Northern Panhandle of West Virginia

On October 13, 2016 · 7 Comments

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
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.

Boundary Dispute

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
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

INDUSTRY MILLING IRON & STEEL Weirton West Virgina THE WEIRTON STEEL COMPANY WORKS Coke Ovens Furnace Operation and Production Areas
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.

Cultural Distinctiveness

Ohio River Bridges
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?

Boone Scraps

On October 9, 2016 · 2 Comments

Daniel Boone became a legend even during his own lifetime. He blazed a trail through the Cumberland Gap, opening lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains to settlement. Then he served as a military officer on the frontier during the Revolutionary War. He even became a state legislator. Boone kept pushing farther west throughout his life, always exploring. Eventually he passed away in Missouri in 1820 at the almost unheard of age of 84. No wonder his name adorned places all over the United States, far-and-wide. With all due respect to Boone and his accomplishments however, I wanted to find Boones not named for him. Otherwise it would be too easy.

Boone Counties, Iowa and Arkansas

Boone, Iowa, Story Street, 1940s
Boone, Iowa, Story Street, 1940s. Photo by photolibrarian on Flickr (cc)

Seven different states included a Boone County: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska and West Virginia. Certainly he deserved all of them although two followed a different path. Maybe.

Nobody really knew how Boone County, Arkansas got its name. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas noted that "Although no documentation supports it, the most widely quoted belief is that the county was named for frontiersman Daniel Boone." Another common theory offered that the name started as Boon. Its founders thought the new county would be a boon to its residents. Why didn’t anyone have the foresight to write down a better explanation? It wasn’t like people didn’t have access to pen and paper when the county appeared in 1869.

Boone County, Iowa (map) got its name from Nathan Boone. He helped settle Missouri and "served as a captain with the Missouri Rangers" during the War of 1812. He also happened to be Daniel Boone’s youngest son. I guessed, in a sense, the county’s name did come from Daniel Boone although indirectly. Nathan Boone should still get the preponderance of the credit. He accomplished things beyond his father’s name.

Boonville, Indiana

Beautiful Downtown Boonville, Indiana
Beautiful Downtown Boonville, Indiana. Photo by J. Stephen Conn on Flickr (cc)

Boonville (no "e") in Indiana recognized Ratliff Boon, a prominent politician and Indiana’s second Governor. While his term as governor lasted only a few months — he completed an unexpired term when the previous Governor got elected to the U.S. Congress — he also held a bunch of other office both at the state and federal level during a long career. Certainly he deserved a town named in his honor (map).

Daniel Boone reared his ugly head again. As the City of Boonville explained,

Ratliff Boon was a cousin of Kentucky’s famed Daniel Boone. Daniel’s father, Squire Boone, was brother to Ratliff’s grandfather, Joseph Boon. They were sons of George Boone III, a Quaker, born in England in 1666, immigrating to Pennsylvania in 1717.

Who would name their child Ratliff? Think of the awful childhood nicknames and taunts.


boone’s lick state historic site. Photo by David Cohen on Flickr (cc)

Booneslick Country described an area of central Missouri along the banks of the Missouri River. More properly, early 19th Century adventurers and pioneers called the primary path through that area Boone’s Lick Trail / Road. Daniel Boone did not blaze the trail. Rather his sons Nathan (referenced previously) and Daniel got credit this time. They’d found saltwater springs near the western terminus of their trail that animals used as a salt lick. The brothers set-up a salt works to evaporate the water and sold the remaining salt throughout the frontier. The name of the trail reflected the brother’s enterprise, and a blending that converted it to Booneslick. The city of Columbia, Missouri now sits at the center of this cultural area.

Daniel Boone had an entire national forest named for him, over two million acres in eastern Kentucky. His sons Nathan and Daniel got Boone’s Lick State Historic Site in Missouri. Just fifty-one acres (map).

Boondocks and Boondoggle

Boondocks. Photo by Richard on Flickr (cc)

I didn’t find a lot of Boones completely removed from Daniel Boone’s influences so I dug a little deeper. How about Boondocks? This American English slang word often represented remote or unsophisticated places. It could have come from Boone who spent a lifetime on the frontier. However, it didn’t! Boondocks hid a much more interesting etymology. It came from the Philippines, from the Tagalog word bundok, meaning mountain. American soldiers adopted it during the period of American rule, 1898-1946 and brought it back home.

Boondoggle didn’t refer to Boone either. It appeared rather spontaneously, attributed to an old pioneer word for gadget. It came up in testimony during an investigation of the Relief Committee in New York City. The New York Times headline on April 4, 1935 read, "$3,187,000 Relief is Spent to Teach Jobless to Play … Boon Doggles Made." The paper reported:

"Who gave it that outlandish name?" asked Chairman Deutsch.

"That is an old-time name," the witness replied. "They catch it out West," he added hopefully.

"Named for Daniel Boone?" inquired Vice Chairman Joseph E. Kinsley.

"No, it is not named for Daniel Boone. It is boon doggles. It is spelled differently."

The word caught-on from there. Now it’s used widely in American English to represent a pointless or wasteful activity, especially one disguised as useful. At least it had nothing to do with Daniel Boone. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.

Playing Games

On October 6, 2016 · 0 Comments

Twelve Mile Circle felt like playing games. More to the point, I’d collected a few town names tied to games that I wanted to share. I did something similar awhile ago with the sport of Lawn Bowls, a particularly popular choice for names. Atlantic City also made the cut with Monopoly although the town inspired the game rather than the other way around.

Show Low, Arizona

Cooley and Clark card game statue
Cooley and Clark card game statue. Photo by TJ from AZ on Flickr (cc)

Show Low got me thinking. I’d spotted the town in eastern Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. I figured it hid an interesting story given its strange name and indeed it did. Two ranchers, Corydon Cooley and Marion Clark, owned a large property jointly in 1876. They discovered, however, that it wouldn’t support both of their families. Neither wanted to leave so they let fate pick the winner with a poker game. As the Town’s website explained,

Show Low was named after a marathon poker game played between two early settlers. They decided there wasn’t enough room for both of them in the community and agreed to let a game of cards decide who was to get the 100,000 acre ranch and who was to move on. According to the story, one of them said, "If you can show low, you win." The other one turned up the deuce of clubs and replied, "show low it is."

Nothing could go lower than the deuce of clubs so the game ended. Cooley won. He renamed the ranch Show Low to commemorate his victory and the town later adopted it. That seemed fitting in the Old West where stories like those abounded. The town embraced its history too. They called their primary road, a segment of U.S. Route 60, Deuce of Clubs (map). Lots of local businesses used the name and the town logo featured an appropriate playing card.

Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Ralph Edwards park gazebo. Photo by Tim Kuzdrowski on Flickr (cc)

The map said Truth or Consequences although locals called it T or C (map). Either way, it definitely seemed like an odd name for a town. I thought I’d mentioned this one before, however it seemed that it never actually made it into a 12MC article. Loyal reader Peter did mention T or C in a comment about a year ago referring to its old name, Hot Springs. Well, Hot Springs certainly sounded normal, so what happened?

I supposed with a relatively common name like Hot Springs, the town wanted to try something a little bit more unusual. A radio program popular at the time, Truth or Consequences, offered a contest. Its host, Ralph Edwards, would broadcast the show’s 10th anniversary episode live from any town that would change its name to match the show. Hot Springs jumped at the chance and the broadcast took place on April 1, 1950. The town impressed Edwards so much that he returned every May for the next half-century for an Annual Fiesta. T or C returned the love, naming an auditorium and a park for Edwards.

Poker Flat and The Shores of Poker Flat, California

Bret Harte (by Sarony, 1872)
Bret Harte (by Sarony, 1872). Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain

Bret Harte wrote colorful stories of the California Gold Rush in the second half of the 19th Century. He published one his most famous short stories "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" in Overland Monthly magazine in 1869. Go ahead and read it. This shouldn’t take more than about ten minutes. I’ll wait for you until you get back.

A community called The Shores of Poker Flat claimed to be the inspiration for the story. It even included a Bret Harte Drive (map). However, evidence seemed to point to another Poker Flat found elsewhere in California (map). That one became a ghost town many decades ago.

You didn’t read the story, did you? Let me synopsize. A gold rush town wished to rid itself of negative influences. They hanged a couple of miscreants and exiled four others. The exiles left town, warned to stay away forever. They trudged into the mountains and met a couple traveling in the opposite direction. Tired, the expanded group set camp in an abandoned cabin as it began to snow. They remained trapped for several days as provisions waned and stakes became increasingly desperate. One of the prime characters, the professional gambler John Oakhurst, was found dead at the end of the story. He’d committed suicide "with a Derringer by his side and a bullet in his heart." There he sat beneath a pine tree, with "the deuce of clubs pinned to the bark with a bowie-knife."

There was that deuce of clubs again. He showed low, his luck ran out.

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