in the middle of Appanoose County. That seemed like too many interesting coincidences.

The Complete List

I found a total of fourteen county seats with a Center theme (including the ones described above) that served as local seats of governments for the counties that surrounded them.

  • Alabama: Centre, Cherokee Co.
  • Alabama: Centreville, Bibb Co.
  • Colorado: Central City, Gilpin Co.
  • Iowa: Centerville, Appanoose Co.
  • Maryland: Centreville, Queen Anne’s Co.
  • Michigan: Centreville, St. Joseph
  • Minnesota: Center City, Chisago Co.
  • Missouri: Centerville, Reynolds Co.
  • Nebraska: Center, Knox Co.
  • Nebraska: Central City, Merrick Co.
  • North Dakota: Center, Oliver Co.
  • Tennessee: Centerville, Hickman Co.
  • Texas: Center, Shelby Co.
  • Texas: Centerville, Leon Co.

I can’t promise that this list recorded every example because I compiled it by hand. It should be close, though.

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