Anyone looking at a West Virginia map would immediately notice its northern panhandle. It rose high above the rest of the state like a flagpole. This narrow splinter ran 64 miles (103 kilometres) due north, wedged tightly between Ohio and Pennsylvania. Its width also narrowed sometimes to only 4 miles (6 km).
Northern panhandle west virginia on Wikimedia Commons (cc).
Four counties occupied the space; Hancock, Brooke, Ohio and Marshall. They all aligned in a vertical sequence.
How could such a bizarre situation develop? Certainly no rational government would create such an anomaly. The usual situation existed here, the overlapping of colonial claims. Nobody really knew what existed beyond the coast. Various Kings of England simply granted a bunch of royal charters. Virginia gained a territory that went all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The charter for Pennsylvania set its farthest extent at an unexplored longitude 5 degrees west of the Delaware River. The overlap became apparent when explorers pushed inward through the Appalachian Mountains decades later. Fort Pitt, built by the British in 1759 during the French and Indian War, fell within the disputed area. Both coveted the town that formed there, Pittsburgh.
Virginia established a county structure despite the overlap. Of course, Pennsylvania refused to accept it. The dispute even continued into the Revolutionary War. The Second Continental Congress convinced the two to settle their dispute and concentrate on fighting the British instead. Pennsylvania had settled a similar problem with Maryland previously, creating the Mason & Dixon Line. The border between Pennsylvania and Virginia would extend that same line a bit farther, to five degrees west of the Delaware River. From there, they drew a line north to the Ohio River. Both sides approved the new border in 1780.
After the war, several of the former colonies including Virginia continued to claim land west of the Ohio River. Most gave up their claims voluntarily for the good of the new nation. Virginia ceded its Northwest Territory after some cajoling, and Congress accepted its offer in 1784. Virginia’s western border became the Ohio River and created the odd panhandle. Nobody intended to form the anomaly. It was a two-step process.
Birth of West Virginia
Independence Hall – Wheeling, West Virginia. Photo by Ryan Stanton on Flickr (cc)
Then came the Civil War and Virginia joined the Confederacy. Many of its western counties wanted to form their own state even before the war began. They jumped at an opportunity to remain on the Union side. The state of West Virginia was born in 1863. Interestingly the initial West Virginia capital fell within that unusual northern panhandle. They formed their new government in the Federal Custom House in Wheeling (map), now called West Virginia’s Independence Hall. Wheeling remained its capital for most of the next twenty years.
Rise of Industry
The Weirton Steel Company Works. Image provided byUpNorth Memories (cc)
The Northern Panhandle became a center of commerce and industry after the Civil War. It had a great location along the Ohio River. It also had more in common with industrial cities like nearby Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Cleveland. Factories rose to serve many needs. The biggest ones produced iron and steel, and Weirton Steel became the biggest of the bunch. It would operate for nearly a century until International Steel Group bought it in 2004. The area also fell onto hard times like other so-called Rust Belt cities. For example, the city of Weirton lost a third of its population starting at the middle of the 20th Century. The city of Wheeling lost more than half of its population.
Ohio River Bridges. Photo by cmh2315fl on Flickr (cc)
The northern panhandle mirrored the states that wedged it in place. It differed distinctly from the remainder of West Virginia.
… many people moved to Weirton and Wheeling which both had reputations for being excellent places to work. Immigrants moved into the area in the early 1900’s because of employment offered by the steel mills… By some counts, there are 50 ethnic groups in Weirton alone.
This included large communities of people from Eastern and Southern Europe like its neighbors. The U.S. Census bureau even included the two northernmost counties, Hancock and Brook, within the Pittsburgh Combined Statistical Area.
Of course, I also like this oddity because it created funny geographic names. How about the West Virginia Northern Community College?
A Simple Observation
I checked the Twelve Mile Circle dashboard this morning. The 1,276th article posted on Wednesday. I still cannot believe I came up with so many different topics. I do know that my writing evolved since that initial post on November 6, 2007. Early articles contained few words. Now I delve farther into the details and average closer to a thousand words an article, although I post a little less frequently. Even so, I think the 12MC audience gets more writing from me at least by total word count.
As I look back nearly nine years, I sometimes regret that I covered many of the most amazing geo-oddities with so little explanation. The world held only so many truly weird geographic bits, probably a lot fewer than 1,276, and I explored them with barely a couple of hundred words. Sometimes I wish I could take a "do over," and erase what I wrote years ago, and replace it with something more deserving of the subject matter. However that wouldn’t be fair so I won’t try to change the past. On the other hand, the Michigan trip offered a great opportunity to create an addendum for the very oldest 12MC articles.
Michigan’s Lost Peninsula (map) appeared as the first real article on Twelve Mile Circle, one day after I posted a simple Introduction and Purpose. I don’t remember why I selected the peninsula for such a prominent position. I doubt I gave it much thought because I felt pretty skeptical that 12MC would last more than a few weeks. Exclaves always fascinated me and there stood an example of a chunk of Michigan that could only be approached by land from Ohio. Reader "Jim C." later visited the Lost Peninsula and provided a bunch of photos in 2009. I posted those in a follow-up article called Lost Again.
Briefly, the anomaly existed as a result of the bloodless Toledo War. Ohio and Michigan disagreed on their border because of conflicting legislation passed by the Federal government. They both claimed a narrow strip, although it covered 468 square mile (1,210 square kilometres) when measured across the length of their disputed border. Ohio blocked Michigan’s attempts to become a state because of their unresolved issue. The two rallied their militias and faced-off in what might best be described as a yelling match. Nobody fired a shot. President Andrew Jackson and Congress eventually sided with Ohio. Michigan ceded the Toledo Strip in 1836 and received the Upper Peninsula as a consolation prize; land considered basically worthless at the time. History proved that Michigan probably got the better end of the bargain.
I finally made it to the Lost Peninsula in person on the way to our ultimate destination in Grand Rapids. It seemed busier than I expected until I considered we’d arrived on the Fourth of July weekend. The peninsula included a large marina and I guess everyone wanted to get onto Lake Erie for the day. A gate separated the marina from the rest of the peninsula. A separate gate blocked access to its residential area. Normal visitors could cross the border, take a photo of the sign, eat at a waterfront restaurant and that was about it. Otherwise it was rather unremarkable.
They needed to trim the shrubs. The signs and markers will be unreadable in a couple of years.
I knew exactly why Howder Street (map) appeared as the third article on 12MC. No other street with my surname existed anywhere in the world, or so I thought. Years later I also found Dr. Howder Road in Pennsylvania. However, even then, Howder Street in Hillsdale, Michigan remained the only one named for someone verifiably related to me.
That article also received the very first comment on Twelve Mile Circle. It dropped onto the page barely three hours after I posted my story. I don’t know how the guy found it because I certainly didn’t have an audience then. He must have had an alert set to Hillsdale College on his newsreader or something like that. Even so I remember thinking that this was going to be easy. I’d write articles and comments would magically appear without any other special effort on my part. What blissful naïveté. Many of you write your own blogs (or used to) and would probably agree that it’s hard work. Right? If I only knew that then. It wouldn’t have stopped me from writing although maybe it would have softened the blow when the next batch of articles got little attention.
Today I’m used to the complete obscurity of 12MC so it doesn’t phase me. I write for myself on my own personal journey of learning and discovery. Visitors are always welcome.
A Little Tangent
Howder Street wasn’t the only bit of family history during my Michigan visit. My great-great grandfather John Howder died in Grand Rapids at the Michigan Soldiers’ Home. He led a difficult life, including two enlistments in the Union army during the Civil War. He survived some pretty brutal combat at the siege of Petersburg and in the Appomattox campaigns during his second enlistment. From research I conducted it seemed he abandoned his family after the war and headed to Michigan to become a lumberjack. We’ll never know if he experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or if he was simply a jerk.
During his final years he suffered from dementia amongst other ailments, and died destitute at the Home in 1903 (map). It felt strange to walk down some of the same streets, looking at some of the same 19th Century buildings, that John Howder would have observed during his years there. I didn’t feel any need to search for his gravesite, although maybe I should have made more of an effort in retrospect. Maybe next time. Maybe another do over.
Articles in the Michigan Journey Series:
- County Adventures
- Rambling and Wandering
- Above and Below
- Do Overs
- Parting Shots
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
John Wilkes Booth‘s last stand was by no means the only infamous last stand. It got me thinking about a wide range of other events from the last couple of hundred years that might fall within the same general guidelines. Last stands happened in many places in many times. I selected a few from the multitude of instances available and fixated on them. Custer’s Last Stand, well, that would practically be synonymous with the definition of a last stand. In fact that was the first thing that popped into my mind as I expanded past Booth. Undoubtedly that notion would be the same for much of the Twelve Mile Circle audience. I couldn’t simply skip it — that would be a glaring omission — so George Armstrong Custer needed a closer examination.
Custer Monument in New Rumley, Ohio by Jayson Shenk on Flickr (cc)
The spot where Custer died, the place of his last stand, was considerably better known than his birthplace. I figured I’d have a difficult time finding it because I didn’t think anyone would really care except for maybe me and a handful of other people fascinated by such things. I guessed wrong. People apparently did care. In fact I even found a Custer Memorial Association in New Rumley, Ohio, at Custer’s 1839 birthplace. They operated a small museum "open the last Sunday of each month from 1:00 to 4:00pm." They also maintained a roadside park open year round on the site of the original Custer homestead, of which little remained except for the foundation of the house where he was born (map).
However Custer spent much of his childhood in Monroe, Michigan, with the family of his half-sister.
Custer by Bill Harris on Flickr (cc)
The people of Monroe erected a monument to Custer after his death (map). He probably got a monument everywhere he ever set foot, or so it seemed, although some hadn’t fared well. Even the citizens of Monroe, a place where he spent much of his childhood, relocated the monument a bunch of times including sticking it out in the woods where vegetation overgrew it, before moving the statue to a more prominent part of town. Officially it was known as the George Armstrong Custer Equestrian Monument, alternately Sighting the Enemy.
Gettysburg NBP – August 2008 by Michael Noirot on Flickr (cc)
Famously, Custer finished last in his class at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. However it was 1861, the Civil War was just underway, and the military needed officers in a hurry so they pressed him into service anyway. He performed remarkably well once in a combat role.
Throughout the war Custer continued to distinguishing himself as fearless, aggressive, and ostentatious. His personalized uniform style, complete with a red neckerchief could be somewhat alienating, but he was successful in gaining the respect of his men with his willingness to lead attacks from the front rather than the back.
Custer quickly moved up the ranks, becoming brigadier general then brevet major general of the U.S. Army and finally major general of the U.S. Volunteers in quick succession. He was only 23 years old when he first became a general, the youngest in the army. Custer also served the entire lengthy of the conflict, from Bull Run to Appomattox. At Gettysburg, he commanded the Michigan Cavalry Brigade that was instrumental in stopping a Confederate cavalry attack on the Union army’s right flank. He got a nice monument for that too. Actually, the entire Michigan Cavalry Brigade earned the monument although Custer’s image appeared in a circular bas-relief sculpture just about half way up (map).
I mentioned all of that service because people tended to overlook his distinguished career and skip right to the ending.
The Last Stand
Custer's Grave at Little Bighorn by Jim Bowen on Flickr (cc)
Twelve Mile Circle is not a history website so I’ll only discuss the Last Stand briefly. There were plenty of other places on the Intertubes, or even entire books, where one could get a better account. Custer died on the battlefield near Montana’s Little Bighorn River in 1876 (map). The United States Army had a rule-of-thumb, naming battles for the nearest body of water during that period (e.g., the Civil War’s Battle of Bull Run and Battle of Antietam) so the engagement came to be known as the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The situation leading up to it brewed for a long time. The government had been forcing Plains Indians onto reservations for awhile by that point. Various elements of the Lakota and Cheyenne resisted fiercely, sparking a whole chain of events known as the Sioux Wars. The final outrage in the eyes of native inhabitants had been a sudden incursion of settlers into the Black Hills of what is now South Dakota. The Sioux considered this a sacred area that had been promised to them in a treaty. That quickly collapsed after word leaked out about gold found in the area. Many bands, fed up with broken promises, left the reservations in an effort to fight for their ancestral lands.
The government began a protracted, coordinated campaign to crush resistance. Custer hadn’t gone out there alone, he simple commanded one force amongst several crossing the plains from late 1875 and into the first half of 1876 trying to tame the rebellion. However Custer made a huge blunder. His aggressive personality that served him well during the Civil War compelled him to rush headlong into battle without understanding the true situation at Little Bighorn.
He thought he was attacking a small encampment. Instead he led 700 men from the 7th Cavalry Regiment headlong into a force three times its size. Sitting Bull’s forces quickly turned the tables and utterly destroyed Custer and his men in less than an hour. Casualties also included Custer’s two brother, Thomas and Boston. Later historical accounts by members of the tribes expressed complete bewilderment that Custer would attack them when they were so strong.
George Armstrong Custer lived only 36 years.