I’ve slowly been overhauling the non-12MC part of my website — the portion for which the howderfamily.com domain was obtained long before Twelve Mile Circle became the tail wagging the dog — to upgrade to Google Maps API v3. It’s been a slow and tedious process. Recently I revisited a genealogy page I wrote about ten years ago and created a map where one hadn’t existed previously.
It reminded me that I’ve had it pretty easy when we visit the in-laws in Wisconsin, with an elapsed airtime of about an hour between airports. My ancestors undertook a journey of similar distance when they moved from Maine to Wisconsin in 1844. They seemed pretty satisfied that it took "just one month."
The family patriarch described the entire journey in a letter that he sent back to his brother in Maine. I received a copy of the letter in 2002 and wrote about it in a genealogical society journal. The resulting article is reproduced elsewhere on my site. It includes a lot of family history content so feel free to skip it. Instead I’ll focus on what will more likely interest the 12MC audience, the geography and logistics of a North American journey in the 1840′s.
View Sylvester Journey – 1844 in a larger map
I took a much closer look at the letter this time around so I could design a reasonable replica of the route. The letter contained several place names, a few actual dates, and a verifiable historic event, all of which allowed me to reconstruct a full sequence of steps including days of the week. I could determine with near certainty that the journey began on Saturday, October 5, 1844 in Phillips, Maine and concluded a month later on Tuesday, November 5 in Jamestown, Wisconsin.
Markers on the map include supporting text from the letter. Colored lines represent changes in transportation modes.
Phase I – Cart and Foot: October 5-7
The journey began by hauling family and freight down to a port. The group stopped to visit with some relatives along the way so it took three days to get to the nearest river town with ocean access. The port was just outside of Augusta, the capital city of Maine on the Kennebec River.
Phase II – Ship: October 7-8
They sailed down the Kennebec River into the Gulf of Maine, hugged the coastline and entered Massachusetts Bay. They disembarked at Boston, Massachusetts.
Phase III – Railroad: October 8-10
The Boston and Albany Railroad
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons released to the Public Domain
The Boston and Albany Railroad received its charter in 1831 and laid track westward in phases. One could travel the entire route between the two cities by rail beginning in 1841. The family took early advantage of this transportation leap to shorten its movement across Massachusetts.
The letter never mentioned a railroad although no other feasible method could have covered the same distance in a similar amount of time. It referenced a three hour segment between Boston and Worcester for example, a distance of 46 miles. A stagecoach would have averaged 5 miles per hour. A typical speed for a train in the early 1840′s would have been about 10 to 20 miles per hour.
A rail line existed, the speed of motion matched historical averages for trains of that period, and towns mentioned in the letter (where the family stopped) mirrored the Boston and Albany Railroad route.
Phase IV – Canal Boat: October 11-18
SOURCE: Flickr by USACE Buffalo via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license
Erie Canal Boat Replica
Nothing moved faster overland than a railroad but routes were still a novelty in the early 1840′s. Rail hadn’t become a ubiquitous form of transportation like it would a couple of decades later so the family had to find another option. Waterways were still the superhighways of the era, and New York had a great one: the 363 mile (584 km) Erie Canal which opened in 1825.
It took the group a full week to cross New York. That duration was consistent with Erie Canal averages, where boats traveled at about 4 miles per hour (6.5 kph), with rest stops and additional time to traverse dozens of locks that often became choke points.
In one of life’s odd coincidences, my mother’s side of the family (in a canal boat) and my father’s side of the family (farmers living near Lockport) came within amazingly close proximity of each other on or around the evening of Thursday, October 17, 1844 — literally a "ship that passed in the night." The families wouldn’t get another chance for more than a hundred years and in a completely different location.
The canal boat docked in Buffalo, New York on the shores of Lake Erie.
Phase V – Great Lakes Steamship: October 21-26
The Great Lakes Steamship Great Western – 1838
Once again it was logical that the family would take advantage of a waterway. The first commercial steamboat services began in the first decades of the 19th Century and were quite common by the 1840′s. The Great Lakes were filled with them.
Here the family narrowly averted a calamity. They had the misfortune to arrive in Buffalo on the afternoon of Friday, October 18. Four steamships were ready to set sail that evening but they were already crowded with passengers. The family wasn’t in a hurry so they decided to wait until the next morning. A huge storm with hurricane-force winds hit that night and lasted into the following day, a storm so severe that it is still recorded in history as the Lower Great Lakes Storm of 1844.
As described in the History of the Great Lakes, Chapter 36:
For several days before the occurrence of the flood a strong north-east wind had been driving the water up the lake, but on the evening of the 18th a sudden shift of the wind took place, and it blew from the opposite direction with a tremendous force, never before or since known to the inhabitants of Buffalo. It brought with it immense volumes of water, which overflowed the lower districts of the city and vicinity, demolishing scores of buildings, and spreading ruin along the harbor front, playing havoc with shipping, and causing an awful destruction of human life.
The family escaped unscathed and was able to resume its journey the following Monday on the steamship Great Western. It took less than a week to arrive in Chicago.
Phase VI – Cart and Foot: October 30-November 5
The family decided to rent a hotel room and rest in Chicago for four days. Then they purchased "a wagon and a span of horses" and continued onward for the final leg of the journey. It took 6 days to cover approximately 180 miles (290 km) to their new home, so about 30 miles (48 km) per day which was described as "the most fatiguing and expensive of our journey."
The family arrived in Jamestown, Wisconsin, their final destination, pretty much exactly a month after they left Phillips, Maine.
I’ll keep that in mind the next time I fly up to Wisconsin and complain about an airport weather delay.
It was a long time coming and I’d talked about it since last autumn. The Dust Bowl trip finally arrived. We flew to Denver, Colorado as our starting point. Certainly there were closer airports, however none of the others had non-stop flights or cheaper fares. I viewed it as an opportunity to capture some previously unvisited counties to add to my list. I’d rather take a road trip than sit in some distant hub airport waiting for a connecting flight to deliver us to a closer starting point, anyway. It probably didn’t take all that much longer factoring in airport delays.
Getting to Dalhart, Texas
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Photo Locations in this Section
I selected an eastern route between Denver and Dalhart. I’ll take the slightly faster western route back to Denver later this week and rack-up an additional set of new counties on the return loop.
Barely Bent County
This route took us directly towards Lamar, Colorado coming from the north. I’ll be back in Lamar later so I may have more to say about it in a future article. However, for now, we simply passed through.
I noticed that U.S. Route 287 met U.S. Route 50 at a "T" just outside of Lamar, and that if I jogged west instead of east I’d cross the boundary into Bent County after only a mile. It would be crazy to get so close to a new county and not touch it. The GPS ordered me to turn left, I turned right, and my wife’s only reaction was to ask, "new county?" Yup. I’ve veered-off of the logical path so many times previously that it doesn’t even phase her anymore. She didn’t even look up from her book.
We crossed the state border. Beautifully maintained Colorado highways gave way to Oklahoma roads in desperate needed repavement. We rattled our way into Boise City, the seat of government for that most distant of counties in Oklahoma’s panhandle. Dry rolling grasslands mixed with eroded buttes and mesas, much more reminiscent of the old West than a stereotypical impression of Oklahoma.
Cimmy the Dinosaur roamed the northern edge of Boise City outside of the Cimarron Heritage Center. Some call him a Brontosaurus although Apatosaurus is the current term of art for this sauropod. These creatures lumbered through the area during the Jurassic Period so a statue here isn’t simply a roadside attraction, it is a recognition of distant times, although I’m a sucker for a good roadside attraction too.
That’s Not Rain
The sky grew ominous as we continued south on our final leg. Scattered pop-up showers were predicted. The wide-open terrain added to their ominous impact, clearly visible from tens of miles away as they washed across rolling hills. I turned-on the intermittent wipers occasionally to clear a few drops while somehow avoiding larger downpours on either side of us that extended to the horizon.
I spotted a solid line of thunderstorms right over Dalhart, Texas as we approached our final fifteen miles for the day. It looked like we’d lost our luck. We drove ever closer to the dark wall expecting sheets of rain at any moment. The wind howled. Tumbleweeds rolled across the roadway and I hit a couple of them. There were unavoidable. We finally crossed what should have been the squall line except no water fell. The storm — dark like heavy rain — was composed entirely of dust.
How the fine citizens of Dalhart managed to greet us with a dust storm just as we’d kicked-off our Dust Bowl adventure is still a mystery to me. Certainly this was nothing like the Dust Bowl storms of the 1930′s. This one lasted only a few minutes, replaced by a warming sun as the dust settled. I’d just watched Ken Burn’s PBS documentary on the subject a few days earlier though. Dust in my eyes, grit on my teeth, and history came alive if only for a moment.
Overshooting Guymon, Oklahoma
It’s only an hour-or-so from Dalhart to Guymon and there didn’t seem to be anything memorable from a geo-oddity or cheezy Americana perspective. That left a lot of daylight to fill. Instead we drove through Guymon and kept on truckin’ up the road until reaching Liberal, Kansas. It’s the home of Dorothy House & Land of Oz. Dorothy’s House is an old Kansas farmhouse relocated to Liberal for that purpose. It bears a resemblance to the one used in the Wizard of Oz movie so it serves as a proxy for all of the state’s rustic homesteads. According to the website, the Governor of Kansas declared it to be the State’s official representation of the fictional Dorothy Gale home in 1981. Funny, I noticed a complete non sequitur like that while somehow overlooking the simple fact that the Land of Oz is closed on Mondays during the winter.
Fortunately Liberal is also the home of the Mid-America Air Museum as well as the library shaped like an open book (thank you Roadside Americana) so it all worked out in the end. We looped back to our hotel in Guymon later that afternoon, ready for the next race and another set of adventures.
The Dust Bowl Adventure articles:
I posted an article last August about five marathons in five states in five days planned for March 2013. I didn’t intend to run, rather my goal was to convince my favorite runner to participate (in the half-marathon option). That would allow me to tag along to give moral support while pursuing various geo-oddity adventures. Later I announced that the plan was on, airline tickets had been booked, hotel rooms had been reserved, and training was underway.
Now I turn to the wise and all-knowing Twelve Mile Circle audience for a most difficult challenge, an opportunity to shape my Dust Bowl experience, and truly I will be traveling through the very heart of the 1930′s Dust Bowl territory. Readers have helped me design geo-adventures before, suggesting odd stopping point I never would have discovered on my own, and hopefully you can do the same again. The special problem with this corner of the nation is its vast emptiness: few people; few towns; few geographic variances. It’s a veritable Sea of Grass, as represented by the Comanche, Cimarron, Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands.
View Dust Bowl Destinations in a larger map
There are other constraints, most significantly the Dust Bowl Marathon Series race schedule, March 18-22, 2013.
- March 18 – Dalhart, Texas
- March 19 – Guymon, Oklahoma
- March 20 – Ulysses, Kansas
- March 21 – Lamar, Colorado
- March 22 – Clayton, New Mexico
Races will take place each morning. Then the whole traveling circus will pack its bags and migrate to the next town a couple of hours away. I’ll need to pursue activities that correlate with the prescribed route each afternoon.
It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the financial impact that this roving band of runners will have upon these sparsely-settled plains, a one-day windfall for hotels and restaurants in each little town during a quiet time of the year. The tourism council in Ulysses, Kansas, is even planning a pasta dinner for the group. I’ll be sure to remember Mr. Burns’ earlier advice to me, to "be sure to pronounce Ulysses as ‘You-liss-us, never as ‘You-liss-eez’. The latter pronunciation peeves the locals." I’d hate cause an interstate incident and ruin the pasta dinner.
There may be little geographic variation, however there are numerous arbitrary human-drawn lines that create interesting situations. Visiting these spots appear to be completely feasible. There is a trifecta of tripoints, as an example, all with passable roads running in close proximity to them.
- Colorado – Kansas – Oklahoma
- Colorado – New Mexico – Oklahoma
- New Mexico – Oklahoma – Texas
The Oklahoma highpoint on Black Mesa falls tantalizingly close to CONMOK, as an added bonus. I’m not sure whether an 8-mile roundtrip to the highpoint will be feasible given other physical activities so a decision will need to be made in real-time. I’d also like to take the self-guided auto tour of the Cimarron National Grassland. It promises a prairie dog town, historical remnants of the famous Santa Fe trail, and scenic views of the Cimarron River watershed.
This plan is similar to the off-the-cuff list I developed last August albeit with a few additions, all marked on the map I developed above. The primary difference today is that each point has been researched and validated.
The Dust Bowl was an ecological disaster of immense proportions, a setting for John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath” and more recently a focus of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Public Broadcasting Service – PBS. I’d also like to explore some of those historical dimensions further on the ground and through several museums and heritage centers sprinkled throughout the territory.
Finally one can assume that I’ll consult Roadside America for other oddities and curiosities, albeit even that source doesn’t seem to have much available in my target area.
The weather may be the wildcard. I’m hoping we’re able to thread-the-needle between blizzard and thunderstorm season. Either would impact our ability to reach some of these features (not to mention the races). Some of these spots are found along dirt roads best navigated when dry. Late March historically brings decent weather in the Dust Bowl although late-Spring snowstorms are not out of the question. I’ll continue to think positive thoughts.
That’s what I’ve discovered so far. I know this is a tough one. Is there anything else along the route that shouldn’t be missed?