I spent a few summers in Monterey, California when I was a kid. We’d land at the airport in San Francisco and drive south, cutting across the mouth of the agriculturally-oriented Salinas Valley before heading down towards the Monterey Peninsula. Oftentimes we’d stop in Castroville along the way for a special treat.
The Route Through Castroville
It’s important to understand that Castroville billed itself as the "Artichoke Center of the World." We’d stop just off the highway at a place called the Giant Artichoke for one of their more famous delicacies, deep fried artichokes. I learned at an early age that anything could be improved with a layer of batter and a few minutes bubbling in a fryer. Those were some good eats. They probably weren’t the healthiest food option available although that never crossed my mind at the time.
GiantArtichoke-02 by TrishaLyn, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license
I jumped onto Street View and — surprise! — the Giant Artichoke was still there after all those years.
Castroville existed long before it became an Artichoke Center. The local Chamber of Commerce traced its founding to 1863, making Castroville the second oldest town in Monterey County. However its relationship with artichokes have long since eclipsed whatever other history it may have ever experienced.
In addition to the Giant Artichoke, Castroville serves as the home of the California Artichoke Advisory Board and sponsors an annual Artichoke Festival. They also crown an Artichoke Queen. Artichoke royalty may not sound all that impressive although the first Queen crowned in 1948 went on to slightly greater fame. She was Norma Jean Baker when she ascended the throne, later Marilyn Monroe.
Artichokes were native to areas around the Mediterranean. Most cultivation still takes place there: Italy led world production with nearly a half million metric tonnes in 2010. While California produced "nearly 100% of the U.S. crop, and about 80% of that [was] grown in Monterey County," national output equaled only about forty thousand metric tonnes. Maybe Castroville should change its name to reflect a smaller geographic footprint?
What about artichokes in the U.S. Upper Midwest?
Artichoke Township, Minnesota
I consulted the Geographic Names Information System and discovered a handful of populated Artichokes in the Upper Midwest, which confounded me. Why would there be an artichoke anything there? The first two instances involved a hamlet and township in Big Stone County, Minnesota. The second was a township in Potter County, South Dakota, just a few miles away from the Obscure Gettysburg. That was an odd coincidence although I found nothing further about South Dakota’s Artichoke Township other than its location (map).
Minnesota’s Artichoke Township and its similarly-named embedded hamlet offered a tantalizing etymological clue buried deep within the Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society (Google eBook), 1920, pp 53-54:
Artichoke township whose first settler came in May 1869 received its name from the former Artichoke lake now drained which was five miles long stretching from section 11 south to section 36. This name was probably translated from the Sioux name of the lake referring to the edible tuber roots of a species of sunflower Helianthus tuberosus which was much used by the Indians as food called pangi by the Sioux abundant here and common or frequent throughout this state.
I noticed two things immediately. Somebody refilled Artichoke Lake and I had no idea what Helianthus tuberosus represented. I didn’t really care about the history of Artichoke Lake so I focused on Helianthus tuberosus. The Intertubes told me that it was a binomial name for the Jerusalem artichoke. Oddly, the plant had nothing to do with Jerusalem and wasn’t an artichoke, according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and numerous other references. That source also labeled it a "nuisance" and a "serious weed problem" even though Helianthus tuberosus was native to the area. Subsequently, Canada has no Artichoke place names.
From the Mailbag
Reader "Splen" sent 12MC a message with what may be the most ham-fisted abbreviation ever stamped on a road sign.
"Pgh Intrntl" was the best they could manage?
(and to all readers who have contributed recently — thank you, and don’t worry I’ll get to those; I have a bit of a backlog).
I was thinking recently about a huge multi-vehicle accident that happened in Virginia a few months ago involving 77 vehicles in thick fog. It was a terrible tragedy that made me wonder whether it was the worst possible, or whether there were others even more extreme. I didn’t know that an even larger pileup had already happened in England only a few days ago. That’s the scary part. Accidents involving fifty, a hundred, even two hundred vehicles or more happen somewhere around the world with alarming regularity.
That prompted me to abandon my quest to find the most extreme accident caused by fog. At some point the distinction became meaningless. The overwhelming sample size and the resulting destruction was way too large. Instead, I highlighted a single example from several nations. They all followed similar patterns involving motorists driving too quickly in low visibility and often without lights, and then unable to stop when an accident appeared before them. What may have been fender-benders under ideal circumstances transformed into huge chain reactions in the fog.
Sheppey Crossing in Kent
The English incident happened on September 5, 2013, on the A249 at Sheppey Crossing, a bridge over the Swale from the Kent mainland to the Isle of Sheppey. Numerous news sources covered the event. The Independent noted that the accident involved 130 vehicles and caused a nine-hour delay. They described it as "the mother of all rush-hour pile-ups."
Visibility was very bad, down to 25 metres in thick fog… Drivers described being able to see no further than two or three car lengths ahead prior to the crashes, which left a trail of buckled vehicles stretching for several hundred metres, including cars thrown on top of each other and others flipped on to their roofs.
The Mirror more colorfully asserted, "Witnesses blamed ‘idiots’ for driving at speeds up to 70mph and failing to use their fog lights."
SOURCE: Screen grab from Google Street View image, I-96, Lansing, Michigan, July 2011
It was difficult to select only one example from the United States because of the frequency of large scale multiple-vehicle collisions. I went with the January 12, 2005 pile-up on Interstate 96 at mile marker 116 outside of Lansing, Michigan (map).
Typically Michigan in January should be extremely cold. Freak conditions caused the temperature to rise above 50° Fahrenheit (10+° c), rapidly melting snow and creating a thick fog by afternoon. The Lansing State Journal described "a sudden and blinding afternoon fog, resulted in Michigan’s worst roadway disaster in recent history, involving more than 200 vehicles, injuring 37, and killing two," in Hell on Earth.
The interstate highway was closed in both directions for twelve miles. Photos from the aftermath can be found on Michigan Fire Ground.
California also had more than its share of massive pile-ups caused by fog in the San Joaquin Valley and also closer to Los Angeles, for example a 200 vehicle smashup on I-710, the Long Beach Freeway, in 2002.
E17 Motorway at Nazareth, Belgium
The tiny Belgian nation experienced an oversized disaster on the E17 motorway near Nazareth (southwest of Ghent), on February 27, 1996. Fog, again, was the culprit. This one was particularly horrific with ten people killed from the collisions and ensuing fire. Over 200 vehicles crashed.
The tragedy is still remembered. Nieuwsblad.be published an article in late 2012, Monument commemorates pileup on E17 ("Monument herdenkt kettingbotsing op E17"). Please pardon the imprecise auto-translation into English:
At the entry and exit complex Deinze / Nazareth the E17 is a memorial placed on the night of Wednesday to Thursday. The artwork is in memory of the deadly pileup on February 27, 1996… At the entrances and exits complex on the E17 had that morning a treacherous fog formed. This exceptional whim of the weather caused an unprecedented pileup. Dozens of trucks and cars drove on each other.
Images of the memorial can be seen on the Nazareth, Belgium website.
Tranarpsbron, Klippan, Sweden
Sweden made the news earlier this year on January 15, 2013, for a hundred vehicle pile-up on the E4, atop the Tranarps Bridge (Tranarpsbron) in the southern part of the nation. As described at the time by The Local,
Photographs from the scene showed the dense fog that contributed to poor visibility, and lines of cars and trucks spilling haphazardly across the lanes of the low bridge near Helsingborg. The accident occurred just before midday on the Tranarp Bridge just northeast of Helsingborg, and the roads in both directions have been shut down since.
The Swedish press placed the blame on dense fog, slippery roads, and a recent change in the law that allowed trucks to forgo snow tires when conditions warranted. Apparently roads were in worse shape than some truck drivers anticipated. Fog compounded the issue and they couldn’t react in time to avoid collisions.
I know I’ll think twice now before venturing onto a freeway during foggy conditions. Failure to adjust driving patterns to weather conditions seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.
What a glorious day for boating on the tidal Potomac River around Mason Neck, south of Fort Belvior. A friend asked it we’d like to join him and his family for a day on the water and of course I couldn’t turn down such a generous offer.
Boating on the Potomac River by howderfamily.com
We spent most of the afternoon on the river until nearly sunset, a perfect way to end meteorological summer in the Northern Hemisphere. The kids got one final opportunity for outdoor fun, a little swimming and a some tubing to end their summer break from school. Parents got time to relax on Labor Day weekend even if we didn’t get the whole summer off.
I didn’t let the possibility of Bull Sharks ruin my day either, even if Bull Sharks travel into freshwater. As Shark Savers explained,
Bull sharks are unusual because they can adapt readily to fresh water because they can adapt their process of osmogregulation. The kidneys of bull sharks, (and to a lesser extent several other types of sharks) can be gradually adjusted to suit the salinity of the water they are in… This adaptation allows bull sharks to live entirely in estuaries or freshwater.
They also have a fearsome reputation as unpredictable predators that are particularly aggressive towards humans. Still, one shouldn’t have to worry about a Bull Shark swimming from the Atlantic Ocean into the Chesapeake Bay and up the Potomac River, almost all the way to Washington, DC, right?
Two Bull Sharks measuring 8 feet (2.4 metres) each had been pulled from the Potomac just a couple of weeks earlier and delivered to nearby Buzz’s Marina, attracting plenty of local news coverage. It even caught the attention of National Geographic, "Bull Shark Catch in Maryland Highlights Nearness of Species to Shore."
They’re baaaaack! Not that they were ever gone; they’ve just kept a low profile. Two eight-foot, 220-pound bull sharks were caught in Maryland near Point Lookout, where the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River meet… it’s important to note that shark attacks are rare; there have been no reports of shark attacks in the Chesapeake Bay despite the fact that at least 12 sharks occur there.
It’s significant to note that while attacks are rare, they are not completely unknown to the area. The Bay Journal referenced an early colonial account: "One letter documented a pretty incontrovertible case of a fatal shark attack on a man swimming in the Potomac" in the 1640′s. One fatality in nearly 400 years? I liked my odds.
That made me wonder though, exactly how far could a Bull Shark travel upstream in freshwater?
Uncountable sources referenced an incident from 1937. Supposedly two commercial fisherman, Herbert Cope and Dudge Collins, caught a Bull Shark near Alton, Illinois on the Mississippi River. That would mean the shark had to swim about 1,150 river miles (1,850 km) upstream from the Mississippi "Head of Passes." A grainy black-and-white photograph of the alleged capture can be seen commonly on the Intertubes although I could not locate a single contemporary record of that encounter. It seemed like it might be plausible, however I remained skeptical absent confirmation.
Even more extreme, there were accounts from 2006 of Bull Sharks caught much farther up the Mississippi watershed, at Lake Pepin in Wisconsin and Minnehaha Creek in Minnesota. This would place the distance at closer to 1,750 miles (2,800 km) upstream through freshwater. None of these accounts came from credible news sources or scientific journals. They all seem to reference one another in an endless loop. Here’s the kicker: the website that seemed to have sparked it all included a disclaimer at the bottom of the page in tiny print, "Any resemblance in the above story to actual fact may be coincidental and could be disregarded, depending on your mood. April Fools!" It was a joke that people have been reporting as fact ever since.
Another rumor, an outright hoax, was debunked in May 2013. Television station WTHI in Terre Haute, Indiana reported No Shark in the Wabash River. "Indiana Department of Natural Resources officials say a report that a bull shark has been found in the Wabash River is just another fish tale."
Santa Rosa de Yavari, Peru
Given that track record, what should one think of even more remarkable claims from the Amazon watershed? The common refrain is that Bull Sharks "have been found 2,500 miles (4,000 km) up the Amazon River in Perú." That would place the closest location at the Brazil-Columbia-Perú tripoint, the area known as Tres Fronteras in Spanish and Três Fronteiras in Portuguese. A lot of people live there where the Colombian port at Leticia,the Brazilian city of Tabatinga and the Peruvian settlement of Santa Rosa de Yavari all come together, with a combined population of 100,000. One would think there should be at least a sign of news coverage if a Bull Shark had been captured. And yet, I could not find any conclusive evidence, just another round of endless repetition of a remarkable claim.
I never did verify the true freshwater range of Bull Sharks, although I suspect the answer would probably be in the hundreds of miles rather than thousands.