Appalachian Loop, Part 3 (Cultural Threads)

On April 3, 2016 · 0 Comments

Appalachia described more than a physical geography, it described a proudly self-reliant people who’d lived within these hills and hollows on their own wits for more than two centuries. I mentioned some of my perceptions after I visited Kentucky in 2013. It would be all to easy to reduce Appalachia to unfair hillbilly stereotypes, however the reality was considerably more complex as I searched for dominant themes. Multiple books have been written on each of these subjects. I wished I’d had time or space for something more than a few short paragraphs.


Coal House

Coal was everywhere. We passed uncountable collections of rusting mining equipment, faded United Mine Workers of America union halls and mountains completely shorn of their tops. Coal underpinned much of the regional economy. The fortunes of Appalachia bobbed with the price of coal and it was down a deep hole as we drove through. Blame the Chinese economy. China’s slowdown dampened an insatiable hunger for coal. Think of places left behind, robbed of their middle class prosperity, and we witnessing them as we followed our twisted track. Many settlements nestled along the valleys felt downtrodden, and poverty never seemed distant even in the nicer parts of town. A slight drizzle and overcast clouds followed us for much of our drive, only heightening the effect.

We passed a building made of coal in the heart of Williamson, West Virginia (map). It housed the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce. It was closed.


Princeton Railroad Museum

Coal had to find a way out of Kentucky or Virginia or West Virginia, and that happened over rails. Every river gorge had a companion railroad line, pulling parts of Appalachia away a rail car at a time. Train whistles carried a wistful tune, a constant companion especially at night when sounds echoed down valleys on the wind. I finally made it to the Princeton Railroad Museum outside of Bluefield, West Virginia (map). I had better luck this time than my last visit about a year and a half ago when it was closed. The museum filled two floors a former depot of the Virginia Railway, a line that stretched four hundred miles during its heyday, from the Appalachian coalfields to the port of Hampton Roads near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.


Nolan Toll Bridge

Bluegrass music got its start in the heart of Appalachia, rooted in Scottish, English and Irish folk traditions carried by immigrants who arrived in the 18th Century. The region only recently began to capitalize on this storied heritage. Virginia established The Crooked Road, as an example, a trail through the rural southwestern corner marked with waysides and venues important to this indigenous musical tradition. I’d hoped to stop at some of those places. Unfortunately we drove through on a Sunday in mid-March and they were universally unavailable either because it was too early in the season or because it was a day of rest.

We did stumble upon a political rally on the West Virginia side of the border with Kentucky completely by chance when I veered away from the highway to capture a new county. It was a pity the band played mainstream Country rather than Bluegrass. I might have stayed a little longer than a few minutes if it were Bluegrass and if we didn’t already have a long list of places we needed to see that day.


Unknown Confederate Soldier

The Appalachian states roiled in conflict during the American Civil War, 1861-1865. Virginia clearly sided with the Confederacy. Part of Virginia split to form a new state, West Virginia, aligned with the Union. Kentucky became a border state and fell within Union control early in the war. Nothing was ever that simple in Appalachia, however. People picked sides regardless of residence, sometimes splitting loyalties even within families. We passed a marker in Kentucky near the Virginia border that mourned an unknown Confederate soldier (map). He passed through as the war concluded, probably on his way home, only to be ambushed on the side of the road by anonymous assassins. Local townsmen buried him at the spot and later planted a rosebush to mark his grave, although he could not be identified and his family never learned his fate.

Violence returned in the early 20th Century as exploited coal miners began to unionize, a movement called the Coal Wars or the Mine Wars. One of the more significant clashes took place in a town we visited, Matewan, West Virginia. It was best known as the site of the Matewan Massacre. Earlier it also stood at ground zero for the Hatfield and McCoy feud. An undercurrent of violence ran deep.


Breaks Interstate Park

I considered that moonshine verged on stereotype, however the area seemed to embrace its rebellious image at nearly every museum or exhibit we encountered. Appalachia had a long history of illegal alcohol hidden in remote backwoods, of corn liquor distilled one step ahead of law enforcement, of fast cars flying down country lanes, of secret stashes and tax evasion. Often this served as a romantic metaphor for the independent nature of people who lived in isolated communities beyond the normal reach of authorities. Moonshine probably continued to trickle from the mountaintop stills for all I knew, although a bigger drug problem seemed to have pushed it aside recently.

Breaks Interstate Park had a particularly nice example of a moonshine still on exhibit. (map)

Modern History

Breaks Interstate Park also featured another historical artifact of more recent vintage although it wasn’t marked and few people knew about it, probably because it didn’t really have that much significance outside of Virginia’s local politics. I remembered the details. It happened in 2006 as Senator George Allen ran for reelection. His campaign stopped at Breaks where he delivered a speech to loyal supporters. A tracker for his opponent had followed the campaign for several days, recording every move. Allen must have finally reached a breaking point because he referred to the tracker, a man of South Asian ancestry as "macaca," a derogatory slur based on a Portuguese word for monkey. The tracker captured Allen’s quote on video, and from there it hit the mainstream press, going viral. Allen lost the election to his opponent, Jim Webb, and with it his presidential ambitions. In Virginia politics this came to be known as the "Macaca Moment."

I knew the incident took place at one of the picnic pavilions at Breaks Interstate Park, although I didn’t know which one. I took a photograph of the most accessible pavilion as a proxy to memorialize this event (map).


Humpback Bridge

The true salvation of modern Appalachia may be tourism. Its rich heritage and natural beauty would seem to be considerably more stable than the price of coal. It also seemed so completely untapped in many places we saw while we wandered. People would flock to these spots if they were more well known and more accessible. Efforts have been made, of course, and sometimes they showed up in unexpected places. We stopped for lunch at a scenic covered bridge in Virginia (map) and I looked up to see the letters L-O-V-E formed strategically in front of the bridge, only visible from a certain angle. It was part of a the Virginia Tourism Corporation’s highly successful Virginia is for Lovers campaign. I thought it was rather clever how a tree represented the letter V.

Appalachian Loop articles:

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Making Guinea Bissau

On March 20, 2016 · 0 Comments

I dug a little deeper into the visitor logs after I finished celebrating Twelve Mile Circle’s millionth visitor. Years ago I used to highlight the initial visitor from each nation, however I stopped doing that once I’d attracted someone to the site from just about everywhere imaginable. Still, there were a few stubborn holdouts and the logs didn’t lie. Guinea-Bissau clung tenaciously to that list. Perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise. This impoverished west African nation had only 1.6 million citizens and English wasn’t among its several languages. Why should I reasonably expect that someone from Guinea-Bissau would find 12MC to read about obscure origins of various US township names or some such nonsense? I held out hope anyway and figured that maybe a search engine might funnel a handful of visitors my way if I posted a little information about the country. It’s worked before.

República da Guiné-Bissau

The name Guinea appeared frequently along Africa’s Atlantic coastline and I explored its etymology previously in Upstart Eclipses Namesake. It was an old word probably picked up from an indigenous language that Europeans modified to identify Africans living south of the Senegal River. The source was a bit murky. Several colonial powers — England, France, Spain, Portugal — used the term to designate specific geographic areas of west Africa within their influence or to distinguish things that came from those areas. Independent nations emerging there in the second half of the 20th Century needed to modify their names to avoid confusion. This resulted in Guinea (formerly French Guinea), Equatorial Guinea (formerly under the control of several colonial powers, primarily Spain) and Guinea-Bissau (formerly Portuguese Guinea). Bissau was appended to the name of the nation when it gained independence in 1973 simply because it was the capital city of the former Portuguese colony.

Portuguese Dominance

Explorers from Portugal arrived along Africa’s Atlantic coast in the 15th Century in search of trade and wealth. They set up strongholds in what would later become Guinea-Bissau as well as other places. However the Portuguese remained along the coastline and didn’t push farther inland. Instead they constructed fortifications at Cacheu and Bissau, using them as bases to trade with those who already occupied the continent. It was a gruesome, brutal commerce based on slavery. Cacheu served as the principal port at that time, the place where tens of thousands of people from Upper Guinea shipped out for distant lands and perpetual bondage. The remains of the fortress at Cacheu still existed along the waterfront to mark that somber point of embarkation (map).


Bissau (Guinée Bissau)
Bissau (Guinée Bissau) by Olivier ROUX on Flickr (cc)

Guinea-Bissau struggled mightily to win its freedom, one of the last African nations to cross that threshold. A dockworker strike at the Port of Bissau, Porto Pidjiguiti, (map) led to the massacre of more than fifty strikers when police opened fire in 1959. It sparked a protracted armed resistance that would drag on for another fifteen years. Independence brought little peace, however. No president has managed to complete a full five year term since the nation’s inception, beset by coups d’état, assassination and a civil war. The 1998/99 civil war forced the United States embassy to suspended its operations and leave. The US still doesn’t have a diplomatic presence in Guinea-Bissau, represented instead by its embassy in neighboring Senegal.

The last couple of years have been relatively quite and tourists actually do visit Bissau although in small numbers.

In comparison to many other African cities, Bissau is a quiet capital. The city lacks the chaotic hustle and bustle of other capitals, offering a refreshing atmosphere that helps visitors relax and recharge. The pace of life is slow, and you will find more locals spending the evenings chatting on their porches than in any nightclubs or bars. There are also few traditional tourist sights in the city, but Bissau is constantly growing and evolving.


Cashews and termite hills of Guinea-Bissau
Cashews and termite hills of Guinea-Bissau by jbdodane on Flickr (cc)

A single agricultural product represented the overwhelming predominance of Bissau-Guinean exports. This required a huge asterisk however since it referenced legal products. The nation also relied upon a substantial underground economy based on illegal drug smuggling and trafficking. Extreme poverty and rampant corruption combined with a favorable seacoast with remote islands made Guinea-Bissau a perfect transit point for South American cocaine bound for Europe. Setting that aside, its main commodity was cashews, a whopping 80% of lawful exports. Small companies such as Procajú hoped to promote the nation’s economy so it could "escape its poverty through its own efforts, not by relying on foreign aid."

Most (90%) of the cashews exported are grown and collected by some 37,000 small, rural farmers and their families rather than large "commercial" growers… Until 1995, cashews were exported raw and processed in India, cutting out the value added by local processing. However, under the auspices of USAID’s Trade and Investment Promotion Support (TIPS) project, cashew processing has become a small but growing industry. Local processing — roasting, drying, shelling, and packaging cashews for export — can quadruple producer’s earnings.

Cashew cultivation grew steadily, making Guinea-Bissau "the world’s fifth-largest cashew exporter behind India, Vietnam, Ivory Coast and Brazil… employ[ing] some 80 percent of the workforce in this country." It became significant enough recently to make Bissau the site of the African Cashew Alliance’s annual World Cashew Festival & Expo in September 2016, as reported in Cashew Industry News.

I knew next to nothing about Guinea-Bissau before researching this post. Hopefully someone from a ".gw" Internet domain will be equally interested in exploring Twelve Mile Circle.

Arizona’s Wandering Capital

On December 27, 2015 · 2 Comments

The article I discovered was more than a year old, although it was new to me when I spotted it. The title intrigued me, Did You Know: Capital Of Arizona Moved 4 Times Before Settling In Phoenix. No, actually I didn’t know that. I’ve featured similar stories of wandering capitals for other states such as Ohio, Georgia and Alabama. Why not one about Arizona capitals too? The article provided a nice overview so that I could explore some of the stranger aspects and then the actual locations of its multiple former capitol buildings.

Mesilla, New Mexico

Wpdms arizona new mexico territories 1863 idx.png
Wpdms arizona new mexico territories 1863 idx“.
Licensed under Wikimedia Commons.

For instance, the first Arizona capital was actually located in New Mexico although not according to the United States government. The Confederate States of America had a surprisingly strong presence in the neglected farthest southern reaches of the western desert. The New Mexico territory encompassed an area occupied by modern New Mexico and Arizona at the time. The Confederates claimed the southern half as Arizona during the Civil War, placing their eastern capital in Mesilla when troops under Col. John Baylor arrived in February 1862. No signs remained of their original capitol building although it stood where the historic Fountain Theater was constructed in the 1870’s and still operates today (map). The Confederate government wouldn’t last long there. Union troops drove Baylor and his rebellious forces into Texas a few months later.


Sharlot Hall Museum: Governor’s Mansion
Sharlot Hall Museum: Governor’s Mansion by Rosa Say on Flickr (cc)

The United States government looked unfavorably upon the Confederate incursion as one would expect. It diluted Confederate sympathies by cleaving Arizona from the western half of New Mexico rather than the southern half. Prescott became the Arizona capital in late 1863 at nearby Fort Whipple (map), an Army base. A few months later the capital moved into the town of Prescott proper and into more suitable accommodations. A large log building served as the seat of government as well as the governor’s home. It was sold as a private residence when no longer needed, when the capital finally wandered away to a new location for good. The building was preserved at its original location and now forms the backbone of the Sharlot Hall Museum (map).

As the museum explained,

The log house served as both home and office for Territorial Governor John Goodwin and Secretary Richard McCormick. In September 1865, when Goodwin was elected Territorial Delegate to Congress and returned to the east, McCormick brought his new wife Margaret out from New Jersey, and he soon became our second territorial governor… In 1867, the Territorial Capital was transferred to Tucson, and Governor McCormick went with it.


Charles O Brown House
Charles O Brown House by javacolleen on Flickr (cc)

The capital would remain in Tucson for the next decade, from 1867-1877 (it had also served as the western Confederate capital briefly during the war). However, Arizona didn’t build a dedicated structure to house the territorial government. The permanent location for its seat of government continued to remain unsettled, with political forces nearly evenly divided between choosing Prescott and Tucson. Instead the territorial government met in several privately-owned facilities spread throughout the town at any given time, most famously the Congress Hall Saloon. I had a difficult time finding the exact location of the saloon because it was torn down in the early 1900’s. However I finally did track the site down to a spot along one of Tucson’s major road — Congress Street (named for the saloon). The cross streets were Congress and Meyer (map) although Meyer no longer extends through there anymore.

The Congress Hall Saloon played a prominent role in the history of Tucson. Charles Brown was its proprietor, and his home still exists at 40 W. Broadway Boulevard, a couple of blocks to the east of the old saloon. Not only did the saloon serve as an informal territorial capital it also hosted an 1871 meeting "of prominent townsmen… during which the municipality of Tucson was organized and officers elected." It was one of the few structures of a suitable size in an emerging frontier town so it didn’t matter that alcohol served as its primary purpose for existence.


Arizona Capitol Museum
Arizona Capitol Museum by Matthew Hendley on Flickr (cc)

Political wrangling continued. The capital moved back to Prescott in 1877 where it remained until 1889. Finally, the legislature settled on Phoenix. This time the location stuck. This was a compromise choice placed about halfway between Prescott and Tucson. If politicians couldn’t decide on one town or the other at least they could stick it in the middle. A new capitol building (map) soon emerged on the spot and remained in service until the 1960’s when replaced by the current capitol building adjacent to it. The original Phoenix structure then became the Arizona Capitol Museum.

Old sympathies died hard on the frontier and more than a few recalcitrant Confederates remained in Arizona decades after the Civil War ended. Arizona became a state on February 14, 1912. That was fifty years to the day from when Colonel Baylor declared a Confederate Arizona on February 14, 1862, establishing its capital in Mesilla.

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