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.

Named Like a Whole Other Country

On November 19, 2013 · 13 Comments

What if I said that I could drive from Atlanta to Detroit, or Cleveland to Santa Fe, or Miami to Memphis in an hour and a half? How about driving from Jacksonville to Buffalo in an hour? No, I didn’t say fly, I said drive. My apologies in advance to the international audience that may not have an intuitive understanding of distance in the United States. I’ll simply state that road times like these would have to be dismissed immediately as completely insane on their surface. A motorist would serve jail time for attempting any of these suggestions.

That’s if one tried to accomplish those feats between cities most recognizable for those names. However I was intentionally vague as I’m sure the astute 12MC audience already guessed. I’m referring to towns by those same names in Texas, or as they’re fond of saying, It’s Like a Whole Other Country.

Maybe in the Wrong State

I noticed the anomaly as I researched DeKalb. Texas had a DeKalb so I took a closer look. I spotted Atlanta, Boston and Pittsburg (a near match, missing only the final "h" at the end) all within close proximity of DeKalb. That prompted a wider search for additional Texas towns sharing names with other places in the United States more famous and recognizable. I found several.

This likely had to do with the immense size of Texas. Traditionally each post office within a single state had to be given a different name. That might not be a problem in smaller states or those more sparsely settled. However, Texas had 1,490 post offices including historic locations in the latest listing of the Geographic Names Information System. Imagine trying to find unique names for every one of those settlements, and in fact that became a recurring problem as townsites sprouted on the frontier in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century.

I turned to one of my favorite sources, the Handbook of Texas Online from the Texas State Historical Society for explanations. Some towns drew inspiration from better-known namesakes while other chose completely independently. I culled historical origins from the Handbook and present them below.

Bessie Coleman, Waxahachie, Texas Historical Marker
Bessie Coleman, Waxahachie, Texas Historical Marker by fables98, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license
"Bessie Coleman — Born in Atlanta, Texas"

All of these places exist in Texas:

  • Atlanta: An 1871 Texas and Pacific Railway town settled by a bunch of people from Atlanta, Georgia.
  • Boston: The man who opened the first store in the area was W. J. Boston.
  • Buffalo: Bison still roamed the range when the railroad arrived in 1872. I’ll pass on the bison aren’t buffalo conversation this time.
  • Cleveland, TX: In 1878 a local land owner, Charles Lander Cleveland, said the East and West Texas Railway had use his name if they wanted a chunk of his land.

Oaks Theater, 715 Walnut St, Columbus, Texas 0410101325
Oaks Theater, 715 Walnut St, Columbus, Texas 0410101325 by Patrick Feller, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

  • Columbus: Someone who once lived in Columbus, Ohio proposed the name (which in turn derived originally from Christopher Columbus of course).
  • Detroit: Town founders needed a name in 1887 and the local railway agent once lived in Detroit. Problem solved.
  • Jacksonville: named for two early settlers — William Jackson and Jackson Smith, one a doctor and the other a blacksmith. The weird first-name, last-name nexus must have made the town seem inevitable I guess.

Western Motel, Memphis, Texas
Western Motel, Memphis, Texas by Boston Public Library, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

  • Memphis: This one was worth quoting directly, "For a time the new town was without a name. Several suggestions were submitted to federal postal authorities but with negative results. Finally, as the story goes, Reverend Brice, while in Austin, happened to see a letter addressed by accident to Memphis, Texas, rather than Tennessee, with the notation ‘no such town in Texas.’ The name was submitted and accepted, and a post office was established…" (the name in turn derived originally from the Memphis in Egypt).
  • Miami: I’m not sure I buy the Handbook explanation. Allegedly a Native American word for "sweetheart?" Really? Even though there was an actual Miami tribe one state over in Oklahoma?

Pittsburg Water Tower
Pittsburg Water Tower by J. Stephen Conn, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

  • Pittsburg: An early settler, William Harrison Pitts, came to the area in 1855. The source didn’t explain why founders chose Pittsburg rather than the more expected Pittsburgh with an h.
  • Reno: It was originally the name of a switching station placed along the Texas and Pacific Railway circa 1876. The town came later and adopted the name. I couldn’t find an explanation for the switching station named Reno, though.
  • Santa Fe: In recognition of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway that was built through the area in 1877

I found other themes and variations, like:

  • Colorado: Denver City; Breckenridge and Colorado City
  • My little corner of Northern Virginia: Arlington; Clarendon; Crystal City; Gainesville; Fredericksburg and Mount Vernon
  • International: Paris; London; Palestine; Victoria and Edinburg (again with the missing "h" What’s with Texas hating burghs?)

I wonder how many other coincidental variations can be drawn from the vast Texas town list?

Rapid Transit in 1844

On April 21, 2013 · 5 Comments

I’ve slowly been overhauling the non-12MC part of my website — the portion for which the domain was obtained long before Twelve Mile Circle became the tail wagging the dog — to upgrade to Google Maps API v3. It’s been a slow and tedious process. Recently I revisited a genealogy page I wrote about ten years ago and created a map where one hadn’t existed previously.

It reminded me that I’ve had it pretty easy when we visit the in-laws in Wisconsin, with an elapsed airtime of about an hour between airports. My ancestors undertook a journey of similar distance when they moved from Maine to Wisconsin in 1844. They seemed pretty satisfied that it took "just one month."

The family patriarch described the entire journey in a letter that he sent back to his brother in Maine. I received a copy of the letter in 2002 and wrote about it in a genealogical society journal. The resulting article is reproduced elsewhere on my site. It includes a lot of family history content so feel free to skip it. Instead I’ll focus on what will more likely interest the 12MC audience, the geography and logistics of a North American journey in the 1840’s.

View Sylvester Journey – 1844 in a larger map

I took a much closer look at the letter this time around so I could design a reasonable replica of the route. The letter contained several place names, a few actual dates, and a verifiable historic event, all of which allowed me to reconstruct a full sequence of steps including days of the week. I could determine with near certainty that the journey began on Saturday, October 5, 1844 in Phillips, Maine and concluded a month later on Tuesday, November 5 in Jamestown, Wisconsin.

Markers on the map include supporting text from the letter. Colored lines represent changes in transportation modes.

Phase I – Cart and Foot: October 5-7

The journey began by hauling family and freight down to a port. The group stopped to visit with some relatives along the way so it took three days to get to the nearest river town with ocean access. The port was just outside of Augusta, the capital city of Maine on the Kennebec River.

Phase II – Ship: October 7-8

They sailed down the Kennebec River into the Gulf of Maine, hugged the coastline and entered Massachusetts Bay. They disembarked at Boston, Massachusetts.

Phase III – Railroad: October 8-10

Boston and Albany Railroad
The Boston and Albany Railroad
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons released to the Public Domain

The Boston and Albany Railroad received its charter in 1831 and laid track westward in phases. One could travel the entire route between the two cities by rail beginning in 1841. The family took early advantage of this transportation leap to shorten its movement across Massachusetts.

The letter never mentioned a railroad although no other feasible method could have covered the same distance in a similar amount of time. It referenced a three hour segment between Boston and Worcester for example, a distance of 46 miles. A stagecoach would have averaged 5 miles per hour. A typical speed for a train in the early 1840’s would have been about 10 to 20 miles per hour.

A rail line existed, the speed of motion matched historical averages for trains of that period, and towns mentioned in the letter (where the family stopped) mirrored the Boston and Albany Railroad route.

Phase IV – Canal Boat: October 11-18

Replica Erie Canal Boat Enters the Black Rock Lock
SOURCE: Flickr by USACE Buffalo via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license
Erie Canal Boat Replica

Nothing moved faster overland than a railroad but routes were still a novelty in the early 1840’s. Rail hadn’t become a ubiquitous form of transportation like it would a couple of decades later so the family had to find another option. Waterways were still the superhighways of the era, and New York had a great one: the 363 mile (584 km) Erie Canal which opened in 1825.

It took the group a full week to cross New York. That duration was consistent with Erie Canal averages, where boats traveled at about 4 miles per hour (6.5 kph), with rest stops and additional time to traverse dozens of locks that often became choke points.

In one of life’s odd coincidences, my mother’s side of the family (in a canal boat) and my father’s side of the family (farmers living near Lockport) came within amazingly close proximity of each other on or around the evening of Thursday, October 17, 1844 — literally a "ship that passed in the night." The families wouldn’t get another chance for more than a hundred years and in a completely different location.

The canal boat docked in Buffalo, New York on the shores of Lake Erie.

Phase V – Great Lakes Steamship: October 21-26

The Great Lakes Steamship Great Western – 1838

Once again it was logical that the family would take advantage of a waterway. The first commercial steamboat services began in the first decades of the 19th Century and were quite common by the 1840’s. The Great Lakes were filled with them.

Here the family narrowly averted a calamity. They had the misfortune to arrive in Buffalo on the afternoon of Friday, October 18. Four steamships were ready to set sail that evening but they were already crowded with passengers. The family wasn’t in a hurry so they decided to wait until the next morning. A huge storm with hurricane-force winds hit that night and lasted into the following day, a storm so severe that it is still recorded in history as the Lower Great Lakes Storm of 1844.

As described in the History of the Great Lakes, Chapter 36:

For several days before the occurrence of the flood a strong north-east wind had been driving the water up the lake, but on the evening of the 18th a sudden shift of the wind took place, and it blew from the opposite direction with a tremendous force, never before or since known to the inhabitants of Buffalo. It brought with it immense volumes of water, which overflowed the lower districts of the city and vicinity, demolishing scores of buildings, and spreading ruin along the harbor front, playing havoc with shipping, and causing an awful destruction of human life.

The family escaped unscathed and was able to resume its journey the following Monday on the steamship Great Western. It took less than a week to arrive in Chicago.

Phase VI – Cart and Foot: October 30-November 5

The family decided to rent a hotel room and rest in Chicago for four days. Then they purchased "a wagon and a span of horses" and continued onward for the final leg of the journey. It took 6 days to cover approximately 180 miles (290 km) to their new home, so about 30 miles (48 km) per day which was described as "the most fatiguing and expensive of our journey."

The family arrived in Jamestown, Wisconsin, their final destination, pretty much exactly a month after they left Phillips, Maine.

I’ll keep that in mind the next time I fly up to Wisconsin and complain about an airport weather delay.

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