Last Place in the United States

On July 10, 2016 · 1 Comments

I decided to wrap-up the series of "Last Places" with the United States, after previously exploring England, Asia and various members of the Commonwealth of Nations. The premise remained the same, to find the last places in the nation where something once happened or where anachronisms still remained.

The Last Arabbers

18 - Donald 'Manboy' Savoy
Donald 'Manboy' Savoy – a patriarch of the Arabbers by Cultural Documentation on Flickr (cc)

Men known as arabbers once commonly walked beside horse-drawn carts through city streets of the northeastern United States selling fresh fruits and vegetables. They shouted distinctive chants to identify themselves and their wares. Residents came outdoors when they heard items they wanted to buy. Many African American men pursued this entrepreneurial opportunity, a means of steady self-employment free from discrimination in the years after the Civil War. The practice gradually faded after the advent of motorized vehicles. Cities became increasingly hostile to horses and people switched their shopping allegiance to grocery stores. Arabbing disappeared everywhere except for tiny pockets of Baltimore, Maryland.

The term Arabbing seemed unusual. It derived from A-rab (pronounced Ay-Rab), which earned a special explanation from the Baltimore Sun when it described the practice in 2007. The etymology extended back to London in the mid-Nineteenth Century, referring to "a homeless little wanderer, a child of the street." In turn, that "likely reflects the sense of the nomadic life historically led by the peoples on the Arabian Peninsula." In other words it derived from a stereotype.

The profession could disappear soon even in Baltimore. Only a few arabber continued to exist. Animal rights activities derided the practice, lobbying Government officials to end the tradition in other cities such as Philadelphia and New York. Baltimore officials raided one of the last stables, the old South Carlton Street stables near Hollins Market (map) in 2015. All charges were dropped in March 2016 in a case described as "laughably weak." However by that time officials found replacement homes for all of the horses. The city effectively put the rightful owners out of business. Now arabbing in Baltimore hangs by the weakest of threads.

Last Place to Fly the Bourbon flag of France

Fort de Chartres Wall
Fort de Chartres Wall by henskechristine on Flickr (cc)

I struggled with this one. Did Fort de Chartres fly the Bourbon flag of France longer than anywhere else in territory later part of United States, as claimed? Maybe.

France controlled inland North America for much of the Eighteenth Century. This including a preponderance of the Mississippi River and its watershed. It established a series of forts along these waterways to enforce its domain. Fort de Chartres (map) on the east bank of the Mississippi in modern-day Illinois, played a central role. The initial fort dated to 1720. It washed away as did its replacement, a predictable fate for wooden structures built in a floodplain. The French decided on something more permanent after that. They rebuilt Fort de Chartres in thick limestone in 1753. This served as their main military outpost and government center for all of Upper Louisiana until 1765.

France and Britain battled in the Seven Years’ War during this period, a conflict called the French and Indian War in North America. Britain eventually won. The resulting 1763 Treaty of Paris forced France to cede all land east of the Mississippi to Britain and all land west of the Mississippi to Spain. It took another two years before British forces occupied Fort de Chartres.

Then the white banner of old France, with its royal fleur de lis, was drawn down from its staff, and in its place was displayed the red cross of St, George. Thus was ended the splendid dream of French conquest and dominion in North America. After the performance of this sad act, St. Ange took his departure by boat, with his little company of 30 officers and men, and proceeded up and across the Mississippi river to the new French trading post of St. Louis, which was then in Spanish territory.

Napoleon Bonaparte briefly claimed Louisiana from Spain before selling it to the fledgling United States in 1803. However Bonaparte did not fly the Bourbon flag so the assertion might be true.

The Last Indentured Servants

Haleakala Cane Fields
Haleakala Cane Fields by bradmcs on Fickr (cc)

Indentured servitude seemed like something out of the colonial era of American history. People received passage to the New World and in turn they agreed to work for someone for a number of years. The practice disappeared soon after the American Revolution. However, the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898. Hawaii had been an independent nation that allowed indentured servitude so the US had to abolish the practice again.

The Organic Act, bringing US law to bear in the newly-annexed Territory of Hawaii took effect 111 years ago–June 14, 1900. As a result, US laws prohibiting contracts of indentured servitude replaced the 1850 Masters and Servants Act which had been in effect under the Hawaiian Kingdom and Hawaii Republic. Tens of thousands of plantation laborers were freed from contract slavery by the Organic Act.

Sugar drove both freedom for indentured servants and a loss of sovereignty for the Hawaiian nation. Immigrants from the United States built large estates like the 1864 Grove Farm Sugar Plantation on Kauai, now a museum (map). These super-wealthy capitalists demanded more influence in Hawaiian politics. Their power came from the other side of the Pacific and they seized control. Ironically they also lost their cheap supply of Chinese and Japanese indentured servants once the United States took over.

Last Place Where Oysters are Harvested with Tongs from Small Boats

oyster shells in tong heads
oyster shells in tong heads by Southern Foodways Alliance on Flickr (cc)

Machinery changed many practices of people who made their living from the land or the sea. Oystermen generally abandoned traditional labor-intensive techniques in favor of motorized dredges once they became available. Only in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay did harvesters continue to scrape oysters from their beds using hand-powered tongs (map). The water was so shallow and the oysters so abundant that the traditional method actually allowed watermen to make a decent living. This reminded me of another anachronism, the skipjack sailors of Chesapeake Bay. They used small sailboats to harvest oysters. A quirk in Maryland law allowed them to harvest during times of the year that those using motorized boats could not, a means to prevent over-harvesting.

How Low Can it Go?

On January 29, 2013 · 2 Comments

I stumble across the most fascinating bits of information in unexpected places. It happened this time as I examined the unusually-wide median strip between the eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate 8 in southern California. I learned of a nearby oddity further down the highway while reviewing various roadfan websites.

A motorist will encounter the lowest overland elevation in the entire Interstate Highway System just to the east of the extreme central reservation I’d discovered earlier. It is listed as 52 feet (16 meters) below sea level by the U.S. Government’s Federal Highway Administration.

It’s not the lowest elevation of any road of any type within the U.S. — that’s Badwater Road in Death Valley which provides access to the lowest public restroom in North America (~ -282 ft, -86 m) — just the lowest natural point of elevation in the Interstate Highway System. It’s still pretty impressive, though.

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This happens in the vicinity of Exit 107 where I-8 crosses the New River. Notice the channel. The road dips down here as it crosses the river over a short bridge. Where, I wondered, could the New River be flowing if it was already more than fifty feet below sea level here? Certainly it would not be flowing to the sea. It much be part of an endorheic basin, and indeed that is the case.

The New River begins in Baja California, Mexico where it’s known as the Río Nuevo. It passes through the wonderfully conjoined portmanteau cities of Mexicali and Calexico. From there it flows under the I-8 bridge west of El Centro, and on to the Salton Sea. The surface elevation of the Salton Sea is -226 ft (-69 m) so whatever flows along the New River won’t leave the Salton Sea on its own unless it’s able to evaporate.

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That’s a problem. This Street View image from the point of lowest Interstate elevation shows one of the most polluted bodies of water in the nation. Sewage, pesticide-laden agricultural runoff, and industrial waste from businesses located along the ditch then dump into a basin without an outflow. Toxins and pathogens collect in extreme concentrations, creating a most foul situation. Those driving at high speed along I-8, crossing this point of lowest elevation, likely never consider the drawbacks of this dubious honor.

Let’s put one more asterisk onto the claim. There are other places along the Interstate Highway Systems with a lower elevation. However, they are located in tunnels. A similar situation exists in Canada.

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The Intertubes claims that the Fort McHenry Tunnel carrying I-95 traffic through Baltimore, Maryland represents the absolutely lowest Interstate elevation at 107 ft (33 m) below sea level. It passes in close proximity to historic Fort McHenry, as implied by the name, the battlefield site inspiring the Star Spangled Banner. It then drops below Baltimore Harbor. I’d post a Street View image except that the interior of a tunnel isn’t exactly the most exciting scenery available (check for yourself if you must).

While the exalted position of the Fort McHenry tunnel seemed to be conventional wisdom for the cyberspace masses, it was not the only candidate offered. I discovered numerous other claims. I could not, however, nail-down a definitive source. Another option included the I-93 Thomas P. "Tip" O’Neill Tunnel, part of the Big Dig project in Boston, Massachusetts. The I-64 Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel in Virginia was also mentioned frequently. I know we have several roadfans who read 12MC regularly so hopefully someone can provide a proper citation and we can put these issues to rest. I’ve driven through all three of these tunnels so I’m covered no matter how it turns out. Funny, I never realized I was experiencing a true geo-oddity during any of my transits.

I’ve never driven on I-8 through California though. I look forward to experiencing both the wide median and the lowest overland elevation someday.

Mistaken Identity, Part 3

On May 8, 2011 · 12 Comments

I’ve called the final installment of my series on geographic mistaken identities, Baltimore, DC. A couple of comments on the earlier articles referenced people making the wrong assumptions about airports. This is another instance of that phenomenon so I won’t dwell on it for long. Instead I’ll keep it short so I have room to mention a few other mistaken identities that came to mind as I gathered my thoughts for this series.

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Not everyone in the family shares my enthusiasm for geography or related oddities. One of my sisters came to town to visit several years ago. She bought tickets to the closest airport, or more accurately what she thought was the closest airport. It’s full name is the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, which is quite a mouthful so lots of people shorten it down to National Airport. That’s especially true of people who lived in the area before it was renamed for the 40th President. My sister falls into that category so National Airport would have a much more familiar ring to it.

Except apparently, if one confuses the shortened name and asks for a ticket to "Washington International" it will lead one to Baltimore, Maryland instead. The name of the airport there is Baltimore/Washington International (officially Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport). Is it any surprise it’s often shortened to BWI?

Long-story-short, this resulted in a multi-hour traffic nightmare to retrieve said loved one from the airport rather than a much more reasonable ten minute dash. We still had a nice visit, though.

I have one other instance of airport confusion which I can’t confirm in person so it might be one of those Internet things: apparently Dulles Airport in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC kept getting confused with the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport. People supposedly would ask for a ticket to Dulles and get sent to Dallas instead, especially if they were purchasing a ticket by phone and had an accent. According to the legend, that’s why the airport is now known as Washington Dulles Airport. True or not? Who knows?

A Mistaken Identity in West Virginia

I bet many of you thought I’d mention the similarity between Charleston, West Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina. That’s a common error but no, that’s not what I’m going to talk about. It still involves Charleston, WV but you’d probably have to be a local to guess the confusion relates to Charles Town, West Virginia. Charles Town can be found in the eastern panhandle of the state in the only corner that can be considered Almost Heaven with any degree of geographic accuracy.

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This would probably have been around 1995 or so, back when the Lollapalooza music festival toured around North America and used to make an annual stop at the Charles Town Racetrack. Charles Town is fairly convenient to the Washington, DC area. In fact it’s considered an exurb at the extreme edge of the official metropolitan area. People commute into the city from here daily if that gives a decent indication of distance. Charleston, however, is not. That’s more like a six hour, 370 mile drive from Washington.

This was back during my days as a cubicle dweller. A coworker in the next cube had a teenage daughter who planned to attend Lollapalooza along with a carload of her dingbat friends one fine day, an event I could never consider attending because I had a job and needed the money and couldn’t afford to take a whole day off for something so self-indulgent, not that I was jealous or resentful or anything like that, right? All I’ll say is that it was quite amusing to overhear my coworker on the phone with his daughter throughout the day as the geographically-challenged teens who never thought to bring a map attempted to navigate their way to the correct location after a multi-hour detour.

New Mexico, old Mexico, it doesn’t matter. You’re not getting tickets.

My final example traces back to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. I remembered hearing about this a long time ago but I wasn’t sure whether it was an urban legend or not. Google actually confirms that there was press coverage at the time so I guess there’s a chance it’s genuine, although it certainly feels fake:

Wade Miller of Santa Fe, N.M., recently called the Summer Olympics ticket office in Atlanta to inquire about volleyball tickets. Miller, 31, was assured that volleyball tickets were available. Then the ticket agent asked for his address and zip code. "She put me on hold, then came back and said she couldn’t sell tickets to someone who lives outside the United States," Miller said. "She said I needed to call my own national committee."

That’s probably one reason why New Mexico license plates say (said?) "New Mexico, USA" on them.

Articles in this string:

Mistaken Identity, Part 1: Call the Inspectors
Mistaken Identity, Part 2: Invasion of a Maryland Beach Town
Mistaken Identity, Part 3: Baltimore, DC

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