I have a soft spot for places now obscured that "might have been" had history unfolded a little bit differently. I’m not sure that it’s an interest shared universally by the 12MC audience. Hopefully the topic appeals to a few of you though because that’s what this article offers. I think it was about a year ago that I discussed Alabama Capitals. I’ll jump one state to the right and provide something similar for its neighbor, Georgia.
Immediately, I noticed that greater research — or at least more data available publicly on the Intertubes – existed for Georgia than Alabama. Readers who want comprehensive details can refer to better sources like The Story of Georgia’s Capitols and Capital Cities, where I found the chart I’ve reproduced below. I’ll pick out a few oddities and let the experts provide a more complete narrative.
1780-81 Heard’s Fort*, miscellaneous sites in Wilkes County
1782 Ebenezer*, Savannah
1784 Savannah, Augusta
* Temporary meeting sites of state government
Georgia’s Shifting Capital Cities
The volatility struck me right away. The dates suggested an explanation for the ping-ponging capital; the American Revolution (1775–1783) and the Civil War (1861-1865). Despite the long list and the back-and-forth, Georgia is recognized generally as having "only" five capital cities: Savannah, Augusta, Louisville, Milledgeville and Atlanta. I’ll focus on the two lesser-known locations, Louisville and Milledgeville, since the other three receive plenty of attention on their own.
Louisville, like the more recognizable city with the same name in Kentucky, derived from Louis XVI of France. However it’s pronounced differently: LEWIS-ville. The capital shifted to Louisville because it was thought to more centralized when the Georgia population began moving away from the seacoast towards the growing interior. The site stood at a crossroads linking several larger towns including Savannah and Augusta.
While a capital for only a decade, it became an interesting historical footnote when it served as the focal point of a scandal called the Yazoo Fraud. Georgia sold a huge territory, most of the northern half of present-day Alabama and Mississippi, to a small number of land speculators at rock-bottom prices. Well, surprise, a number of elected officials and legislators supporting the act that authorized the sale were bribed by the beneficiaries. The fraud came to light and people reacted with rage. It got ugly in the capital city. A marker has been placed near the site of the old capitol building, to commemorate perhaps the most significant event occurring during Louisville’s brief tenure as a state capital.
Louisville Market House
Louisville was also known for The Market House, one of the few structures constructed during its capital period that survived to the present (albeit heavily restored). Everything imaginable was sold from this location. Allegedly it even served a slave market although the local community claims, "Recent research… casts doubt on this and suggests that the old Market House may have a much more benign history as an ordinary commercial market."
Milledgeville experienced a much longer tenure as Georgia’s state capital, lasting beyond the first half of the Nineteenth Century in the years leading into the Civil War. From this location, the state of Georgia seceded from the United States and joined the Confederacy. Milledgeville laid in ruins by the end of the conflict.
The history of events leading to the transfer from Louisville to Milledgeville are a bit hazy. It was a planned community though, built from scratch to serve specifically as a capital city. Milledgeville was centrally located like Louisville and it additionally stood at a point where the coastal plain met the Piedmont’s hills like so many other important cities along eastern edge of the United States during that time. This was the farthest navigable inland point when shipping was so vitally important to transportation and trade. Milledgeville was placed at the fall line, connected directly to the larger world via the Oconee River.
Old Georgia State Capitol, Milledgeville, Georgia by Ken Lund, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license
Milledgeville became an obvious target during the war, the capital city of a rebellious state. General Sherman’s troops decimated the city during The March to the Sea.
Houses, stores and barns were looted by Sherman’s troops, who rampaged through the city “foraging.” The capitol building was occupied and a group of soldiers led by Brigadier General Judson H. Kilpatrick held a mock legislative session and “repealed” Georgia’s ordinance of secession before looting the building and inflicting thousands of dollars in damage. The roof of nearby St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was blown off when the soldiers ignited captured Confederate armories and magazines.
That was it. Milledgeville never fully recovered. The capital moved to Atlanta during Reconstruction, "a city emerging as the symbol of the New South as surely as Milledgeville symbolized the Old South." The seat of power has remained in Atlanta ever since 1868.
Two significant signs of the old capital still remain in Milledgeville, the former capitol building, now a museum, and the former Governor’s Mansion.
I used to drive between Washington, DC and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, nearly every weekend for about eighteen months a number of years ago. I became very familiar with the route and every landmark placed upon it, as one might imagine. One of those included an exit for Boydton Plank Road along Interstate 85 near Petersburg, Virginia. I thought it had to be hyperbole. A plank road? Really? An actual wooden road constructed of boards, I’d smirk sarcastically. Much later I learned that plank roads actually did exist for a period of time, including this one.
Boydton Plank Road
Lots of great resources on this topic exist on the Intertubes. The U.S. Federal Highway Administration’s "Back in Time – Plank Roads" and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ "The Plank Road Craze" both provided excellent overviews. From the FHWA:
A modern movement at that time [ed., late 1840's-1850's] called for the building of wooden roads, a great improvement in transportation… wagons loaded with merchandise and agricultural products — and the animals pulling them — were not slowed or stopped by mud, but could enjoy a hazard free ride once they reached a plank road… Plank roads were still popular into the 20th century where the first motorists, struggling to negotiate muddy roads and bumpy gravel roads with their Model T, were all too happy to have a level surface on which to drive.
Plank roads were expensive and they required vasts amount of lumber. U.S. states, and especially those on the frontier, often did not have sufficient resources to build and maintain them. They allowed private companies to construct plank roads speculatively as turnpikes, with tolls used to cover ongoing repairs and hopefully provide a financial return for investors. The Michigan website mentioned "A total of 202 plank road companies" receiving charters from the state in the last half of the nineteenth century, with the preponderance of them bestowed right around 1850 plus or minus a couple of years. Other states did the same. One of the longest was built in North Carolina, the 129 mile (208 kilometre) Fayetteville and Western Plank Road constructed between 1850-1852. That was the heyday of the "plank road craze."
There were a couple of issues leading to the demise of this unusual road-building technique. First, wood exposed to the elements didn’t last very long. Maintenance costs began to soar after only three or four years. Second, railroads became increasingly popular, expanding their networks exponentially as the century progressed. Plank roads got a bit of a reprieve in the early days of the automobile and then quickly disappeared under ribbons of asphalt.
I never did stop at Boydton Plank Road even though I drove past it dozens of time. That was a pity since it was also an historical site. It saw combat during the Civil War, the Battle of Boydton Plank Road, October 27-28, 1864. Of course, it’s difficult to go anywhere in Virginia without running directly into a Civil War battlefield before long.
Did any of those old plank roads still exist, I wondered? In a sense they did. There must be hundreds upon hundreds of streets with Plank Road somewhere in their names. I’ll bet there’s one near the hometown of every 12MC reader in the United States or Canada. The closest one to my home might be about an hour away in Fredericksburg, VA. Their names carried forward to the present day although their roadbeds were long since paved.
Glamis-Thanksgiving 2008 by Sandy & Co., on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license
West of Yuma on the California side of the line, down along the Mexican border, deep in the desert, exists what may be the only remaining original section of an historic plank road.
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It survived because it was built during the very latter-part of the plank road era, 1915, and because it was set in an extraordinarily dry area where it didn’t rot. The Bureau of Land Management protects the remaining segment, a mere 1,500 feet (457 metres).
This wooden road once spanned the Imperial Sand Dunes, providing a means of commerce and transportation to the southern Imperial Valley… Before the construction of the plank road cars were forced to go around the dunes, either south through Mexico, or the more popular northern route, through Brawley. The Brawley route presented its own challenges, going directly through Mammoth Wash, which was known for its flash floods that could sweep cars away in a matter of minutes.
Today, Interstate 8 follows much of the original plank road path through the dunes.
Old Plank Road Trail by reallyboring, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license
Another plank road survived in spirit in Illinois in the guise of the Old Plank Road Trail (which also served as a railroad route after the demise of the plank road itself). It runs from Joliet to
Forest Park Park Forest and receives 128,000 recreational users per year (route).
Illinois was also the home of an original plank road toll house, preserved at the Dickson Mounds Museum: "This structure is one of perhaps only a dozen plank road toll booths still surviving in the United States. It is one of two known wooden structures and the only one with an onion-shaped dome" (map).
Last place went to the Plank Road Brewery, the makers of Icehouse Beer. The Brewers Association, a trade group for small and independent brewers, would describe Plank Road as a "Crafty" brewery rather than a Craft brewery. The name attempts to pass itself off as a small brewer when really Plank Road is a subsidiary of Miller Brewing, which in turn is a subsidiary of SABMiller. The Plank Road in the title referred to the street that passed by the old Miller Brewery during the plank road craze, the Watertown Plank Road.
What do Council Bluffs, Iowa, the Battle of Vicksburg and the Yellow River all have in common? Loess.
Loess comes from the German löß, and has a common root with the English word, loose. It’s a geological term for a light silty dust blown by the wind that accumulated into thick layers and hills. These deposits, often taking on a pale yellowish-brown or buff color, are capable of covering huge territories with a blanket of dust hundreds of feet thick, formed over numerous repeated cycles of water and wind.
I first became aware of loess at the appropriately named Loess Hills of western Iowa, a remarkable example of this type of formation. My in-laws lived in a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska at the time, on the Iowa side of the river. Their home was located atop one of the hills. This was near the city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, where the "bluffs" of the city’s name were comprised of loess (they even hold an annual Loessfest each year).
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Notice the terrain east of the Missouri River floodplain. These are part of Iowa’s classic Loess Hills area. Anyone driving along Interstate 29 through here can look to the east and glimpse these unusual sedimentary hills at pretty much any random place. They may not seem terribly remarkable until one ponders their interesting geological history and compares them to the flatness of much of the rest of this part of North America.
SOURCE: Loess Hills Ridge by FordRanger, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license
As the Iowa Department of Natural Resources explained,
The Loess Hills of western Iowa were formed from 20,000 to 10,000 years ago of finely ground windblown silt from the glacial deposits. As the Pleistocene glaciers melted, the Missouri Valley became a major channel for tremendous amounts of water. Each winter season, as the quantity of melt water was reduced, large areas of flood-deposited sediments were left exposed to the wind. Silt, clay and fine sand were lifted by the wind, carried to the east and deposited.
Particles of loess display some interesting and unusual properties. Their angular structure combined with a propensity for extreme crumbliness and quick erosion results in characteristic bluffs with steep ridges and and rapid drop offs, as displayed in the photograph. Yet, loess is extremely stable when dry and held in place by prairie grasses. The Loess Hills of western Iowa tower up to 250 feet (75 metres) above the Missouri River floodplain quite contently until people cut into the hills for their own purposes. Any soil exposed directly to the elements quickly crumbles away.
I would hear residents remark about the uniqueness of their Loess Hills whenever I visited the area, although "unique" isn’t completely correct. They’d always append a qualifier to their description, "except for some place in China." The place in China was never named, however to their credit they understood that loess formations were unusual.
They were on the right track. The two most significant deposits of loess happen in western Iowa and in China, although the phenomenon can be found to lesser degrees in many other parts of the world. The whole reason it’s called loess rather than loose (or some variation in a Chinese dialect) is because the term derived from deposits found in Germany’s Rhine River Valley, as just one example.
There are even other places with loess in the United States, for instance the eastern bank of the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, Mississippi. An vital element of the 1863 Battle of Vicksburg during the U.S. Civil War — the siege of Vicksburg — took place when Union troops could not dislodge Confederate forces dug-in securely atop the steep loess bluffs along the river. The siege lasted more than a month until Confederate troops exhausted their supplies and had to surrender.
What about China, though?
China’s equivalent of the Loess Hills is called the Loess Plateau. As noted by Wikipedia, it covers 640,000 square kilometres (250,000 square miles)… "almost all of Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces, as well as parts of Gansu province, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region." That’s about the same size as the U.S. state of Texas, or the Canadian Provinces of Alberta or Saskatchewan!
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It’s particularly prevalent along the upper and middle Yellow River watershed. It is loess that contributes the characteristic yellow color to the Yellow River.