Avoiding the Temptation

On April 19, 2015 · 6 Comments

It sat there in front of me, so tempting, so wanting to be bestowed with a clickbait title on this 12MC article. I could have called it Sex Folk or maybe Folk Sex. Certainly that would have attracted some undeserved attention and a few extra eyeballs. However, for what purpose? People who came to the site on that flimsy premise would create the classic one-and-done scenario, never to return again anyway. It’s not like Twelve Mile Circle ever tried to appeal to a wider audience beyond its faithful core of geo-geeks. I avoided the temptation. However now I have to describe what this article is all about because I spent the entire opening paragraph on a completely unrelated tangent.

The situation became apparent as I started my research for an upcoming trip to Cape Cod and environs in the next few weeks. Massachusetts, I noticed, had counties of Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk and Suffolk. The prefixes seemed directional, east, middle, north and south. The suffixes, well I knew they came from England during the colonial era although I’d never examined their meaning before. What did -sex and -folk mean, anyway?

At this point the UK audience can probably stop reading. This will likely be old news. It may also be old news for much of the North American audience too. I don’t know.

Oh, I have another interesting tidbit since we’re running down irrelevant tangents today. More 12MC visitors arrive on the site from London than from any other place in the world except for New York City. By that I mean 12MC has a surprisingly robust British audience and a lot of people could probably stop reading right around now and get on with their day.

-sex Suffix

Smoots on Harvard Bridge
Harvard Bridge, crossing between Middlesex and Suffolk Counties, Massachusetts (my own photo)

Once on a trip to Boston, Massachusetts I walked across the Harvard Bridge over the Charles River between Middlesex and Suffolk Counties. I’d gone there to observe the birthplace of the Smoot in person. That simple stroll allowed me to travel from -folk (Suffolk) to -sex (Middlesex) and back to -folk. Let’s begin by evaluating -sex.

The geographic prefix -sex came from the Old English seaxe, meaning Saxon. The Saxons were a Germanic people who arrived in Great Britain in the fifth century and formed part of the larger Anglo-Saxon grouping that remained in control until the Norman conquest in 1066. Sorry to disappoint everyone with that rather mundane derivation. Thus, in England, Sussex was south Saxon, Essex was east Saxon, Wessex was west Saxon and Middlesex was middle Saxon. That middle Saxon was centered near London and the other lands of Saxons were correspondingly south, east and west. England in modern times split Sussex into West Sussex and East Sussex which are west and east of each other (generally southwest and southeast of London), all logically enough. It made sense.

Things got a bit turned around in the North American colonies when settlers arrived and brought their familiar English placenames with them. In Massachusetts, Essex was east of Middlesex and that was fine. In New Jersey, Sussex was north, Middlesex was south and Essex was in the middle (although one tiny corner extended farthest east). In Virginia, Middlesex was in the middle and Sussex was south as they should have been, however Essex was north.

-folk Suffix

Boston skyline
Boston skyline by Bert Kaufmann, on Flickr (cc)

The City of Boston was located within the -folk when I crossed the Harvard Bridge. Many counties in New England have been disestablished and Suffolk has joined the list. It exists for various statistical purposes although Suffolk no longer has a separate county government. Nonetheless it retained its historical name with it’s pertinent suffix.

Sometimes the obvious guess provided the answer, and -folk means folk, i.e., people. Suffolk meant south folk, from the Old English suþfolcci. Norfolk, well, meant north people.

Suffolk and Norfolk in England were aligned geographically in an appropriate manner. Massachusetts was completely flipped. Suffolk was north and Norfolk was south. Either the etymology had been obscured or nobody cared by then.

Undignified Floods

On January 18, 2015 · 1 Comments

Floods are awful in any form and I don’t wish to diminish or make light of that one overriding consideration. However there are floods of a "normal" variety — if an event so awful can be referred to so cavalierly — and then there are truly bizarre floods. Either way, lives are lost, property is damaged, and communities are disrupted. Things seem to be a little different and particularly undignified in certain circumstances though, for example when the flood is a raging torrent of molasses.

The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

Fire House no. 31 damaged, Molasses Disaster. 1:00pm
Fire House no. 31 damaged, Molasses Disaster. 1:00pm by Boston Public Library, on Flickr (cc)

A large storage tank of molasses filled by the Purity Distilling Company burst in Boston’s North End in January 1919. An official inquiry failed to establish a definitive reason, ascribing it to an "Act of God." Several theories were offered over the years including a buildup of carbon dioxide that may have been caused by an unusually warm winter day. Very recently the Boston Globe reported another possibility:

Now, a study has shed new light on the cause of the collapse, finding that the tank was stressed well beyond capacity and made from a steel susceptible to fracture — the same type used on the Titanic… The steel was too thin to withstand the enormous stress of 2.3 million gallons of molasses, a weakness builders should have known at the time… What builders at the time could not have known was that the type of steel used for the tank was brittle because it contained a low amount of the chemical element manganese, making it more likely to crack.

The bursting tank sent a huge wave of molasses into the neighborhood. Different sources pegged the wave at between 25 and 40 feet (8-12 metres) high. It slammed into homes, twisted an elevated railroad track, knocked a firehouse off of its foundation, and killed 21 people in its sticky wake. Another 150 people were injured. Local residents swore they could still smell a hint of molasses on particularly hot summer days for years afterwards.

The Commercial Street location where the tank once stood eventually became the infield of a baseball diamond at Langone Park (map). A small plaque reminds Little Leaguers® of the molasses tragedy.

The London Beer Flood of 1814

Dominion Theatre, London West End
Dominion Theatre, London West End by Ian Nichol, on Flickr (cc)

How did I miss the 200th anniversary of London’s beer flood? The Independent knew about it and commemorated it though:

An unlimited, free supply of beer – it sounds wonderful doesn’t it? But when it is over one million litres in volume and in a tidal wave at least 15 feet high, as it was in the London Beer Flood on 17 October 1814, the prospect seems less appealing… a broken vat at the Horse Shoe Brewery on Tottenham Court Road flooded the local area with porter, a dark beer native to the capital, killing eight people and demolishing a pair of homes.

The brewery had been set in an underprivileged neighborhood, a slum called St. Giles Rookery. The flimsy buildings couldn’t withstand the onslaught of beer. People were crammed into the tenements all the way down to the cellars, and that’s where much of the tragedy occurred. Those in cellars were trapped as beer poured in and filled to ground level.

This accident was also ascribed to an Act of God even though witnesses had reported signs of an impending rupture earlier in the day. The owner, Henry Meux, even managed to get a favorable ruling that allowed him to get a refund on the taxes he’d paid on the beer. Negligence had much different standards back in those days.

The Horse Shoe Brewery (image) had been founded in 1764. One might think that perhaps this tragedy would have closed the brewery. It didn’t. Horse Shoe hummed along for another century and more, all the way until 1921. Upon closing, the land was put to a completely different use. It became the site of the Dominion Theatre, built in 1928-29 (map).

The Swine Sewage Flood of 1999

The Swine Ballet
The Swine Ballet by Kiesha Jean, on Flickr (cc)

Conditions in tidal North Carolina were favorable for hog farming. However, this industry also had a dirty underside, the bodily wastes of millions of pigs:

North Carolina’s 10 million hogs produce 40 million gallons of manure each day — that’s more than the number of people in the state. In Duplin County alone, 2.2 million hogs produce twice as much untreated manure as the sewage from the New York City metro area.

These wastes were stored in manure lagoons, essentially open pits "operated to encourage anaerobic digestion of organic material while it is being stored." They can be susceptible to spills if not constructed and maintained properly.

Hurricanes do hit North Carolina periodically and that’s what happened with Hurricane Floyd in September 1999. The same area had already been hit by the much weaker Hurricane Dennis less than two weeks earlier so the water table was up and the ground saturated. Floyd slammed into the coast right at North Carolina’s Cape Fear region before moving into the Mid-Atlantic and up into New England. It doused eastern North Carolina with tremendous rainfall as it passed, leading to widespread flooding throughout the area. According to the North Carolina Riverkeepers and Waterkeeper Alliance:

Waterkeepers and other environmental leaders in this state had been warning the Governor and members of the NC legislature for years about the destruction that would accompany a storm like Floyd. Thousands of huge cesspools, called "lagoons," filled with feces, urine and other toxins, blanketed the flood prone area. Many were located in the worst possible area, the floodplain itself.

The noxious sewage deluge polluted many of the local rivers and estuaries, spreading fecal coliform bacteria, polluting wells and creating dead zones were much aquatic life could not survive. The New River (map) was hit especially hard all along its fifty mile course that took it directly past US Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune before flushing into the Atlantic Ocean.

The one thing all of these undignified floods had in common was that they could have been prevented.

Bostonian Confusion and I Don’t Mean Massachusetts

On November 26, 2013 · 1 Comments

I remained vague when I discussed Boston — the Boston in Texas — in Named Like a Whole Other Country. I kept it to "the man who opened the first store in the area was W. J. Boston." Otherwise I might have tipped my hand that I’d discovered three Texas Bostons all within about four miles of each other in Bowie County. To wit,

  • Boston was always Boston, and it’s newer than New Boston, although it’s now part of New Boston. Probably.
  • Old Boston was the original Boston.
  • New Boston was named for Old Boston back when Old Boston was still Boston.
  • They’re all New Boston for postal purposes (Zip Code 75570) so maybe it doesn’t matter.

Got all that? It confused me too. Fortunately the Geographic Names Information System or GNIS provided precise locations for each location and the Handbook of Texas Online provided context and history.

(A) = Old Boston, (B) = New Boston, (C) = Boston

Notice the tight clustering of the Boston trio. This proximity would tend to justify a single town with a single name just about anywhere else. Maybe that would have happened here too except for several extenuating events. I took all three town histories from the Handbook, sorted through their intricacies and developed a timeline.

1830’s: Early settlers founded Boston and named it for the guy I mentioned earlier.

1841: Boston became the initial government seat for newly-founded Bowie County. That was while Texas was still an independent nation, the Republic of Texas.

1846: Boston gained a post office. Yes, it’s important to the story.

Some of the Railroad has been Decommissioned

1876: The new Texas and Pacific Railway laid track through Bowie County, and it skipped Boston. Residents feared Boston’s stagnation, a sad situation for many towns bypassed by railroads, so residents met with railroad officials to see what could be done about it. They agreed upon a station at the closest place possible along the line, about four miles north of Boston. Many Bostonians packed-up and platted a town around the new station, calling it New Boston because they lacked originality.

Mid 1880’s: The Bowie county seat moved from Boston to Texarkana which had become the largest town in the county by that time. Even so, Texarkana sat at the far eastern edge of Bowie County which inconvenienced just about everyone else. The county seat moved again about five year later, this time to the exact geographic center of Bowie. It corresponded to a spot about a mile south of New Boston.

1890: Bowie County started building a new courthouse at its nameless, centralized spot. The location lacked a post office and it needed to have one because of a quirk in the law that required a post office at every county seat. The Boston post office would move to the nameless spot — no issue there — although what should they call it? The Postal Service rejected several alternatives because they were already taken, otherwise Center, Hood or Glass would have sufficed. With preferred options unavailable, the county transferred the Boston name along with the Boston post office. Thus Boston became the county seat and the original Boston became Old Boston. Meanwhile, New Boston was still New Boston.

That’s the way things remained geographically and administratively for the next century even though the economics changed. New Boston, with its proximity to a railroad and later an interstate highway, expanded in size and influence.

1986: Bowie County built a modern courthouse in New Boston, on the edge of town near Interstate 30 and a Wal-Mart (map). The courthouse moved although Boston remained the legal county seat.

The Old Courthouse is Gone. Only the Abandoned Jail Remains

1987: An arsonist burned the old courthouse building in Boston, completely gutting it.

The story had an interesting postscript. An article in the Chicago Tribune reported on a suspicious situation in 1988.

The torching of one of Texas’ oldest courthouses has sparked a controversy nearly as hot as the flames that gutted the structure a year ago. At issue is whether to raze or restore the 99-year-old Bowie County Courthouse, one of the 10 oldest in Texas. An equally popular topic of discussion at local coffee shops is the timing of the fire, which was quickly ruled arson; it occurred two weeks after county officials increased insurance coverage on the building, at a time when the county budget was in the red. Another vexing question is whether the location of the new courthouse is legal.

The legal situation focused on whether the courthouse should have been allowed to move to its new location. By that time New Boston had annexed all of Boston except for the single block with the old courthouse. Apparently the move violated a Texas law about locating a courthouse too far away from the center of a county without adequate voter approval, or so it was alleged. Then there were the mysterious circumstances surrounding the arson. I couldn’t find out what happened after that time although eventually New Boston annexed the remaining vestige of Boston even though it continued to serve as the official Bowie County seat. That would make Boston a neighborhood of New Boston, and seemingly legitimize the new courthouse location.

Completely Unrelated

I learned about an interesting tool from Twitter user @OsmQcCapNat as a result of the recent 12MC article on Trap Streets. The tool, Map Compare, displays the same location on several online maps simultaneously. That would have made my side-by-side comparison of OSM, Google Maps and Bing Maps so much easier. I’ll file that one away for future use.

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