Fortuna was the Roman goddess of prosperity and luck. That would be an excellent name for any location hoping for some of that mojo to rub off. I was aware of a Fortuna in California (map), probably the largest Fortuna in the United States. It was settled in the heart of redwood country.
I’m sure it’s very nice and I’d love to go there someday and take a drive down the Avenue of the Giants. However this Twelve Mile Circle wasn’t about that particular Fortuna. Maybe I’ll circle back to that eventually. Not today.
Rather, I became fixated on the Fortuna I’d uncovered as I investigated the intricacies of what divided Divide County in North Dakota. There sat tiny Fortuna, population 22, all alone on the Great Plains (map). Let’s ride along on a little driving tour given by some random guy on YouTube, shall we?
Hmmm… there wasn’t much there, was there? A church, a gun club, a curling club, a few houses and a senior center.
Don’t be deceived. Look below the surface and every place is a geo-oddity. I myself live in the smallest self-governing county in the United States. I’m sure your little corner of the world has its own unusual geographic distinction too. Fortuna (pronounced For-Toona) was fortunate enough to have two unusual features, one created by nature and one caused by the arbitrary placements of lines by man.
We already discussed the first condition in County Divided: the Brush Lake Closed Basin. Fortuna fell barely within the eastern edge of this endorheic basin. Sandwiched between Arctic and Atlantic watersheds, water falling in Fortuna wouldn’t flow to either ocean. Instead it drained to nearby Brush Lake just over the border in Montana where its overland journey ended, trapped in a gouge carved by ancient glaciers during the last Ice Age.
The second feature was somewhat more esoteric. According to North Dakota State University, Fortuna had the distinction of having the latest sunset on the summer solstice for any town in the Lower 48 United States, at 10:03 p.m. That occurred because of a confluence of a couple of different situations. Fortuna happened to be located at the far western edge of the Central Time Zone. The zone had a nub in northwestern North Dakota that made Fortuna considerably farther west than almost any other place along the time zone edge.
The exception was a corner of west Texas east of El Paso, say, somewhere like Van Horne (map). It was just a little farther west than Fortuna. However there was a different factor that more than made up the difference: latitude. I put the points into a great circle mapper and found that Fortuna was about 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometres) farther north than Van Horne. Thus, with that large of a difference I think it would be safe to speculate that sunset happened later on the summer solstice in Fortuna’s corner of North Dakota than anywhere else in the Central Time Zone. I suppose I could also check the other three U.S. time zones in the Lower 48 for their westernmost extremes although I’m simply not that motivated. The Intertubes said it was true and I left it at that.
But Wait, You Also Get This
Fortuna had history. I hardly would have expected anything of historical significance in such a remote area. Yet, ironically its remoteness actually created its importance. Out-of-sight places made ideal locations for a variety of Cold War artifacts.
The U.S. government constructed Fortuna Air Force Station just outside of town, a radar base operating from 1952 to 1984. It was designed to track enemy aircraft and coordinate their interception should Soviets bombers have attacked the United States. The site was completely abandoned once the Cold War faded and fell away. Ghosts of North Dakota visited the old station recently and noted,
We got word that this base was to be demolished in 2013, so we set out to photograph it before it was too late… The radar dishes and domes were removed long ago, and the site has since been heavily vandalized and scavenged. The salvage rights were sold some years back and the team that did the salvage knocked holes in the walls of most of the buildings to remove boilers and scrap metal.
What does the future hold for the town of Fortuna? Perhaps something fortunate. This quadrant of North Dakota has boomed in recent years because of oil discoveries in the Bakken formation. The population of Divide County increased by more than 10% between 2010 and 2013 (the latest figures available) after decades of decline.
I alluded to postal ZIP codes in the recent Zip Lines and I’ll carry that theme through the next couple of articles. I’d stumbled upon the United States Postal Service’s Fun Facts. Someday maybe I’ll explore what exactly makes a fact "fun" although for now I think I’ll simply steal liberally from that page and ponder some of its claims in greater detail. Today I’ll focus on post offices and in the next article I’ll shift to methods of delivery. Spoiler alert: don’t visit that USPS page unless you want to ruin the surprises.
Alma Colorado 2010 by Gord McKenna, on Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
There was a surprising amount debate about the town with the highest elevation in the United States. I explored that previously in something I wrote a couple of years ago. Was it Leadville, Colorado, was it Alma, Colorado or was it some poseur town that annexed an adjoining ski resort? There was no doubt, however, about the post office building with the highest elevation. Clearly, that was the one in Alma (map) at 10,578 feet above sea level, serving ZIP Code 80420.
Rocky Mountain High, indeed. I’ll refrain from making any jokes about the highest post office being located in Colorado where a certain herbal substance has been legalized. We’re talking strictly about elevation here.
Northernmost and Westernmost – 48 Contiguous States
It’s not that I don’t love Alaska and Hawaii, its that they skew anything to do with directional superlatives in the United States. I’ll give a little nod to Alaska momentarily although for purposes of northernmost and westernmost post offices I’ll focus on the contiguous 48 States. They were both in Washington and not too distant from each other. Best of all, the preferred route calculated by Google required a ferry. That would put it pretty high on the 12MC list of sites I’d like to visit someday. I’ll bet readers in Seattle could probably accomplish this easily. Wouldn’t it be cool to tell folks that you’d been to the northernmost and westernmost post offices in the Lower 48 in a single day? Perhaps mail yourself a letter from each spot? Maybe I’m the only one who would find that interesting. I don’t know.
The northernmost post office served Sumas, Washington, Zip Code 98295. The ZIP Code abutted the Canadian border although that wasn’t special. Lots of other locations shared that attribute. What made Sumas different, however, was the physical location of its post office building just a stone’s throw away from the actual border. I also wondered about the name Sumas. The City of Sumas provided an explanation. It also provided a website that looked like it had been transported through a dial-up model directly from the 1990’s. Wander over there if you’re ever feeling nostalgic about how the Intertubes used to appear including the use of 3-D buttons as links, educating people to "click here" and the placement of a site counter at the bottom of the page.
Sumas (pronounced Soo’mass) means "land without trees". Although lake and swamp once covered most of the area there was also a considerable area that because of natural flooding was a wide open grassland.
The westernmost post office, on the Olympic Peninsula, served ZIP Code 98350 in La Push, Washington. Its name also had an interesting etymology: "La Push is from French La Bouche, meaning ‘The Mouth’ of the Quillayute River, adapted into Chinook Jargon."
The USPS bestowed a tie for the coldest post offices, for Barrow, ZIP Code 99723 and Wainwright ZIP Code 99782, both on Alaska’s North Slope along the Arctic Ocean. The site didn’t offer an explanation for "coldest" although I knew that neither of those locations represented the lowest temperature ever recorded in Alaska. That happened that at Prospect Creek on January 23, 1971, when the thermometer fell to -80°F / -62°C. Rather, I believe the claim was based on average temperature. Barrow routinely remains below freezing for eight months of the year, often considerably below. However its oceanfront location and lack of elevation variation tends to keep its very cold temperatures relatively stable versus the spikes and drops found farther inland. It’s also getting warmer.
Instrumented weather and climate observations were first made at Barrow during the first International Polar Year in 1881-82. The modern era of weather observations commenced in 1920. Climate observations have continued uninterrupted to the present. These observations support what every resident in America’s northernmost town can see: climate change is happening—right now—in obvious and dramatic fashion.
Look at the cute little post office for Ochopee, Florida, (map) serving ZIP Code 34141. Just look at it. The entire building covers only 61.3 square feet (5.7 square metres). A nearby historical marker explained the situation.
Considered to be the smallest post office in the United States, this building was formerly an irrigation pipe shed belonging to the J. T. Gaunt Company tomato farm. It was hurriedly pressed into service by postmaster Sidney Brown after a disastrous night fire in 1953 burned Ochopee’s general store and post office. The present structure has been in continuous use ever since-as both a post office and ticket station for Trailways bus lines-and still services residents in a three-county area including deliveries to Seminole and Miccosukee Indians living in the region. Daily business often includes requests from tourists and stamp collectors the world over for the famed Ochopee post mark. The property was acquired by the Wooten Family in 1992.
It wasn’t a joke. It was a temporary fix that became permanent due to inertia.
Oldest in the Same Building
Hinsdale Post Office by Doug Kerr, on Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
I don’t know why this one fascinated me. Nonetheless it seemed remarkable that the post office serving Hindsdale, New Hampshire (map) had remained in the same building for two centuries, or about a century and a half before ZIP Code 03451 even existed. It didn’t have much of a backstory beyond its age. The town said its "1,327 square foot building was constructed on September 25, 1816, following the appointment of Hinsdale’s first postmaster in 1815." From an architectural perspective, "A Field Guide to American Houses describes this design as a Gable Front Family Folk house common on the East Coast of the U.S. before the Civil War." That was about all I found.
I had a fascinating Twitter conversation with Steve from Connecticut Museum Quest recently. He has a much more interesting Twitter feed @CTMQ than my mundane @TheReal12MC. Seriously, I don’t have much to say on Twitter other than using it to announce each new article and maybe posting a few beer pictures occasionally. A few people seem to follow it and sometimes I get article ideas so its useful to keep it going. You should subscribe and maybe I’ll start being more diligent. Anyway Steve wanted to know about the oddly over-sized Kossuth County on the northern edge of the state. It appeared as if it got a double scoop of territory when the authorities doled-out portions.
That’s exactly what happened although the story was a little more complicated.
Few people lived in Iowa in the earliest part of the 19th Century although settlers began to arrive in greater numbers as the decades passed. Iowa gained sufficient critical mass to become a state in 1846. It didn’t have a lot of counties yet and that was starting to create a problem. The county structure looked like this when Iowa joined the Union:
There were plenty of counties in the southeastern quadrant where pioneers had settled although the rest of Iowa remained largely unorganized at the local level. The Iowa Legislature addressed the governance gap by establishing forty eight new counties in 1851 all at once. The configuration then matched essentially the same structure that exists today. It wasn’t completely identical, however. A few tweaks happened over the next few years, including some involving Kossuth County and its neighbors.
I’ve color-coded Kossuth and its surrounding counties to help explain the situation that was described in detail in the History of Kossuth County, Iowa (1913). My summary derived largely from that source unless otherwise noted.
Kossuth and Surrounding Counties in Iowa
Kossuth County Judge Asa C. Call became a driving force during this formative period. Practically nobody lived in Kossuth when the Call brothers, Asa and Ambrose, arrived in 1854. Judge Call recalled,
I made my first settlement in the county in July 1854. At that time there was no settlement north of Fort Dodge which was forty miles from us and no one on the east nearer than Clear Lake. I brought my wife to the new settlement on the 4th of November.
Algona, Iowa, High School by photolibrarian, on Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The two brothers founded the town of Algona and it became the county seat. They named it for a Henry Schoolcraft (remember him?) corruption of an indigenous word meaning "Algonquin Waters," I suppose it was done in recognition of the Native American tribes that were forced from the area only a couple of years earlier. The local tribes were Sioux, not Algonquin, although that didn’t seem to matter. An Indian was an Indian to those early pioneers. It was better than the original proposal though, Call’s Grove.
In the beginning, with the creation of those new counties in 1851, Kossuth was the same size as its neighbors to the west and east, Palo Alto and Hancock. However, Judge Cass was an ambitious man, a beloved figure and well-connected politically. He noticed Bancroft County immediately to his north and figured it would make a mighty fine addition to Kossuth, seeing how practically nobody lived there so it couldn’t defend its own interests. He also pondered Humboldt County to his immediate south. It would be helpful for Algona to sit near the center of the county if it were to be an effective seat of government so Kossuth had to pick up some southern territory too.
Webster County, south of Humboldt, also wielded power. Fort Dodge was its county seat. Webster was well organized politically and structurally due to the earlier establishment of Fort Dodge as a military outpost. Kossuth managed to grab all of Bancroft in the 1855 Legislative session. However, it had to split Humboldt with Webster. Bancroft and Humboldt counties, caught in a squeeze, disappeared. This was called "The 1855 Freak Legislation." I’m not making this stuff up.
Right now the 12MC audience is saying, "but wait, I see Humboldt County on the map!" That’s right. Judge Call learned about schemers in Webster plotting to expand farther, and they hoped to grab a large chunk of Kossuth in a subsequent session that would leave it vulnerable to being obliterated entirely. He foiled the plot by colluding with former Humboldt officials. He managed to reestablish Humboldt so it could act as a buffer between Kossuth and Webster. It was better to give up some of the larger Kossuth than to jeopardize its future existence. However, Webster was able to hold onto the bottom tier of Humboldt’s former townships and that left the restored Humboldt appreciably smaller than the original.
That explained why Kossuth became the largest county in Iowa, Humboldt was so small, and the neat latitudinal lines across Iowa created in 1851 fell out of alignment in the the north-central part of the state.