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.
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