There was a book, then a movie called "The Bridges of Madison County." The story was set in Iowa and the bridges refrenced were covered. The plot involved a love affair or so I’ve inferred from summaries. I neither read the novel nor saw the film because I never felt I was part of the target audience I supposed. Nonetheless I thought about the title and stole it for today’s Twelve Mile Circle. The rest of the article had no relation whatsoever.
I felt a bit skeptical when a friend invited me on a 50-mile bike ride through northern Frederick County, Maryland one recent Saturday morning. I’m an urban biker primarily — with one notable recent exception — and I try to stick to paved off-road trails. I tend to stay away from actual roads unless they have dedicated bicycle lanes for fear that someone might plow into me while texting behind the wheel or something. Traffic is heavy and dangerous where I live so I wasn’t sure how I felt about an extended ride on streets, even rural ones. I’ve been converted, though. The roads east of Thurmont were exceptionally well maintained with minimal traffic. They were better than my local trails. I think I saw more bikes than cars during the ride.
My friend chose a route that featured four of Frederick’s historic bridges. The map above showed their relative placement although that wasn’t the actual route we biked. I’m not sure where we went exactly, to tell the truth. We meandered around until we hit the desired distance; I simply played follow-the-leader. The course involved a roughly counterclockwise oval north of the City of Frederick and east of U.S. Route 15, crossing paths with the bridges in succession as the morning unfolded.
We first encountered the LeGore Bridge over the Monocacy River (map). A steep downhill led to a pull-off where I stopped for photos. The website Historic Bridges noted that James LeGore built this bridge around 1900 to provide a convenient path to his nearby stone quarry. Naturally, owning a quarry, he favored stone construction for his imposing five-arch structure. There was also one horrible twist of fate involved. His son George jumped from the bridge, committing suicide in 1930.
Had I taken this photo maybe 3 or 4 seconds later, I would have captured a scary bicycle wreck. Some guy barreled way too fast down the steep rightward slope approaching the bridge and couldn’t hold the curve. He flew across the opposite lane and whacked into a guardrail immediately behind me as I stood there taking pictures. He spilled onto the deck, tumbled a couple of times and somehow suffered only a bent wheel plus an unpleasant scrape on his forearm and damage to his pride. His fancy multi-thousand dollar bike might have been toast too. We didn’t stick around long enough to find out after making sure he was okay. It was entirely his own fault. He ignored the ominous road signs leading up to the bridge.
Roddy Road Bridge
We rambled on for awhile until we approached the Roddy Road bridge over Owen’s Creek (map). This marked the first of three covered bridges in Frederick County, with only three or five other bridges like that in the entire state of Maryland (sources vary). The most direct automobile route could be found on the county’s Historic Covered Bridges Driving Tour if one wanted to take the easy way out.
The Roddy family built their bridge across Owens Creek circa 1856. It was the smallest of the three covered bridges in Frederick, only 40 feet long. Rumor had it that "Confederate General JEB Stuart and his cavalry crossed Roddy Road Covered Bridge on July 5, 1863 during the Gettysburg campaign of the Civil War." Of course, just about every spot in this corner of Maryland had a Civil War connection. Troops routinely traipsed through here between major campaigns like Antietam and Gettysburg. I imagine I could draw a mile-wide circle anywhere in the county and find something of Civil War significance there.
Loy’s Station Bridge
If JEB Stuart crossed the Roddy Road bridge then one shouldn’t be surprised that Union general George Meade allegedly crossed Loy’s Station Bridge over Owen’s Creek a few days later in pursuit of fleeing Confederates after the battle (map). This would have been a new bridge at the time, having been constructed circa 1860. Unfortunately an arsonist torched the structure in 1991. The rebuilt bridge incorporated as many elements as possible from the original bridge, including "hardware, rafters and braces."
This was probably the most impressive of the bridges we saw during our ride. It looked like what would be expect of a covered bridge, and placed in a beautiful setting with an adjacent park.
Utica Mills Bridge
Near the end of the ride we rumbled through the Utica Mills bridge over Fishing Creek (map). This structure had an interesting history. A bridge had been built nearby on the Monocacy River sometime around 1850, however it washed away during the same deluge responsible for the horrific Johnstown Flood of 1889. Wood salvaged from that earlier bridge was recycled to form the Utica Mills crossing. It was getting a fresh coat of red paint the day we cycled over its planks.
I think I’ll have to return to northern Frederick County for further biking adventures sometime soon.
The readers of Twelve Mile Circle seemed to anticipate where this conversation was heading when I wrote about the advanced age of the French Broad River recently. I’d actually intended to write a single article about really old rivers. I had to split it when it got too wordy. I’d seen that same list of rivers by age on Wikipedia noticed by several readers and I decided to have some fun with it. I won’t recite the list in order though. I’ll meander though a bit of it in my own peculiar way.
For sure, I thought, someone would mention the ironic naming of the New River in southern Appalachia, flowing from North Carolina into Virginia and then into West Virginia. I wasn’t disappointed. The New River originated during the same Alleghanian Orogeny as the previously-mentioned French Broad River, as did the Susquehanna River. They all dated back about 300 million years, predating the Appalachian Mountains.
Nobody really knew exactly how or when the New River came to be encumbered with a misleading name although the Friends of the New River offered several possibilities.
One educated guess regarding the origin of the name is the theory that in the late 1700s or early 1800s, surveyors were working their way across the new country. When they happened on the New River, they discovered that it wasn’t on any of their existing maps, so they charted it and labeled it as "a new river." Another version of this story attributes the label "a new river" to Peter Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s father. The official name change to New River seems to have occurred between 1740 and 1750, although the two names, Woods and New, were used interchangeably in records and on maps in other states until about 1770.
Thus it could have just have easily been known as the Woods River into perpetuity, named for Colonel Abraham Wood who trades with local Native Americans in the 1650’s. Instead it became a very old river with a very New name.
If one searches for the oldest river using online tools one will invariable encounter frequent references to Africa’s Nile River. However the Wikipedia list didn’t even place it in the top ten, explaining that it was "65 to 75 [million] for the Sudd section; the rest of the river is only 1 or 2 million years old." Further, the page linked to a site at the University of Texas – Dallas that stated, "Although the Nile seems like an ancient river – after all, it was there long before one of the earliest civilizations began to develop on its banks – it is really a very young river and has gone through many changes over the recent (in geologic terms) past." The only ancient part — still considerably younger than the French Broad — was a portion in South Sudan in a swamp (map).
Don’t expect the rest of the Intertubes to issue a clarification though.
So now we finally arrive at #1 on Wikipedia’s list, presumably the very oldest river in the world, Australia’s Finke River along with various other smaller rivers nearby (map). They all predated the Alice Springs Orogeny, which would make them up to 400 million years old. The orogeny happened so long ago that most of the mountains have eroded away with the exception of the MacDonnell Ranges and a scattering of other ridges deep within the Australian interior. The highest remaining remnant was Mount Zeil at 1,531 metres (5,023 ft) (map)
I seem to have a little extra room in this article. I guess I should also list second place from the list too, if only because I’ve been there in person (as noted on my travel page for the Citadel of Dinant in Belgium, one of the oldest parts of my website). This was a long time ago. In fact, the image I’ve embedded came from a time prior to digital photography. I had to scan it from a print photo.
The Meuse predated the Hercynian Orogeny that resulted in the formation of the Ardennes. The river course ran from a corner of France to Belgium, onward to the Netherlands and finally into the North Sea.
Several months ago I mentioned that I would be supporting a runner in Mainly Marathon’s Center of the Nation race series. That adventure is now just around the corner. I’ll be in eastern Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, and in western North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, September 14-19, 2015. They have options for single races and distances as short as 5K in case there are any 12MC runners in the area who might be interested. I have a big list of adventures planned including a few based on readers suggestions, so thank you all for that earlier input.
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.