Last Chance

Speaking of odd town names (we were just speaking of those, weren’t we?), what about Last Chance? Every place deserved a last chance, I supposed. The U.S. Geographic Names Information System listed more than three hundred of them. Many — no surprise — aligned with mining claims. Also they frequently referenced ditches, streams and gulches, probably running near those old mines. However that wasn’t always the case. A handful of populated places rose to the top of the list too. It took an unusual outlook on life, I figured, for someone to name a settlement Last Chance.

Last Chance, Colorado

Last Chance, CO (0)
Last Chance, CO. Photo by Michael Sauers on Flickr (cc).

Colorado’s Last Chance clung to life, just barely. It sat about 80 miles (130 kilometres) due east of Denver (map). Truly, a straight shot. Head straight north of Denver and hit Fort Collins, or straight south and hit Colorado Springs, or straight west and, well, hit a wall of mountains. Straight east should hit something more important than a hamlet on life support.

The original settlers of Last Chance probably felt the same way. Travelers driving through Colorado’s empty eastern plains to and from Denver took the straightest possible path during the early automotive period. Back then, Last Chance served as a literal last chance for motorists to refuel, grab a meal, or sleep in an actual bed anywhere between Denver and a vast nothingness. The town’s name became a marketing tool and a warning. Stop there or suffer the consequences.

The Ghost Town website summarized the rise and fall of Last Chance quite succinctly.

Last Chance was a town that grew up with the automobile and died when the interstate took the traffic south to I-70. It was a busy center for travelers in the 1940s and 1950s, and probably earlier than that.

Indeed, Interstate 70 heading east from Denver took a distinct southeastern curve about 30 miles (50 km) short of Last Chance before turning east again. Last Chance couldn’t survive that cruel routing.

Last Chance, Oklahoma

Last Chance Baptist Church
Last Chance Baptist Church
via Google Street View, July 2016

I couldn’t find any information about how the Last Chance in Oklahoma earned its name (map). The settlement seemed to simply vanish. It wouldn’t surprise me if the US Geological Survey dropped it from the database entirely someday. Only the Last Chance Baptist Church remained behind as a reminder. By the way, Last Chance might be the best church name ever. That choice positioned it perfectly as the final opportunity for redemption before banishment to the fiery pits of Hell. It gave sinners one last chance.

A post office didn’t exist in Last Chance as far as I could tell, if indeed one ever existed there. Addresses in Last Chance bore the postmark of nearby Okemah. Nothing much important happened in Last Chance although Okemah registered a minor brush with fame. Okemah had a famous native son, the legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie born there in 1912. An oil boom began around that time in the same general area, leading me to wonder if perhaps Last Chance got its name from the boom somehow?

Last Chance, Iowa

The Last Chance of Iowa fared about as well as its counterpart in Oklahoma. Here, the sole remaining sign of its existence was a cemetery. While I liked Last Chance as the name of a church I disliked it as a cemetery (map). A final resting place seemed to signify the end of any remaining chances. Last chance? More like no chance. At least I learned how it got its name, though. I found a website about cemeteries in Lucas County that offered a surprising amount of information. I was really impressed by the detail it presented about such an obscure location.

Last Chance is one of those Lucas County place names that, because of its oddity, generates stories. But the truth seems to be that its first storekeeper, William McDonald McHenry, named it offhandedly after it occurred to him that he was living in a place that didn’t yet have a name… he said, "Let’s call it Last Chance." And they called it so, more in a joke than in earnest…

Last Chance sat favorably along the Mormon Trail. Thousands of Mormon emigrants and many others walked the trail during the middle of the 19th Century. Some travelers moved their households without any pack animals, becoming a special category of Mormons called the Handcart Pioneers. Then the transcontinental railroad opened. Last Chance disappeared because of the railroads. The typical story prevailed. Railroads, long the lifeblood of small rural villages in the Heartland, all bypassed Last Chance. Decline later led to collapse.

I found additional Last Chance settlements in Idaho, California and North Carolina. However, even less information existed about any of them. It seemed that every Last Chance was down to its last chance if any of them ever had a chance at all.

Divine Apartments

I can’t tell if I live in an area overflowing with geo-oddities or whether my personality reflexively uncovers unusual situations wherever I happen to locate myself. Would I be equally adept at mining unusual patterns in London, Toronto, Sydney or Dakar? Perhaps. I’ve argued before that weirdness exists everywhere. Even so, my home area provides strange situations in great abundance and continues to add to them.

Behold the First Baptist Church of Clarendon in Arlington, Virginia. I think you’ll agree that it looks fairly typical. Can you guess the weirdness associated with it without resorting to any of the search engines? Of course you can’t. It’s a complete paradox.

First Baptist Church of Clarendon

Historically, anyway, it was known as the First Baptist Church. I’m not sure if they are affiliated with a particular denomination any longer as they seem to have dropped the Baptist part of their name. That’s not particularly germane to the story, or perhaps it is; it’s hard to tell with everything that’s transpired over the last decade. I lifted the image above from Google Street View, and that’s how it appears in their database today (future readers may notice it change). It will look much different the next time a Street View car rolls by and updates its imagery.

I happened to walk past there a few days ago. I noticed that constructions was well underway.

View of Clarendon Under Construction

The Church at Clarendon struggled with a dilemma that many churches face today: declining membership; aging infrastructure; increasing financial pressures and an uncertain future. However, the congregation did not follow the typical approach. The physical building is undergoing a metamorphosis that will create The Views at Clarendon. When completed, the church will be totally rebuilt with a ten-story apartment building incorporated into its design.

A quick examination of the local area reveals the seeds of the solution.

View Larger Map

The Church, by fortunate coincidence, happened to be located on one of the few remaining parcels zoned for intensive development in a rapidly urbanizing corridor. The congregation faced financial pressures but it was sitting atop a fortune made of dirt. The land beneath their feet was incredibly more valuable than the structure rising above the surface. Many churches would have sold the property and rebuilt elsewhere, probably with enough cash left over to establish a nice endowment that would ensure financial solvency forever. That’s not what happened here, however.

The congregation entered into a triangular business relationship involving a developer and the state/local governments that set-aside a sizable portion of the apartments for "affordable housing." The congregation would gain a completely refurbished house of worship; the developer would receive significant tax breaks and low-interest loans, and the county would add 70 units to its list of affordable housing stock in an area where it had been diminishing. Everyone wins, right? Wrong.

The satellite image also reveals a justification for dissent. Notice all of the single family homes immediately adjacent to the church parcel. Their residents would now live in the shadow of a ten-story wall and their neighborhood would bear the pressures of increased cut-through traffic and competition for parking. I don’t have enough facts to form an opinion so I will simply note that there were two completely separate positions. The debate became heated and emotional with all of the obvious inflammatory charges and counter-charges one could imagine, hurled equally by both camps (NIMBY, Socialism, Racism, Greed, etc.).

The county passed an initial plan in 2004. Legal challenges were still underway as late as December 2010 when a judge on the Fourth Circuit Court upheld an earlier decision: the plan served a secular purpose and was not an entanglement between church and state.

Interestingly, this isn’t the only place in Arlington with an unusual church arrangement. Previously I featured a church with a gas station beneath it, just a couple of miles down the road. Are multipurpose churches a feature unique to the area or are they a more widespread indicator of land pressures in an urban environment? I’d love to know if other examples exist elsewhere.