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.

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?

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