Rivers can make great boundaries when they cooperate. Frequently they do not. These creatures of nature flow where they want to flow. Sometimes they erode deep furrows through solid rock, changing course only after eons pass. Other times they cross alluvial plains, shifting into multiple ephemeral streams awaiting the next flood. Problems will undoubtedly occur when people rely upon frequently-shifting rivers as boundaries. The shifts create winners and losers.
Two recent border situations came to my attention, handled in distinctly different ways by those involved.
The Red River
Reader Glenn seemed amused by the craziness of the border between Texas and its neighbors — Oklahoma and Arkansas — along the Red River, in an email he sent to 12MC a couple of months ago. The border rarely followed the river exactly, it reflected a version of the river that existed a long time ago. Many of the cutoffs on the "wrong" side of the river still retained names from a bygone day; Eagle Bend, Horseshoe Bend, Whitaker Bend and Hurricane Bend. Others seemed to represent the year of the flood that changed the underlying channel; such as 1908 Cutoff and Forty-One Cutoff.
Fixing the Border
Bend in Red River, Texas. Photo by brewbooks on Flickr (cc)
I might have left it at that, a simple observation of a messed-up situation. However, the decision to use the Red River beginning with the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819 continues to reverberate today. This treaty between Spain and the United States addressed a host of boundary issues. A line along the Red River remained in place when México gained independence from Spain in 1821, when Texas gained independence in 1836 and when Texas joined the United States in 1846. The river had different intentions though and meandered as it pleased.
The Red River figured prominently in a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Oklahoma v. Texas, 260 U.S. 606 (1923). The Court noted that even though the river wandered, it remained within two "cut banks" broadly defined.
… we hold that the bank intended by the treaty provision is the water-washed and relatively permanent elevation or acclivity at the outer line of the river bed which separates the bed from the adjacent upland, whether valley or hill, and serves to confine the waters within the bed and to preserve the course of the river, and that the boundary intended is on and along the bank at the average or mean level attained by the waters in the periods when they reach and wash the bank without overflowing it.
The Court set the boundary between Texas and Oklahoma on the south side of the Red River. Surveyors then marked and set the boundary.
The Current Dispute
Except the river kept changing while the boundary, as determined by the Court in 1923, remained fixed. The latest dispute began within the last several years. It got much more complicated. While the line between Texas and Oklahoma began at the south bank, the Federal government held the portion from the middle of the river to the south bank in public trust for Native Americans. This formed a narrow strip, a 116 mile (190 kilometre) ribbon. Much of that strip is now on dry land. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management estimated that 90,000 acres actually belong in the public domain, and not to the people living there, farming it or grazing their cattle for the last century. Lawsuits continue to rage.
The River Meuse
Netherlands / Belgium Border Adjustment
Underlying Map from OpenStreetMap
Reader Jasper sent me a heads up that Belgium shrank and the Netherlands grew on November 28, 2016. The two sides came to an amicable agreement and adjusted their border. Didier Reynders of Belgium and Bert Koenders of the Netherlands signed a treaty in Amsterdam, in the presence of their respective monarchs, King Philippe and Queen Mathilde, and King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima. The announcement came in a Press Release with coverage in local media (Google Translation of an article in Flemish).
The areas in question fell along the banks of the River Meuse, forming a portion of the boundary between the two nations. They established their original border there in 1843. However, these neighbors decided to straighten their common river to improve navigation in stages between 1962 and 1980. This left a piece of the Netherlands and two pieces of Belgium on the "wrong" side of the river between Visé and Eijsden (map). Police could not access these spots easily and they became havens for illegal activities. This included a situation where a headless body washed ashore on one of the exclaves. Territorial complexities hampered the investigation.
In an unusual twist and in a supreme act of neighborly cooperation, the two nations simply agreed to swap their stranded parcels. It seemed the most logical option, and yet, it remained exceedingly rare in other border situations worldwide. Nobody wants to be the loser. Belgium simply gave up 14 hectares (35 acres) in the deal and called it good.
The Geographic Names Information System listed 94 populated places in the United States called Rome. I figured maybe some should exist in other nations that created a bunch of new places around that same time period. Alas, I didn’t find any such places in Canada, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand. Why Rome seemed so popular in the U.S. (and only the U.S) remained a mystery. I still enjoyed a peek at some of the more engaging Romans of the New World.
Romulus and Remus in Rome Georgia. Photo by Lee LeFever on Flickr (cc)
Americans of European descent began to push into northwestern Georgia in the 1830’s, displacing native Cherokee. One group settled at the confluence of the Etowah and Oostanaula Rivers, at the beginning of the Coosa River. This would be a perfect spot to gather locally-grown cotton and move it downriver to Mobile Bay, to a port on the Gulf of Mexico. They needed a name. Five men placed their choices in a hat; Hamburg, Pittsburg, Warsaw, Hillsboro and Rome. Obviously someone pulled out Rome, and that’s the name that stuck starting in 1834. Rome had seven hills just like its more famous namesake in Italy. That seemed to be the only reason.
Rome suffered the effects of the Civil War like many Georgian towns. I decided to skip forward in time instead and focus on its odd fascist connection.
City officials placed the Capitolene Wolf nursing Romulus and Remus in front of City Hall (map). It faithfully replicated the original at the Pallazio Del Conservatori in Rome (map). That made sense.
Roman legend held that a wolf suckled the abandoned twins Romulus and Remus. As adults they quarreled about where to found a new city. Romulus killed Remus and named the new city after himself. The statue of the Capitolene Wolf commemorated what I’d guess might have been a happier time in their lives.
Officials in Georgia did not commission the statue. It came as a gift. The American Cotillion Company decided to build a rayon factory in the city. However, it didn’t do it all on its own. It formed a joint venture with an Italian company. The statue came courtesy of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1929, arriving "as a forecast of prosperity and glory… from Ancient Rome to New Rome."
Rome removed the statue in 1940 and flew an American flag in its place during the Second World War. It didn’t reappear until 1952.
Rome, New York
Fort Stanwix. Photo by Anne White on Flickr (cc)
Rome also sprouted in New York in the mid-19th Century although its history of settlement went back a century earlier. The Jervis Public Library in Rome offered an interesting explanation for the name.
There are several theories as to how Rome, New York got its name; none of them are definitive… The name, "Rome," apparently first had been applied to the township to which the village belonged. The township was formed in 1796 from Steuben township, and named "Rome" as part of what is now called the Classical Naming Period, a time when upstate New York communities were being named after classical European cities. This type of naming was, for some reason, a popular trend at the time.
Once again I decided to skip a bunch of history and focus on a single narrow era. Rome existed for a very specific reason. It stood at the point of the Oneida Carry (aka the Great Carrying Place). Here, only a couple of miles separated the Atlantic watershed from the Great Lakes watershed. Traders and trappers used the portage as a way to connect the English colonies to a distant frontier hundreds of miles inland, deep within the North American continent. The St. Lawrence River — much farther north — wouldn’t be practical for merchants in New York City. Their emissaries paddled up the Hudson River to the Mohawk. There they portaged over the Oneida Carry to Wood Creek then paddled onward to Oneida Lake, the Oswego River and finally to the Great Lakes themselves.
European troops battled over this spot repeatedly. The English built Fort Stanwix (map) there to protect it during the French and Indian War. Britain and the new United States clashed at the Oneida Carry during the Revolutionary War, and Americans fortified it during the War of 1812. It became obsolete overnight during the canal era a couple of decades later. Rome became just another port along a canal and nobody needed a portage anymore.
New Rome, Ohio
Speed Trap. Photo by – POD – on Flickr (cc)
Why would I include New Rome, Ohio on this list (map)? It didn’t have the name recognition of the others and it didn’t even exist anymore. History at this location came much later, a brief period from its founding in 1947 to its dissolution in 2004. The village never covered more than a few blocks on a 12 acre footprint. Yet it held a dark secret.
It’s population fell from 111 in 1990 all the way down to 60 in the next census a decade later. People grew disgusted with the clan that controlled New Rome and the police force that relentlessly harassed residents and visitors alike. Car and Driver called it a Town Without Pity.
New Rome didn’t have much of a tax base although it straddled a major road for a quarter mile. There it created one of the most notorious speed traps in the nation, generating nearly $400,000 a year at its height. The speed limit dropped suddenly at the village border so police could catch "speeders." A stoplight gave them time to check everyone else for a laundry list of petty violations like dirty license plates. Nearly everyone in power was related by blood or by marriage and money collected had a habit of disappearing.
New Rome’s Demise
It got so bad that Ohio passed a narrowly-tailored law that allowed the dissolution of very small towns with few public services and repeated instances of malfeasance. As memorialized by New Rome Sucks,
The village of New Rome died abandoned and alone on September 9th, 2004. Born in 1947 it has been a source of corruption and abuse for many years and will never be missed. Funeral will be held on September 18th. The procession will start at 2:00pm in the old Kroger parking lot and will be lead by Jim Bussey and the New Rome Sucks Crew.
Thus came the fall of the inglorious New Roman Empire.
I spent the last several articles talking about West Virginia so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to add one more. The introductory post mentioned the oddly named West Virginia Northern Community College. Could I find places in West Virginia that represented each of the four cardinal directions? I guess I could have picked a different directional state for this exercise — North and South Dakota, North and South Carolina — although West Virginia seemed to be my latest fixation. Let’s stick with it.
North Mountain, West Virginia
A few people lived in North Mountain, West Virginia, the first directional community. It didn’t rank as much more than a speed bump, a crossroads, although it certainly existed. The name came from nearby North Mountain, an actual mountain that stretched about 25 miles from the Potomac River down to and just across the Virginia border. I couldn’t find how the mountain got its name although it crossed the length of the northern part of West Virginia’s eastern panhandle. Maybe that offered a clue. North Mountain (the town) nestled near the north span of North Mountain (the mountain) in close proximity to Skinners Gap. That was a lot of North.
The natural beauty of the area inspired visitors and artists alike. A couple of artists created the North Mountain Residency, "open to those who work in visual mediums, installation, performance, text, research forms, and sound, who seek dedicated time and space to develop their practice in a rural, arts-driven environment." The residency occupied a former apple orchard on a 400-acre property.
North Mountain shouldn’t be confused with Great North Mountain, also along the border between West Virginia and Virginia, although farther south (map).
Aerial view of Industrial Section of South Charleston, W. Va.
Image provide by Boston Public Library on Flickr (cc)
A sizable city represented another cardinal direction at South Charleston. One would expect South Charleston to sit in close proximity to Charleston, and that would be correct. However, South Charleston wasn’t south of Charleston, it was actually west. South referred to the south bank of the Kanawha River. It reminded me of the conundrum of New Orleans, Louisiana where the West Bank actually occupied a spot east of New Orleans.
I knew Charleston dated its founding to the late 18th Century so I figured something similar applied to South Charleston. Actually, as the city explained,
The area was still farm land when, in 1907, the Kanawha Land Company was organized and secured title to 1,800 acres. In the year 1907 the street car-line from Charleston was extended to south Charleston and in September of that year a spectacular auction sale was conducted by Plus Levi, selling many of the lots in the newly laid out town
Industry soon moved to South Charleston including a large Carbide plant (now part of Union Carbide Corporation) onto prime real estate at Blaine Island. Culturally, the city also had a 2,000-year-old Adena Indian artifact known as Criel Mound (map), claimed to be the second largest in the state. I knew the largest one! I just went there — it was in Moundsville.
East Bank, West Virginia on Wikimedia Commons (cc)
Nearby, maybe 25 miles (40 kilometres) farther upriver on the Kanawha stood the next directional town, East Bank (map). Once again the name came from its position along a watercourse, a rare place flat enough to plat a town in a state known for its mountains. It held about a thousand residents. Nothing much remarkable happened here since its inception in 1899.
The local high school did record one significant alumnus, legendary basketball player Jerry West.
A smallish youth, West didn’t make his junior high football, baseball or track teams. His only outlet was a basketball hoop nailed to a storage shed outside a neighbor’s house… As a 6-foot senior, West became the first prep player in state history to score 900 points in a season, averaging 32.2 points. With West’s hot hand leading the way, East Bank won the 1956 state title.
Thus, Jerry WEST began his sports career in EAST Bank, WEST Virginia.
West Union City Hall by OZinOH on Flickr (cc)
The town of West Union (map) originally went by Lewisport, according to the Doddridge County government, a name used since 1850 when it incorporated and became the county seat. However, it didn’t offer an explanation. Wikipedia mentioned the possibility of "a proposed town of Union to be built on the eastern side of Middle Island Creek" that apparently never happened. Thus, West Union existed without a corresponding Union, unlike the situation in neighboring Ohio.
Indeed, I was able to find a settlement in West Virginia that included each of the four cardinal directions.