Pioneers migrating into the central sections of the United States during the Nineteenth Century found a unique opportunity to shape their governance. Counties formed across the prairie in precise straight lines, with the local seat of government often platted somewhere conveniently in the middle. Names bestowed upon these geographic slices frequently reflected prominent local businessmen or national politicians or even Native Americans that had been displaced in the process. Sometimes their names represented more practical considerations. Nothing would be more unimaginative than naming a centrally-located county seat Center or some variation.
I found several such county seats. Invariably their etymologies reflected their central placement within a surrounding county. That failed to excite me so I took it for granted and tried to find something more interesting, something actually worth mentioning. I investigated a few and left the rest for others.
Center, Shelby Co., Texas
Welcome to Center by J. Stephen Conn on Flickr (cc)
I began with Center (maps), the seat of government in Shelby County, Texas, because that’s where I first noticed the trend. It inspired the search for others. One of my favorite sources, The Handbook of Texas included an anecdote about its status.
In an election called in January 1866 Center was voted the new county seat, but a number of people disputed the results, and no action was taken for some months. Finally, in August of that year some Center residents stole the county records and moved them to Center, thereby permanently establishing Center as the county seat.
Shelby was one of the original counties dating to the founding of the Republic of Texas. The town fell within a gray, somewhat lawless area during that time. Vigilantes ran roughshod through Shelby and Center during an era that became known as the Regulator-Moderator War, "a feud in Harrison and Shelby counties in the Redlands of East Texas from 1839 to 1844."
Center also happened to sit about eleven miles from Shelbyville. Simpsons fans would understand the significance of that because Shelbyville was a town neighboring Springfield. One could add Center to the long and tenuous list of possible settings for Springfield, the fictional hometown of the Simpsons.
Central City, Gilpin Co., Colorado
Central City, Colorado by Jasperdo on Flickr (cc)
The "Richest Square Mile on Earth" (map) commonly described the layout of Central City, Colorado once the 1859 gold rush put it on the map:
John Gregory discovered "The Gregory Lode" in a gulch near Central City. Within two weeks, the gold rush was on and within two months the population grew to 10,000 people seeking their fortunes. William Byers, founder of the Rocky Mountain News, and some companions pitched their tents on open ground squarely in the center of the mining district. Thus Central City was born and was soon the leading mining center in Colorado.
Many of those old Western boomtowns crashed after prospectors stripped everything of value from the soil. Central City faced similar challenges and hoped to find salvation in a different form in the late 20th Century; gambling. The town attracted several casinos. Their neighboring town, Black Hawk, came to the same conclusion and also courted high rollers. Unfortunately for Central City, only one road led into town from Denver and that’s where most of the gamblers lived. Drivers had to travel through Black Hawk first and most of them never even made it to Central City. That wouldn’t last. Central City built a new road, an expressway, several miles long that bypassed Black Hawk and attached directly to Interstate 70 in 2004.
Centerville, Hickman Co., Tennessee
Grinder's Switch Depot by Brent Moore on Flickr (cc)
The usual story. Centreville fell at the approximate center of Hickman County. It was also the hometown of comedian Minnie Pearl and it featured heavily in her comedy routines albeit under a different name. I imagined many 12MC readers wouldn’t be familiar with her trademark appearance and catch phrases. Perhaps a snippet from her biography from the Country Music Hall of Fame might set the proper context:
Minnie Pearl, a member of the Grand Ole Opry cast from 1940 until her death in 1996, was country music’s preeminent comedian and one of the most widely recognized comic performers American culture has ever produced. With her straw hat and its dangling $1.98 price tag, her representation of herself as a man-chasing spinster in the small town of Grinder’s Switch, TN, and her great-hearted holler of "How-DEE! I’m just so proud to be here" as she took to the Opry stage, Pearl became an icon of rural America even as she lovingly satirized its ways.
She’d been born Sarah Ophelia Colley in 1912 in Centerville where her father owned a successful lumber company. The future Minnie Pearl enjoyed watching lumber from her father’s sawmill being loaded onto rail cars on a spur track that attached to the main railroad. The side track was known as Grinder’s Switch (map) — a real place near Centerville — that she later incorporated into her humorous routines as a proxy for a generic hillbilly backwater. It became an integral part of her fictional persona. In reality Ms. Colley was a well-educated college graduate from a prosperous family.
Centerville, Appanoose Co., Iowa
Centerville, Iowa, East State Street by photolibrarian on Flickr (cc)
The county seat for Appanoose Co. deserved a special mention for what it was not; the Centerville name didn’t relate to its location (map). Or did it?
Several sources including A Dictionary of Iowa Place-Names insisted that the original name had been Chaldea and that its new name was supposed to be Sentorville or Senterville in recognition of a Tennessee politician/minister (possibly William Tandy Senter). The story explained that the town filed incorporation papers in the 1850’s and a bureaucrat somewhere along the line mistook Senterville for a spelling error and "corrected" it to Centerville. It would be hard to imagine someone creating such an oddly specific story and yet the namesake politician never had anything to do with Iowa. Oh, and Centerville was platted smack-dab in the middle of Appanoose County. That seemed like too many interesting coincidences.
The Complete List
I found a total of fourteen county seats with a Center theme (including the ones described above) that served as local seats of governments for the counties that surrounded them.
- Alabama: Centre, Cherokee Co.
- Alabama: Centreville, Bibb Co.
- Colorado: Central City, Gilpin Co.
- Iowa: Centerville, Appanoose Co.
- Maryland: Centreville, Queen Anne’s Co.
- Michigan: Centreville, St. Joseph
- Minnesota: Center City, Chisago Co.
- Missouri: Centerville, Reynolds Co.
- Nebraska: Center, Knox Co.
- Nebraska: Central City, Merrick Co.
- North Dakota: Center, Oliver Co.
- Tennessee: Centerville, Hickman Co.
- Texas: Center, Shelby Co.
- Texas: Centerville, Leon Co.
I can’t promise that this list recorded every example because I compiled it by hand. It should be close, though.
The second day-trip loop from Asheville plowed nearly due west onto the domain of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, and then continued into Great Smoky Mountains National Park for another easy U.S. state highpoint capture. I guess it was actually more of an out-and-back although one could cut the corner just a bit on the return trip with a brief yet scenic jaunt down the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Out-of-Place Scene
Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino
via Google Street View, April 2013
We rolled through pleasant countryside along serpentine roads, over hills and dipped into hollows as we followed U.S. Route 19 into the town of Cherokee. Something completely out of place loomed suddenly from the valley floor, not a mountain, rather a massive multi-story building with a huge parking garage. It was a resort hotel casino (map). I doubt there was a taller building anywhere closer than an hour away in Asheville. Here it stood probably fifteen stories high, an urban structure without a downtown.
I’m not a gambler so I never felt any temptation to answer its call. To me the most fascinating feature was the casino’s complete lack of context with all that surrounded it, like a giant middle finger to those who had mistreated the tribe since Europeans first landed on the continent and pushed into the mountains. North Carolina didn’t want casino gambling? Those laws didn’t apply here. I hope the Eastern Band makes a ton of money from their venture given how much they’ve been treated for the last couple of centuries… just not my money.
Oconaluftee Islands Park
We’d been eating out a lot and visiting multiple brewpubs so we decided to do something a little bit different, a picnic lunch outdoors. I’d wondered if that might be possible as I examined Street View the previous day. The main strip seemed pretty touristy. Then I noticed a little green spot (map) while poking through online map sites and identified Oconaluftee Islands Park. That was just what we needed, a little oasis of nature and solitude surrounded on all sides by water, accessible only by footbridges. Children splashed and rode inflatable tubes down a lazy river, ducks and geese floated by, the wind rustled through a bamboo forest, and we enjoyed our respite at a shady picnic pavilion. The price was right too: FREE.
The town of Cherokee served as the headquarters of the Eastern Band. Members of the nation were descendants of a small residual group of Cherokee that remained in North Carolina in the early 1800’s. They avoided the infamous Trail of Tears, however not without their own hardships. They were forced to renounce or hide their own culture for much of the Nineteenth Century, and spent the next hundred-plus years trying to revive it, a process that continues today. They also had to repurchase the land that rightfully belonged to them.
In North Carolina, those Cherokees who escaped removal either through a North Carolina provision called the Reservation Act of 1819 or by evading the United States Army remained behind in a land less state. By law, Native Americans were neither citizens of the United States nor the state where they resided therefore none could hold property… This ambiguous status continued until after the Civil War when the Cherokee question surfaced again. After several years of legal wrangling, the Cherokee formed a corporation. As a business, the Cherokee could hold the land and the land, which was to become known as the Qualla Boundary again, was in Cherokee control.
The entire history of the Cherokee people was explained in detail at the well-done Museum of the Cherokee Indian (map). It was a large facility and it took quite awhile to see everything in the level of detail it deserved. That took us longer than expected. Other sites nearby included the Qualla Arts & Crafts Center and the Oconaluftee Indian Village. I’d wanted to see both of those and we simply ran short on time. Most visitors would probably want to spend at least an entire day in Cherokee. We didn’t have that option because I had an important geo-oddity that required my attention.
We’d reached the summit of North Carolina’s elevation highpoint the previous day. Now it was time to do the same thing for Tennessee at Clingmans Dome, (map), with an elevation of 6,643 feet (2,025 metres). I know what readers are thinking — this is supposed to be an article about western North Carolina, not Tennessee. If it makes anyone feel better, the Tennessee highpoint fell directly upon the boundary between the two states. The Clingmans Dome summit also served as the highpoint for Swain County, North Carolina. That could be used as a justification to maintain the sanctity of the article title. We were only ever a few feet across the border into Tennessee and only momentarily.
I expected this to be another easy highpoint directly within my lazy mountaineering ethos. It was crowded! I knew we were in trouble when I saw cars parked along the access road more than a half-mile away from the official parking lot. Clingmans Dome (map) fell within the confines of Great Smokey Mountains National Park which had 10 million visitors in 2014, making it one of the most popular properties in the entire National Parks system. It was summer. We arrive at the middle of the day. What else should we expect?
Proving the adage that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than to be good, a parking space opened up directly in front of us, practically the best spot in the entire lot. Clearly a higher power wanted me to visit the highpoint, or more likely didn’t want to hear our kids whine because we were going to the spot even if we had to park all the way down the road and walk the extra distance by golly. I didn’t drive all the way out to a remote mountain and up to the top to turn around and head home. From there we trekked from parking lot to summit along with a few hundred of our new best friends, looped to the viewing platform and jostled through the crowds searching for the horizon. I much preferred the experience of North Carolina’s highpoint the previous day, shooing away swarms of insects instead of people. The Tennessee highpoint would be best appreciated during the off-season.
Western North Carolina articles:
I received an email message the other day from a first-time reader who happened to stumble across 12MC randomly through a search engine, hoping to learn the answer to a burning question. I’d never covered the topic on the site before so I didn’t have a ready answer. It fascinated me though and of course I dropped all of my other research topics underway to pursue it further because I have a short attention span and I love to follow tangents. I put as much effort into the question as I’ve done for any article I’d post ordinarily so I might as well share the results with the rest of you.
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The reader who went by "James" recalled an anecdote from the not-too-distant past. He was traveling through Yuma, Arizona and wanted a bite to eat. Sometimes it’s tough finding a decent meal on the road and we all have our own ways to deal with that. I like to go to brewpubs under the theory if the food falls short at least the beer will be decent. James homes-in on casinos for the buffets. I hadn’t thought of that option before so I’ll have to add that to my travel tip list.
Anyway, he crossed the Colorado River — the border between California and Arizona — only to discover a small chunk of Arizona on the "wrong" side of the river with the state line running through the casino parking lot. It’s the Paradise Casino owned by the Quechan Tribe (formerly known as the Yuma Indians). I don’t believe it was an issue of legality since there are Native American casinos in California, too. However it’s not particularly germane to the anecdote so I’ll leave the question of this particular state-hugging casino alone. The more important aspect was the sliver of Arizona within territory one would ordinarily expect to belong to California.
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One is able to appreciate the full extent of the anomaly by zooming out the map a little further. Rivers don’t normally flow at right angles so it’s not like the current state border followed an old riverbed that changed over time. Why, James wondered, did this artifact exist?
I had no idea. I thought it might trace back to old Fort Yuma, constructed in the 1850’s on the California side of the river to protect the new settlement on what was then the New Mexico Territory. That was an interesting bit of history, however, it didn’t provide an explanation.
The answer turned out to be much more recent: March 12, 1963. It seemed crazy that two long-standing states (California since 1850 and Arizona since 1912) were still arguing over their common border as recently 1963 since it was supposed to be the Colorado River, and yet that was indeed the case. That’s when the two finally agreed upon an "Interstate Compact Defining the Boundary Between the States of Arizona and California." The United States Congress approved the Compact in 1966, thereby enshrining the odd jog in the border permanently. The Compact explained its logic:
The boundary between the State of Arizona and California on the Colorado River has become indefinite and uncertain because of the meanderings in the main channel of the Colorado River with the result that a state of confusion exists as to the true and correct location of the boundary, and the enforcement and administration of the laws of the two states and the United States have been rendered difficult.
It also provided, in excruciating detail, 34 points forming the new border in perpetuity (e.g., "700 feet to Point No. 28, which lies on the easterly shoulder line of said north-south road due east of the northeast corner of the stone retaining wall around the Indian School Hospital…"), along with requirements for another 234 subpoints not monumented.
This was elaborated upon further in a U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper published by the Government Printing Office, "Boundaries of the United States and the several States." The key reference can be found on Page 153.
Because determination of the position midchannel at the time California entered the Union would be difficult now, it was decided to place the boundary line in a position that would provide an equitable distribution of the land that had been affected by the movement of the riverbed.
A map found on the following page (Page 154) clearly showed the jog.
How the two states agreed that this particular block should become part of Arizona may never be known except to those involved in the 1963 negotiations. Was it because it was close to Yuma? Was it because it was easy to reach from the rest of Arizona? That remains unanswered. However it was clearly intended to compensate Arizona for changes in the course of the Colorado River that had not been well-documented over the prior century. It was an approximation so straight lines and right angles were appropriate and probably easier to survey.
Thanks James, and I hope you become a regular reader.