Twelve Mile Circle felt like playing games. More to the point, I’d collected a few town names tied to games that I wanted to share. I did something similar awhile ago with the sport of Lawn Bowls, a particularly popular choice for names. Atlantic City also made the cut with Monopoly although the town inspired the game rather than the other way around.
Show Low got me thinking. I’d spotted the town in eastern Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. I figured it hid an interesting story given its strange name and indeed it did. Two ranchers, Corydon Cooley and Marion Clark, owned a large property jointly in 1876. They discovered, however, that it wouldn’t support both of their families. Neither wanted to leave so they let fate pick the winner with a poker game. As the Town’s website explained,
Show Low was named after a marathon poker game played between two early settlers. They decided there wasn’t enough room for both of them in the community and agreed to let a game of cards decide who was to get the 100,000 acre ranch and who was to move on. According to the story, one of them said, "If you can show low, you win." The other one turned up the deuce of clubs and replied, "show low it is."
Nothing could go lower than the deuce of clubs so the game ended. Cooley won. He renamed the ranch Show Low to commemorate his victory and the town later adopted it. That seemed fitting in the Old West where stories like those abounded. The town embraced its history too. They called their primary road, a segment of U.S. Route 60, Deuce of Clubs (map). Lots of local businesses used the name and the town logo featured an appropriate playing card.
The map said Truth or Consequences although locals called it T or C (map). Either way, it definitely seemed like an odd name for a town. I thought I’d mentioned this one before, however it seemed that it never actually made it into a 12MC article. Loyal reader Peter did mention T or C in a comment about a year ago referring to its old name, Hot Springs. Well, Hot Springs certainly sounded normal, so what happened?
I supposed with a relatively common name like Hot Springs, the town wanted to try something a little bit more unusual. A radio program popular at the time, Truth or Consequences, offered a contest. Its host, Ralph Edwards, would broadcast the show’s 10th anniversary episode live from any town that would change its name to match the show. Hot Springs jumped at the chance and the broadcast took place on April 1, 1950. The town impressed Edwards so much that he returned every May for the next half-century for an Annual Fiesta. T or C returned the love, naming an auditorium and a park for Edwards.
Poker Flat and The Shores of Poker Flat, California
Bret Harte wrote colorful stories of the California Gold Rush in the second half of the 19th Century. He published one his most famous short stories "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" in Overland Monthly magazine in 1869. Go ahead and read it. This shouldn’t take more than about ten minutes. I’ll wait for you until you get back.
A community called The Shores of Poker Flat claimed to be the inspiration for the story. It even included a Bret Harte Drive (map). However, evidence seemed to point to another Poker Flat found elsewhere in California (map). That one became a ghost town many decades ago.
You didn’t read the story, did you? Let me synopsize. A gold rush town wished to rid itself of negative influences. They hanged a couple of miscreants and exiled four others. The exiles left town, warned to stay away forever. They trudged into the mountains and met a couple traveling in the opposite direction. Tired, the expanded group set camp in an abandoned cabin as it began to snow. They remained trapped for several days as provisions waned and stakes became increasingly desperate. One of the prime characters, the professional gambler John Oakhurst, was found dead at the end of the story. He’d committed suicide "with a Derringer by his side and a bullet in his heart." There he sat beneath a pine tree, with "the deuce of clubs pinned to the bark with a bowie-knife."
There was that deuce of clubs again. He showed low, his luck ran out.
The article I discovered was more than a year old, although it was new to me when I spotted it. The title intrigued me, Did You Know: Capital Of Arizona Moved 4 Times Before Settling In Phoenix. No, actually I didn’t know that. I’ve featured similar stories of wandering capitals for other states such as Ohio, Georgia and Alabama. Why not one about Arizona capitals too? The article provided a nice overview so that I could explore some of the stranger aspects and then the actual locations of its multiple former capitol buildings.
For instance, the first Arizona capital was actually located in New Mexico although not according to the United States government. The Confederate States of America had a surprisingly strong presence in the neglected farthest southern reaches of the western desert. The New Mexico territory encompassed an area occupied by modern New Mexico and Arizona at the time. The Confederates claimed the southern half as Arizona during the Civil War, placing their eastern capital in Mesilla when troops under Col. John Baylor arrived in February 1862. No signs remained of their original capitol building although it stood where the historic Fountain Theater was constructed in the 1870’s and still operates today (map). The Confederate government wouldn’t last long there. Union troops drove Baylor and his rebellious forces into Texas a few months later.
The United States government looked unfavorably upon the Confederate incursion as one would expect. It diluted Confederate sympathies by cleaving Arizona from the western half of New Mexico rather than the southern half. Prescott became the Arizona capital in late 1863 at nearby Fort Whipple (map), an Army base. A few months later the capital moved into the town of Prescott proper and into more suitable accommodations. A large log building served as the seat of government as well as the governor’s home. It was sold as a private residence when no longer needed, when the capital finally wandered away to a new location for good. The building was preserved at its original location and now forms the backbone of the Sharlot Hall Museum (map).
The log house served as both home and office for Territorial Governor John Goodwin and Secretary Richard McCormick. In September 1865, when Goodwin was elected Territorial Delegate to Congress and returned to the east, McCormick brought his new wife Margaret out from New Jersey, and he soon became our second territorial governor… In 1867, the Territorial Capital was transferred to Tucson, and Governor McCormick went with it.
The capital would remain in Tucson for the next decade, from 1867-1877 (it had also served as the western Confederate capital briefly during the war). However, Arizona didn’t build a dedicated structure to house the territorial government. The permanent location for its seat of government continued to remain unsettled, with political forces nearly evenly divided between choosing Prescott and Tucson. Instead the territorial government met in several privately-owned facilities spread throughout the town at any given time, most famously the Congress Hall Saloon. I had a difficult time finding the exact location of the saloon because it was torn down in the early 1900’s. However I finally did track the site down to a spot along one of Tucson’s major road — Congress Street (named for the saloon). The cross streets were Congress and Meyer (map) although Meyer no longer extends through there anymore.
The Congress Hall Saloon played a prominent role in the history of Tucson. Charles Brown was its proprietor, and his home still exists at 40 W. Broadway Boulevard, a couple of blocks to the east of the old saloon. Not only did the saloon serve as an informal territorial capital it also hosted an 1871 meeting "of prominent townsmen… during which the municipality of Tucson was organized and officers elected." It was one of the few structures of a suitable size in an emerging frontier town so it didn’t matter that alcohol served as its primary purpose for existence.
Political wrangling continued. The capital moved back to Prescott in 1877 where it remained until 1889. Finally, the legislature settled on Phoenix. This time the location stuck. This was a compromise choice placed about halfway between Prescott and Tucson. If politicians couldn’t decide on one town or the other at least they could stick it in the middle. A new capitol building (map) soon emerged on the spot and remained in service until the 1960’s when replaced by the current capitol building adjacent to it. The original Phoenix structure then became the Arizona Capitol Museum.
Old sympathies died hard on the frontier and more than a few recalcitrant Confederates remained in Arizona decades after the Civil War ended. Arizona became a state on February 14, 1912. That was fifty years to the day from when Colonel Baylor declared a Confederate Arizona on February 14, 1862, establishing its capital in Mesilla.
A visitor landed on Twelve Mile Circle from Surprise. That was the actual name of the town; Surprise, Arizona. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised because more than a hundred thousand people lived there, yet I’d never heard of it. I also learned during my search that Surprise was a surprisingly common designation with 238 surprises lurking in the Geographic Names Information System alone. They included mountains, lakes, mines, basins, beaches, and of course populated places as well as just about every other feature imaginable. I picked a select few for further exploration and then moved on to a couple of international examples.
Naturally I wondered how a town could become a Surprise (map) and fortunately it provided a handy explanation.
Our city of over 120,000 people was just one square mile of farmland back in 1938 when Flora Mae Statler founded it. So why did she call us Surprise? According to Statler’s daughter Elizabeth Wusich Stoft, her mother once commented "she would be surprised if the town ever amounted to much." With our success, she would indeed be surprised and proud!
Surprise became one of the fastest growing cities in Arizona, a state already noteworthy for its remarkable growth. The US Census Bureau reported only thirty thousand residents as of 2000. Its recent growth could only be described as explosive.
A name like surprise offered opportunities for puns and odd juxtapositions. For instance the town held an annual Surprise party that wasn’t actually a surprise party. It was always announced ahead of time (December 4-5 this year). They also had a Surprise Women’s Heritage Trail. In most places, surprising women on a trail might become a matter for the police instead of a recognition of women’s history.
Events unfolded in a less pleasant surprise for the Surprise in Nebraska. It started well enough in the 19th Century according to Virtual Nebraska.
It wasn’t until 1881 that George Miller and several members of his family decided to built a dam on the small, spring-fed stream not far from the headwaters of the Big Blue River. They hoped to be able to impound enough water to operate a grist mill. It is said that Miller was not only pleased, but also quite surprised to get enough water power for such an enterprise, so he gave his mill the name "Surprise."
The settlement grew into a nice town (map) a few years later when the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad Company laid tracks through the area and built a depot there. Then Surprise began to suffer like much of the Great Plains with a slow outward migration of its residents. Peaking with a population above three hundred, Surprise declined with every Census starting in 1910, leaving only 43 souls at the 2010 Census.
I shifted to a larger geographic footprint for the third example, a 70 by 10 mile (112 by 16 kilometre) area in northern California called Surprise Valley, sandwiched between the Warner and Hayes mountain ranges (map). It encompassed several rural towns in Modoc County, including Cedarville, Eagleville, Fort Bidwell and Lake City.
The local Chamber of Commerce described how the area came to be settled.
A bad drought that occurred in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys in 1864 caused much of the livestock there to perish. Owners offered up to half their cattle herds to anyone who would take the animals into the high country to grass and water. Men who saw this as an opportunity to have their own ranches and herds recalled the big grassy valley they had passed through while on the wagon train to California.
I also found a Bureau of Land Management brochure that offered an explanation for the name. Prospectors heading towards the California goldfields suffered immense hardships as they trudged overland through the hostile Great Basin. "It was a welcome and unexpected surprise to see the trees, good water and grassy meadows in the valley below the high mountains we now call the Warners."
I found plenty of other surprises outside of the United States including Mount Surprise (map) in Queensland, Australia. It was a mountain, for sure, as well as a nearby town with the same name. They were set pretty much in the middle of nowhere, with the town becoming a home for fewer than two hundred. Tourists traveled there for fossicking. I had no idea what fossicking entailed so I looked it up. It was an Australian term for prospecting, much to my disappointment. People liked to search for gemstones at Mount Surprise. If not, they could explore lava tubes at nearby Undara Volcanic National Park.
Mount Surprise is a historic rail town in the Gulf Savannah. Its name comes from the surprise the Aboriginal people felt when they were resting at the base of the mountain and the loud white people of Ezra Firth’s pioneer party arrived in 1864.
That seemed more than a little bogus to me although I couldn’t find a better explanation.
I didn’t want 12MC readers in Canada to feel left out in the cold so I selected a surprise there, too. Surprise, Saskatchewan (map) barely existed although the Canadian Geographical Names Data Base still included an entry for it. The Rural Municipality (RM) of Enterprise No. 142 had only 160 residents and most of them lived in Richmound ("The Town With U In It"). Surprise? Maybe just a few buildings, mostly overgrown by prairie. The video I found claimed that the original settlers were surprised to find a complete lack of trees which surprised me because the prairie wasn’t exactly known for trees.
This Surprise shouldn’t be confused with the Rural Municipality of Surprise Valley No. 9, located farther south in Saskatchewan along the US Border.