Airports in the District of Columbia

On October 28, 2015 · 2 Comments

I mentioned that no airport existed within the physical boundaries of the District of Columbia in the recently posted Airport Visits article. That would block me from ever traveling through airports in every state/territory/district in the United States. I wanted to put a little asterisk next to the claim. That certainly held true for commercial aviation, whether general aviation or scheduled airline service. It also applied to fixed wing aircraft. It might be possible if the President ever invited me along for a ride on Marine One and we landed at Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling by helicopter. I didn’t think the influence of Twelve Mile Circle would ever grow strong enough to make that happen so it remained an elusive goal.

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport

It shouldn’t have been that way. National Airport (later renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport) really should have been part of the District of Columbia. Even the airport itself noted the inherent contradiction.

Was the airport located in Virginia or the District of Columbia? The District "owned" the Potomac River to Virginia, claiming the boundary had been set in 1846 at the high water mark along the shoreline. But since the airport was built on a fill, a new eastern shoreline was created. The question arose as to whether the District’s authority ended at the new shore or the original one. The problem went unresolved until 1945 when Congress approved a bill that fixed the airport boundary at the mean high water mark, regardless of changes, which placed the airport in Virginia.

Certainly the original boundaries would have been preserved had airport construction taken place along a border between two states instead of a state and a Federal district. Open hostilities would have erupted if any state ever attempted such a blatant land grab against another, and it would have been overturned by the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, the District of Columbia didn’t have the power to fight back and National Airport became a part of Virginia. In a sense I feel like I’ve landed at an airport in DC a couple of hundred times although the law says I’ve actually landed in Arlington, Virginia.

I wondered if the feat might have been possible during the early days of flight. I couldn’t find a single reference to a commercial airport operating within the borders of the District of Columbia (other than the early ambiguity of National Airport). Perhaps nobody in the entire history of aviation ever took a scheduled airline flight into or out of an airport within the physical boundaries of Washington, DC.

Military flights, well, that was a completely different story.

Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling

There was a long history of fixed wing aircraft flights into and out of Naval Support Facility Anacostia and Bolling Field, now joined together as Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling. There were two separate airstrips constructed on the drained mudflats along the eastern side of the Anacostia/Potomac River confluence, very much within the borders of the District. Only a short taxiway separated the two airfields so they were essentially conjoined, although they were operated separately by the Navy and the Army (later the Air Force). I mentioned the situation briefly in More Oddities in Washington, DC back in 2010. I said at the time that "I’ve done some additional research on this topic and I expect to post an in-depth article someday in the future." Well, five years passed and I finally got around to it. I never claimed that 12MC was prompt or efficient.

This plane was listed as stationed at Bolling Field in 1954

I found a great resource that discussed aviation history at both facilities, Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields: Washington, DC. It included tons of photographs and maps for those who might be interested in the details. Apparently from about 1917 until 1962, fixed wing military aircraft landed routinely at both sites. During the World War II, as the source stated, Anacostia even became "a primary training base for naval aviation." The party ended on July 1, 1962 when "the last fixed-wing flight departed Bolling AFB, a C-54 carrying 33 passengers & 6 crew members, bound for nearby Andrews AFB." The runways had to close for two primary reasons: they were too short for jet aircraft and National Airport stood directly across the river with some of the busiest commercial runways in the nation. The likelihood of a collision between military and civilian aircraft only increased as the years passed until it became an unmanageable risk.

The "Super Moon" rises over Reagan National Airport
The "Super Moon" rises over Reagan National Airport by Joseph Gruber via Flickr (cc)
Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling and its tower can be seen in the background

Fear not, aviation continued even after runway removal at Anacostia and Bolling. The focus shifted from airplanes to helicopters. The military constructed a control tower and hangers still used today, clearly visible along the banks of the river opposite from National Airport. For many years "Marine One," the helicopter that transported the President of the United States on short trips, used Anacostia as its base.

Sikorsky VH-3 Sea King Helicopter
Sikorsky VH-3 Sea King Helicopter by Mr.TinDC via Flickr (cc)
Using Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling

Marine Helicopter Squadron One now operates out of of Quantico in Virginia although it continues to maintain a detachment at Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling. One can still see helicopters landing and lifting off from their facility within the District of Columbia regularly.

A handful of civilian flights actually landed in the District within the last few decades although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. The latest involved a small gyrocopter landing on the grounds of the Capitol in April 2015 as a protest in support of campaign finance reform. Authorities arrested the perpetrator immediately. As the Federal Aviation Administration warned,

The airspace around Washington, D.C. is more restricted than in any other part of the country. Rules put in place after the 9/11 attacks establish "national defense airspace" over the area and limit aircraft operations to those with an FAA and Transportation Security Administration authorization. Violators face stiff fines and criminal penalties.

Even drones were prohibited "within a 30-mile radius of Ronald-Reagan Washington National Airport." That’s right, I’m prohibited by law from flying a drone anywhere near my own home! Sadly, I believe it would be statistically impossible for me to ever fly into the District in any manner, and even more unlikely to arrive within its borders on a scheduled airline service. Loyal Reader "Peter" mentioned that the state of Delaware lacked any scheduled airline service too, albeit its largest city, Wilmington had been served in the past. There might be some hope that service could return to Delaware someday. I don’t think that will ever happen in the District of Columbia, though.

Oglala Lakota County

On October 21, 2015 · 2 Comments

I noticed that the the Wade Hampton Census Area in Alaska became the Kusilvak Census Area in a recent Reader Mailbag article. Alaska’s census areas are a unique construct, designed as a convenient parceling of the Unorganized Borough although they’re considered "county equivalents" by the Federal government for a number of statistical purposes. Still, the renaming was a big deal. Counties (or county equivalents) change names very infrequently.

Longtime reader Scott Surgent replied, "You may have already mentioned this, but another county changed its name as of May 1, 2015: Shannon County, South Dakota, is now Oglala Lakota County." Well no, actually, I hadn’t mentioned it. In fact I wasn’t even aware of it until Scott said something. I must have been asleep at the wheel. Thank you Scott for calling me out!

Let’s go ahead and take a look Oglala Lakota County and explore the reasoning behind the name.

Map of South Dakota highlighting Oglala Lakota County
Map of South Dakota highlighting Oglala Lakota County via Wikimedia Commons, in the Public Domain

Shannon County, now Oglala Lakota County, formed near the southwest corner of South Dakota in 1875. The land immediately west, the actual southwestern corner formed into Fall River County. That was significant because Oglala Lakota is one of the very few counties in the United States that does not have a county seat. It’s administrative center is collocated within Fall River County in neighboring Hot Springs. According to the South Dakota Association of County Officials,

Until 1982 Oglala Lakota and Washabaugh County, South Dakota, were the last unorganized counties in the United States. Although it was organized and received a home rule charter that year, Oglala Lakota County… contracts with Fall River County for its Auditor, Treasurer, Director of Equalization, State’s Attorney and Registrar of Deeds.

Technically the Unorganized Borough in Alaska remains unorganized and boroughs are considered analogous to counties so, evidently, we have a situation of semantics going on here. Nonetheless, the larger point remained that Oglala Lakota was and continues to be governed in an unusual manner. It also had the lowest annual per capita income of any county in the United States — only $8,768 — which likely explained some of the peculiarities. It couldn’t afford to provide these services on its own.

Who was Shannon?

Shannon County Line
Shannon County Line by Jimmy Emerson, DVM (cc)

The name Shannon applied to the county from 1875 to 2015. Nonetheless that didn’t stop residents from selecting a new name in a landslide, capturing 80% of ballots cast in the November 2014 election. The South Dakota Legislature reviewed and endorsed the vote the following Spring and Shannon became Oglala Lakota.

Peter C. Shannon lived in South Dakota for several years in the late Nineteenth Century. He’d been a career politician from Pennsylvania serving in minor positions, a loyal supporter of Abraham Lincoln. President Ulysses Grant rewarded Shannon by appointing him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Dakota Territory. He held the position while counties formed in the Territory so one was named for him. He was a political hack who benefited from lucky timing. Eventually Shannon "fell out of favor with territorial lawyers who successfully blocked his application for reappointment in 1881." He died in San Diego in 1899 from injuries suffered in a carriage accident.

Why Oglala Lakota

The Women of Pine Ridge
The Women of Pine Ridge by Hamner_Fotos (cc)

There were plenty of counties in the United States named for insignificant historical figures and yet their names haven’t been challenged. It would be useful to understand that the Pine Ridge Reservation covers the entirety of the county. Its people belong to the Oglala Lakota Nation. If that wasn’t sufficient justification by itself, Peter Shannon was understood to be someone "who took part in the corrupt and coercive process of carving up the enormous Great Sioux Reservation in the late 19th century." The Rapid City Journal quoted Short Bull, a member of the tribe who explained, "for Oglala Lakota tribal members like himself, Peter Shannon embodied the changes forced upon his people; from governance changes to the introduction of private property ownership."

It seemed like an open-and-shut case. Many Oglala Lakota, the primary inhabitants of the county, viewed Shannon as an oppressor. The name had to go. I’m surprised the vote wasn’t greater than 80%.

Are There Other County Name Changes in the Works?

I don’t know. Hopefully the 12MC audience will speak up if anything seems to be in the works. I did spot a recent (September 2015) article in the State Journal-Register from Springfield, Illinois: Historical society director floats plan for new Illinois county names

[Bill] Furry, the executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society, suggests renaming Illinois’ counties. All 102 of them. And he wants the public to participate… "For more than 150 years, they have honored a past that is beyond any living person’s memory," Furry said. "Given that Illinois history is rarely taught in school these days, the names of the counties might as well be written in Latin, or worse, French. Illinois is French, by the way."

To which the Jacksonville Journal-Courier from west-central Illinois responded, Renaming counties a costly, unnecessary rewrite of history; "Even now and then, a good idea comes to light. This is not one of them."

Jacksonville, Illinois, one should note, fell within Morgan County. The county was named for one of those figures who died beyond any living person’s memory: Daniel Morgan, a hero of the Revolutionary War and the suppressor of the Whiskey Rebellion (1791–1794).

Maybe the suggestion hit a little too close to home.

Columbus Name Symmetry, Part 1

On September 13, 2015 · 1 Comments

Quite some time ago, way back in April 2012, Twelve Mile Circle posted an article called First Name, Surname Symmetry. It involved places where different levels of government nestled to form the full names of important people. Examples included the city Hernando, in De Soto County, Mississippi; the town of George in the state of Washington; and the settlement of Thomas City in Jefferson County, Florida. They paid tribute to dignitaries on multiple levels. I’d pretty much forgot about that earlier article even though it generated a good amount of attention at the time. Then I stumbled upon an international example and it felt like the right time to tug the thread just a little bit more.

I turned my sights to Central America.

Cristóbal, Panamá

Cristóbal, Panama
Cristóbal, Panama by Fotorus on Flickr (cc)

Cristóbal, a town of fifty thousand residents on Panamá’s Atlantic Coast (map) wouldn’t seem to conform to the established pattern at first glance for an exclusively English-speaking person such as myself. Nonetheless somehow it clicked when I noticed Cristóbal’s placement within Colón Province. Some ancient piece of trivia lodged deep within the folds of my memory popped to the surface. The person known as Cristóbal Colón in Spanish was also known as Christopher Columbus in English. That created perfect first name, surname symmetry down in Panamá, albeit in a language I didn’t understand much about otherwise.


11 Panama Canal Zone 10 of 13
Panama Canal Zone by Richard on Flickr (cc)

The town figured prominently in early 20th century Panamanian history. It served as a staging point and an administrative headquarters for the Panama Canal Commission upon its establishment. It also fell within the Panama Canal Zone starting in 1903 when the U.S. government paid newly-independent Panamá $10 million for perpetual control of the zone. Thus, Cristóbal transferred to the territorial possession of the United States. The U.S. citizens who lived within Cristóbal and the remainder of the territory were known as Zonians.

The zone was an area of 533 square miles that ran the course of the canal and was controlled by the US. Families were given generous benefits, including subsidised housing, ample holiday time, well-stocked commissaries and attentive staff… Its residents enjoyed the beautiful weather and more relaxed lifestyle of Panama, while also living in comfortable American-style housing, experiencing a top-notch American education and enjoying all the perks of US citizenship.

Some fifty thousand U.S. citizens lived in the zone at any given time, swelling closer towards a hundred thousand residents during times of war, given the strategic importance of the canal. They created a little slice of home along with a festering pile of animosity with the local Panamanian populace who endured an entirely less privileged lifestyle. It was clear that the arrangement could not continue given increasing tensions between the two even if the agreement was supposed to last forever. The canal zone reverted back to Panamá in carefully controlled pieces between 1979 and 1999, after the two nations agreed to the Torrijos-Carter Treaties.

More Recently

Cristóbal hit on hard times after that — as did much of Panamá — and earned an unsavory reputation for criminal activity. The town began to gain its footing in recent years via the tourist trade because it offered great access to the Canal. Cruise ships often dock there now.

Colón, the province, also had a capital city named Colón. Over time the city of Colón grew and subsumed Cristóbal. While Cristóbal still existed as a place name it might more properly be described as a neighborhood of Colón as it stands currently. The first name, surname symmetry still existed although on a couple of distinct levels: Cristóbal as a part of the City of Colón, and Cristóbal a part of the province of Colón.

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