I’d fretted about my upcoming bicycle trek along the Great Allegheny Passage trail, my attitude stuck somewhere between nervousness and fear. I’d never attempted anything like it before, a 150 mile (240 kilometre) rails-to-trails ride between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Cumberland, Maryland.
Every time I conquered a fear I created a new one to replace it. I wasn’t "experienced enough" so I rode all through the winter in the cold and the wind getting into shape. I wasn’t used to extra baggage so I loaded my panniers with 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of dead weight and rode around like that for several weeks. I didn’t have the right equipment so I had the bike overhauled, packed for every roadside repair imaginable and scoured the Intertubes for suggestions from riders who’d finished the trail successfully. It might rain a lot in early Spring so I packed waterproof everything. I even threw in a couple of bungee cords because — well why not — bungee cords might be useful. How did I ever get to this? A younger version of me with some friends took a 28-day roadtrip with barely a map and a vague idea of wanting to visit national parks. Now much older and supposedly more experienced, I was afraid I might get wet.
Eventually I eliminated every rational and even some irrational fears with the exception of possible attack by hillbilly meth addicts hiding along the trail. Roving feral methamphetamine gangs were one tick above sassquatch sightings on the probability scale so I knew I’d finally arrived at the proper mental state. I was ready. Besides, we were spending four days on the trail, an easy pace that one website described as a classic for "recreational cyclists with some experience." That seemed to fit my demographic.
We parked in Cumberland, Maryland and hitched a shuttle ride along with our equipment to Pittsburgh through a local bicycle shop. We would need to finish the trail if we wanted to see our cars ever again and return home. We burned the bridge behind us, figuratively.
The Journey Began
Point State Park; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Mile 150 began in Pittsburgh. We planned to ride all the way back down to Mile 0 in Cumberland. The shuttle dropped us off at Point State Park at the joining of the city’s famed Three Rivers, where the Monongahela and Allegheny formed the Ohio (map). I wished we’d been able to spend a little more time exploring the history at the park, the place where Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne stood at the river confluence during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). However it was already approaching 2:00 pm and we needed to get moving even though it was a light ride, 35 miles (56 km) on relatively flat terrain.
We posed for the obligatory photos at the fountain in a cold, steady rain. We were all thoroughly waterproofed, warm and ready to roll so the weather didn’t bother us. The route followed city streets for a about a mile before turning onto a dedicated path that would last for the remainder of the trip.
CSX Railroad Train; near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The GAP Trail followed decommissioned railroad rights-of-way primarily along riverbeds, first the Monongahela as we began the adventure and later the Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers, each growing progressively smaller as we pushed farther back into the watershed. Trains became our constant companions for the entire route. While some lines had been decommissioned and turned into trails, others continued to haul coal from the mountains in an unending stream. All day, all night, along every mile of pathway and in every sleepy hamlet the train whistles and the clackety-clack burst into waking hours and even seeped into my dreams. I saw the first train just outside of Pittsburgh (map) and then came hundreds more.
The Homestead Works; Homestead, Pennsylvania
The trail leaving Pittsburgh displayed an unusual mix of post-apocalyptic ruin and suburban sprawl, and reminded me why the local football team became the Pittsburgh Steelers. The steep decline of the Rust Belt loomed everywhere though, in remnants large and small. Entire factories of broken windows stood abandoned along the banks of the Monongahela. Concrete blocks and iron trusses poked from the earth in unexpected places, crumbling, rusting, decaying. Every once in a while an actual working mill continued to belch pillows of steam over the valley, a remnant clawing its way into the 21st Century. Perhaps some might find this industrial backdrop a bit grim for riding. It rather fascinated me though. I imagined the prosperity that old robber barons brought to the area only to see a way of life collapse decades later, emptying towns and scattering people as economic winds shifted to other parts of the world.
Not everything I saw reflected a tale of decline. Modern suburbs grew into many of the vacant spaces once filled by factories. We peddled past an odd array of well-preserved smokestacks (map) in front of a shopping center known as The Waterfront. Those were remains of Homestead Steel Works, once the world’s largest steel-producing plant.
The poles are the 12 towering smokestacks that used to vent heat from red-hot steel ingots waiting to be reshaped in the 45-inch slab mill. They now stand like lonely sentinels at the edge of the Loews Theater parking lot.
Homestead Steel Works dated to the 1880’s, once owned by industrialist Andrew Carnegie who later sold it to U.S. Steel where it became the company’s flagship factory. It was also the site of the infamous Homestead Strike of 1892 that lasted for several months with significant violence and loss of life.
The Works closed in 1986. Almost thirty years later I rode across the place where molten metal rivers once poured.
Scars Upon the Landscape
Red Waterfall; Buena Vista, Pennsylvania
We began to leave city behind and pushed past McKeesport, now switching from the bank of the Monongahela River to the Youghiogheny. The trail’s paved surface turned to gravel and would remain that way for the remainder of the ride. City gave way to suburb and finally to countryside as the miles slipped away. Next came smaller towns like Boston and Sutersville and historic sites such as the old Dravo Cemetery.
Nature reclaimed many of the old industrial sites although a toxic legacy remained behind. A red waterfall (map) hid a dark secret. The rich color came from iron. The acidity killed aquatic life and poisoned the waters. Toxins seeped from abandoned mines, an environmentally harmful condition called Acid Mine Drainage (AMD). The waterfall reminded me that even something ugly could appear somewhat beautiful on its surface.
We arrived in West Newton for the night, wet and layered with ashen grime from the crushed limestone used on the trail. We hosed-off our bikes and congratulated ourselves on a successful first day.
It sat there in front of me, so tempting, so wanting to be bestowed with a clickbait title on this 12MC article. I could have called it Sex Folk or maybe Folk Sex. Certainly that would have attracted some undeserved attention and a few extra eyeballs. However, for what purpose? People who came to the site on that flimsy premise would create the classic one-and-done scenario, never to return again anyway. It’s not like Twelve Mile Circle ever tried to appeal to a wider audience beyond its faithful core of geo-geeks. I avoided the temptation. However now I have to describe what this article is all about because I spent the entire opening paragraph on a completely unrelated tangent.
The situation became apparent as I started my research for an upcoming trip to Cape Cod and environs in the next few weeks. Massachusetts, I noticed, had counties of Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk and Suffolk. The prefixes seemed directional, east, middle, north and south. The suffixes, well I knew they came from England during the colonial era although I’d never examined their meaning before. What did -sex and -folk mean, anyway?
At this point the UK audience can probably stop reading. This will likely be old news. It may also be old news for much of the North American audience too. I don’t know.
Oh, I have another interesting tidbit since we’re running down irrelevant tangents today. More 12MC visitors arrive on the site from London than from any other place in the world except for New York City. By that I mean 12MC has a surprisingly robust British audience and a lot of people could probably stop reading right around now and get on with their day.
Harvard Bridge, crossing between Middlesex and Suffolk Counties, Massachusetts (my own photo)
Once on a trip to Boston, Massachusetts I walked across the Harvard Bridge over the Charles River between Middlesex and Suffolk Counties. I’d gone there to observe the birthplace of the Smoot in person. That simple stroll allowed me to travel from -folk (Suffolk) to -sex (Middlesex) and back to -folk. Let’s begin by evaluating -sex.
The geographic prefix -sex came from the Old English seaxe, meaning Saxon. The Saxons were a Germanic people who arrived in Great Britain in the fifth century and formed part of the larger Anglo-Saxon grouping that remained in control until the Norman conquest in 1066. Sorry to disappoint everyone with that rather mundane derivation. Thus, in England, Sussex was south Saxon, Essex was east Saxon, Wessex was west Saxon and Middlesex was middle Saxon. That middle Saxon was centered near London and the other lands of Saxons were correspondingly south, east and west. England in modern times split Sussex into West Sussex and East Sussex which are west and east of each other (generally southwest and southeast of London), all logically enough. It made sense.
Things got a bit turned around in the North American colonies when settlers arrived and brought their familiar English placenames with them. In Massachusetts, Essex was east of Middlesex and that was fine. In New Jersey, Sussex was north, Middlesex was south and Essex was in the middle (although one tiny corner extended farthest east). In Virginia, Middlesex was in the middle and Sussex was south as they should have been, however Essex was north.
Boston skyline by Bert Kaufmann, on Flickr (cc)
The City of Boston was located within the -folk when I crossed the Harvard Bridge. Many counties in New England have been disestablished and Suffolk has joined the list. It exists for various statistical purposes although Suffolk no longer has a separate county government. Nonetheless it retained its historical name with it’s pertinent suffix.
Sometimes the obvious guess provided the answer, and -folk means folk, i.e., people. Suffolk meant south folk, from the Old English suþfolcci. Norfolk, well, meant north people.
Suffolk and Norfolk in England were aligned geographically in an appropriate manner. Massachusetts was completely flipped. Suffolk was north and Norfolk was south. Either the etymology had been obscured or nobody cared by then.
I came across the oddly named River Great Ouse as I researched Pathway to Bedford. The river ran through Bedford, the County Town of Bedfordshire.
The Great Ouse at St Ives by sean_hickin, on Flickr (cc)
I was amused even further when I discovered that it was pronounced somewhat akin to "Ooze." A body of water likened to a great ooze seemed awful, as if it flowed with black tar or sewage. That wasn’t the case of course. In fact, photographic evidence made it appear quite lovely.
The Great Ouse became great because there were actually several rivers Ouse located throughout England and this one happened to be the largest and longest. In fact this one was the fourth longest river in the United Kingdom extending 143 miles (230 kilometres) from Syresham to the Wash on the North Sea in East Anglia (map).
One of its more interesting features might have been the Cardington Slalom Course in Bedford, the first artificial kayaking facility constructed in the United Kingdom.
Opened in September 1982, Cardington is a 120m long S-shaped trapezoid concrete channel with movable boulders fixed to the base which can be moved to make different river patterns. The maximum drop is 1.7 meters, but it’s enough for a good white water training facility and you can warm up on the main river. It offers safe moving water for paddlers at any level, and is suitable for up to Division 2 Slaloms, and also for recreation groups to hire.
What about some of those other Rivers Ouse?
River Little Ouse
Little Ouse River, Thetford by Alan Winter, on Flickr (cc)
One might consider that River Little Ouse would be an ideal name for a tributary of River Great Ouse, and that was indeed the case. Little Ouse flowed into Great Ouse near Littleport in Cambridgeshire after passing Thetford (map). Indeed it was little, a mere 37 miles (60 km). However it also hid a greater significance, the dividing line between Norfolk and Suffolk for a considerable distance. Portions of it were also navigable by canal boats.
The other Rivers Ouse were not part of the Great and Little Ouse watersheds.
River Ouse, Yorkshire
River Ouse at York by Tim Green, on Flickr (cc)
The River Ouse in Yorkshire (map) might not have been designated as Great, however it flowed through the rather significant city of York. As the city explained, "The city of York owes its existence to the Rivers Ouse and Foss. These natural barriers made it an ideal defensive site which was settled by the Romans in AD71."
A couple of towns incorporated the river’s name, Newton-on-Ouse and Linton-on-Ouse. A Royal Air Force base located nearby adopted the name by extension, RAF Linton-on-Ouse: "RAF Linton-on-Ouse is one of the busiest airfields in the country. Tasked with the training future fast jet pilots for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, the Station operates the Tucano T1."
River Ouse, Sussex
The River Ouse at Lewes, East Sussex by Henry Hemming, on Flickr (cc)
Another River Ouse existed in Sussex (map). It was notable for a more painful reason.
The English author Virginia Woolf suffered from depression for much of her life. A number of tragic events befell her during the early years of the Second World War including the destruction of her London home during the The Blitz.
These seemingly insurmountable facts motivated Woolf’s decision to, on March 28, 1941, pull on her overcoat, walk out into the River Ouse and fill her pockets with stones. As she waded into the water, the stream took her with it. The authorities found her some three weeks later.
Why were there so many rivers named Ouse? The Free Dictionary offered an explanation.
Ouse is a perfectly appropriate name for a river, but one whose etymological meaning is likely to raise a smile. The name of these two rivers is derived from the Celtic languages that were spoken in England before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the British Isles. Their Celtic name, Ūsa, is derived from *udso-, “water,” which is in turn derived from the Indo-European root *wed-, “wet, water.” The same root *wed- gives us the English words water and wet as well. Thus the Ouse River etymologically is the “Water River” or the “Wet River.” Of course, the speakers of early forms of the English language who borrowed the name from the Celts did not know the meaning of the word—as is rather frequently the case when foreign topographical terms are borrowed.
So in a since they were all really the River River.