The recent Twelve Mile Circle journey to western North Carolina included one of my favorite activities, whitewater rafting. The boys were finally getting old enough to join us although we still kept it pretty easy on them, sticking primarily to a series of Class II and Class III rapids (moderate to intermediate). This made a guided rafting adventure on the French Broad River particularly enjoyable and appropriate for our little group (map).
Similar references and claims repeated themselves as I searched for a suitable rafting operator. Invariably websites noted that the French Broad River was the third oldest river in the world. It was always the third oldest. Even the U.S. Forest Service repeated the claim. I didn’t have any ability to corroborate or debunk the statement at the time so I tucked it away in my mind, intending to check it later. I’ve learned since then that measuring the age of rivers wasn’t an exact science. However, geologists could determine their relative ages in wide general bands based upon various signs and conditions. Determining an exact order would be problematic.
The best that might be said of the French Broad River was that it was really, really old, maybe 300 million years old. I pondered that for a moment. The first dinosaurs evolved during the Mesozoic Era, 225 million years ago. It was entirely possible, even likely, that the course of the French Broad River predated dinosaurs. Many geologists believed that possibility because the current flow of the French Broad could exist only if the river predated the Appalachian Mountains, because it sliced entirely through the range.
Mountains formed over millions of years in fits and starts, providing plenty of time for rushing water to preserve the original channel via erosion while the range slowly rose around it. Otherwise — had the river had been younger than the mountains — the channel would have formed on one side of the range or the other.
The mountain range surfaced during the Alleghanian orogeny, when the Euramerica continent (including modern North America) and the Gondwana continent (including modern Africa) slammed into each other to form the super-continent Pangaea. Orogeny was nothing more than a fancy word meaning, "the process of mountain formation especially by folding of the earth’s crust." Thus, geologists could estimate the age of the mountains and then by implication work backwards to estimate the age of the river. The initial collision took place approximately 300 million years ago so the French Broad River must be something older than that.
That was about all the geology my simplistic mind could comprehend. I still wondered about the river’s name and assumed correctly that French Broad had nothing to do with a woman from France. English explorers discovered two rivers of comparably broad width situated near each other on opposite sides of the Eastern Continental Divide on the unsettled fringes of the Carolina colonies.
The western river flowed towards the interior of the continent, in the general direction of lands claimed by France in the Mississippi watershed. Thus it became known as the French Broad River. Its course took it past what later became modern-day Asheville, then northwest through the Appalachian mountains (going past Lover’s Leap) then due west to the current city of Knoxville. There it joined the Tennessee River, onward to the Ohio River and finally into the Mississippi River.
The eastern river was located just outside of modern-day Asheville, directly past the summit of a ridge a few miles to the southeast. It flowed into the Congaree River and then to the Santee River and finally into the Atlantic Ocean. It became known as the English Broad River because that’s where the English has established their colony. The name shortened later to Broad River, so now there was a French Broad River and a Broad River. I saw the Broad River when we visited Lake Lure during the same trip. I’m lucky to be able to say that I had the distinction of experiencing both the Broad and the French Broad Rivers during our outdoor activities.
Was the French Broad River the third oldest river in the world? Well, who knows. It certainly fell within the top tier of ancient rivers.
Hurricane Katrina formed ten years ago today, on August 23, 2005, and hit New Orleans on the 29th. I wrote about some of my family’s experiences previously in Hurricane Katrina: Family Memories 5 Years Later. I can’t believe another five years has passed. I can’t believe I’m still writing Twelve Mile Circle either.
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.
Google released its back catalog of Street View images recently, allowing users to understand locational changes since the introduction of Street View in 2007. I figured I’d let the hype die-down a bit and check it out.
Succinctly, I considered it an interesting novelty and probably not much more than that at the moment. How many observable physical changes happened over the last few years at most locations? The real benefit will accrue as decades and then generations pass. Professional historians, and even armchair genealogists and aficionados like myself will discover increasing enjoyment as time passes and the archive expands. I only wish I could see my great-grandparent’s home in southeast Washington, DC at the turn of the last century, for example, as it evolved over the years they lived there. That doesn’t exist of course. Right now Street View covers three fixed points in time at that location; 2007, 2009 and 2011. My descendants on the other hand will get what I wish I had for my ancestors, although it will be I who will be the subject of their curiosity. Google’s imagery will become an historical treasure and assuredly a valuable collection within the National Archives even if Google morphs into something completely unrelated in the meantime.
Operating under a theory that somehow even Twelve Mile Circle will be captured and preserved for posterity within that same Google cloud, maybe I can give my great-grandchildren a head start on some observational elements. For even in my own tiny yard I’ve noticed ever-so-subtle changes over the last several years, and the Street View cars captured them faithfully in their glorious monotonous insignificance.
Google Street View, November 2007
It seemed like I waited forever for Street View coverage to finally arrive in the Washington, DC area when I chronicled the roll-out with enthusiasm back in November 2008. The photos seemed grainy and blurry. Coverage was spotty. Nonetheless it represented a revolutionary idea. I could drive vicariously down a street I’d never seen in person and understand the neighborhood, its topography, its physical characteristics, maybe what it meant to live there in a visual sense. We all remember the fan sites that sprouted soon thereafter with images of automobile accidents, of crack houses, of people caught in delicate personal situations and the like.
The new timeline feature brought back memories of the first images recorded at my home, an autumn day in November 2007. One can barely notice a twig sprouting on the right side of the foreground, a product of leaves already dropped for the winter plus poor camera resolution. That was a young Tulip Tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, a species native to eastern North America sometimes called a tulip poplar although it wasn’t closely related to tulips or poplars. One day it simply appeared in the yard, a sprout less than an inch high with two tiny leaves. Ordinarily I would have pinched it with my thumb and forefinger and yanked it out as just one more weed to remove. My older son wouldn’t let me do that so I mowed around the pathetic stem very carefully all summer and it became "his" tree.
Google Street View, August 2009
Google improved its technology by the time its car passed through my neighborhood again in August 2009, recording and posting much improved imagery. The tulip tree started to seem like an actual tree. This species is noted for its quick growth and that’s confirmed after the passage of only two years. It’s a very ancient type of tree related to Magnolia, extending back to the Lower Cretaceous period when Dinosaurs roamed the earth. Apparently tulip trees do best in the earlier periods of forest succession before other hardwoods start to block the sun and crowd them out. That was the exact niche it exploited on my lawn, a sunny spot with little competition.
I also noticed my old Jeep Cherokee in the driveway. My job moved back downtown to a different office and public transportation became an option again on days I didn’t telework. I sold it to a cop. Thankfully it continued to perform well afterwards.
Google Street View, June 2012
Another couple of years passed, now jumping to June 2012, and the tree continued to grow. I noticed that this image had to represent a Thursday morning. See the blue recycling bin next to the curb on the left? Pickups were Thursday. The bin had already been emptied and not yet returned to its rightful spot next to the house. That would make it early in the day. Also the last of the blossoms remained on our late-blooming azalea shrubs and the upstairs windows were open. That signified very early in the month assuming Google’s June accuracy. I’m going to guess the car came through on Thursday, June 7, 2012 around 8:00-9:00 am.
My own photograph, May 2014
Two more years ticked away quickly. The Street View car should be expected to pass through once again anytime now. In its absence I went ahead and photographed the tulip tree yesterday although the new springtime leaves haven’t completely opened yet. The tree kept growing, actually quite an impressive amount over such a small number of years.
I wish I knew when Google would sweep through my neighborhood again. I’d make sure I stood outside waiving my arms for a fleeting moment of Internet glory. Does anyone have any Google connections? Certainly someone should be able to hook me up with a schedule given all of the geo-geeks in the 12MC audience. I’m afraid to even ask what I’d have to do to score a ride-along.