At the far northwestern corner of North Dakota, right up next to Canada and Montana sits a county with a curious name, Divide. It looked somewhat rectangular like many other counties on the sparsely-populated Great Plains where few natural features could take the place of arbitrary straight lines.
Canadian-US Boundary by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr (cc)
I’d encountered Divide County vicariously one time before without even realizing it as I researched infrequent border crossings between the United States and Canada a couple of years ago. The Noonan border station in Divide County was so lonely and isolated that it had only a single pedestrian crossing during 2011 (the most current data available at the time), although it also had motor vehicle crossings of course. This photo was actually another nearby crossing in Divide — I couldn’t fine one of Noonan — although notice the obelisk marker placed by the International Boundary Commission. I don’t know where I’m going with that. I simply liked the image and it probably looked a lot like the one at Noonan so feel free to use your imagination.
The international border probably wasn’t the divide that inspired a county’s name however, in spite of modern theories like that described by Dakota Datebook in 2007:
This time a name for the new county would be determined through a contest. The winning entry came from George Gilmore, a Williston attorney. Gilmore proposed the name Divide County. The Northern Continental Divide runs through the region. The county divides the United States from Canada. It divides North Dakota from Montana. And most importantly, the new county was a product of its division.
Divide County Courthouse by jeremiah.andrick, on Flickr (cc)
The part about the contest was true enough. Both Divide County and the Town of Crosby (the seat of county government) confirmed the story. It happened in 1910. Homesteaders were just then migrating into the area. There were just enough people to warrant a new county, thus dividing Divide from larger Williams County. The contest commenced, Gilmore won $5 for his efforts, and the name stuck. The preponderance of sources I consulted mentioned two divisions as the basis for the name, the divide from Williams County, and the continental divide. The notion of state and international borders inspiring a name were apparently modern contrivances.
Divide County North Dakota
Created Using USGS’s National Map Viewer
The continental divide fascinated me more in this instance so I went into the National Map Viewer and selected the watershed layer. Notice the dark purple line that marked the continental divide. Many people see "continental divide" and think reflexively of the Great Divide that separated west from east, the Pacific drainage area from the Gulf of Mexico. This wasn’t that divide. Rather this was the Laurentian Divide or the Northern Divide that separated water bound for Hudson Bay from that heading down towards the Gulf of Mexico.
Divide County’s northeastern quadrant and its county seat at Crosby fell within the Souris River watershed, which flowed into the Assiniboine River River then to the Red River of the North into Lake Winnipeg, then to the Nelson River and finally into Hudson Bay. Divide’s southeastern quadrant flowed a long distance too albeit with a more familiar set of names, from local tributaries to the Missouri River to the Mississippi River, and then to the Gulf of Mexico.
What about that curious notation on the map? The Brush Lake Closed Basin? Indeed, the western part of Divide County flowed just a few miles farther west and barely crossed the border into Montana before stopping at Brush Lake where it remained. A good 20% of Divide wasn’t part of either side of the continental divide, it fell within an endorheic basin created at the tail-end of the last Ice Age as glaciers gouged the plains.
The buried outwash gravels and the deeper river terrace gravels are very porous and support a controlled groundwater irrigation area, as well as supplying Brush Lake with a continuous flow of water through large springs in the lake. Being in a closed basin, summer evaporation serves as a pump to keep groundwater flowing into the lake. And since evaporation only takes pure water out, the minerals leached from the glacial gravels remain dissolved in the lake and accumulate, giving the lake its distinct color.
Brush Lake, Montana
Maybe we should track down Gilmore’s heirs and ask for the $5 back?
The website hit came from Lockport, Illinois. Lockport sounded familiar, although from a different time and place than Illinois. It also seemed quite descriptive, a lock on a canal combined with a port (or perhaps a portage). Locks would be ideal places for settlements during the heyday of canal travel a century or more ago. Commerce naturally congregated at places where barges had to slow down or sit in a queue for awhile before going through the locks.
I&M Canal, Lock 1 by Eric Allix Rogers, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license
The random visitor from Lockport, Illinois (map) came from an historic town founded in 1830. Lockport served as a key point on the Illinois and Michigan Canal (now a state trail).
The I&M canal became the initial link between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico through the continental interior, joining a huge section of North American into to a single transportation system. The canal itself connected Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River by coupling the Chicago River to the Illinois River via a 96 miles (154 km) waterway. The I&M was replaced later by the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (where engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River) and closed altogether after the completion of the Illinois Waterway in the early 20th Century.
Lockport was the headquarters of the I&M and eased settlement of the Upper Mississippi watershed during the second half of the 19th Century. Chicago would not have become the dominant city of the Midwest without Lockport thirty miles inland to bridge the eastern continental divide.
Lockport, New York
Lockport New York 099 by Jim Jordan, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license
I was more familiar with Lockport, New York, a town of similar size and function except on the Erie Canal (map). This one had personal meaning to me. The Old Howder Homestead stood nearby. The other side of my family traveled up the canal and through the locks at Lockport on their migration to the Midwest in 1844. As I said in that earlier article:
In one of life’s odd coincidences, my mother’s side of the family (in a canal boat) and my father’s side of the family (farmers living near Lockport) came within amazingly close proximity of each other on or around the evening of Thursday, October 17, 1844 — literally a "ship that passed in the night." The families wouldn’t get another chance for more than a hundred years and in a completely different location.
The Erie Canal did what the I&M did, a generation earlier in a different place. It connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes in a direct fashion beginning in 1825, crossing the width of New York state.
Locks at Lockport, Manitoba by Dan McKay, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license
Canada had plenty of canals too, and naturally a good name like Lockport couldn’t confine itself to the United States. Manitoba had its own Lockport. (map). The lock and port in this instance occurred on the Red River, on a stretch where the St. Andrew’s Rapids complicated navigation. Engineers responded by constructing the appropriately-named St. Andrew’s Lock and Dam that opened in 1910: "This lock system allows access to Lake Winnipeg from the south and Winnipeg from the north."
Lockport Company Canal Bridge by C Hanchey, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license
There were fewer canals in the southern part of the United States, nonetheless Louisiana had its own Lockport too (map). This was borne from an early canal completed in 1847 that connected Bayou Terrebonne to New Orleans. The canal went out of operation long ago, however Lockport continues to sit along a branch of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. In a sense it still retains a connection by water to all of the major cities of the Gulf Coast.
There were several more Lockport towns and villages along waterways, particularly in the Northeastern and Midwestern states. Pennsylvania deserved special mention. The U.S. Geographic Names Information System mentioned five populated places there.
- Lockport on the Conemaugh River (map)
- Lockport on the Juniata River (map)
- Lockport on the Lehigh River (map)
- Lockport on the Susquehanna River (map)
- Lockport on the West Branch Susquehanna River (map)
That was an impressive number of Lockports.
Due to conflicting schedules of those who wanted to participate in the 12MC Geo-Oddity Bicycle Ride and couldn’t, the ride has been postponed until Fall. I’ll try to figure out a better date later.
The ever-reliable Anonymous Searcher provided inspiration again today. I’m not sure how I’d write half of my articles if it wasn’t for the inspiration of random search engine queries that somehow land on the Twelve Mile Circle. It’s my daily Google Love. What can I say? My unknown friends in the general public need to know things. Today they wanted to find the highpoint of Summit County, Ohio.
That’s an easy request. I can find that answer in about fifteen seconds on the County Highpointers Association website. Yes, that’s a genuine organization and I use their website regularly. County highpointers are a highly specialized set of county counters. Traveling into every county of the United States isn’t good enough for them. They also want to touch the highest points of elevation. I’ve done that myself and more than once so of course I believe it’s perfectly rational. I don’t go out of my way in this pursuit but I understand it and I appreciate it.
The County Highpointers identified a location in Summit County about three-quarters of a mile north of West Richfield, at 1,320 feet of elevation.
View Larger Map
It’s not much of a summit but it’s clearly marked right along the western edge Broadview Road at the entrance to Camp Hilaka, a Girl Scout retreat. This is an easy highpoint, the kind that I like to visit. It’s marked by a big blue sign by the side of the road, clearly visible in this Street View image. Trekkers can’t possible miss it.
There’s also a dirty little secret. The highpointers have noticed that despite the claim posted on the sign, terrain directly across the street marks the true summit of Summit County. It’s about five feet higher. I guess the county engineer didn’t want to see citizens trampling through someone’s front yard.
That finding answered the random query but it felt a little anticlimactic to me. That’s a rather inconsequential summit.
BUT THAT’S NOT WHY IT’S CALLED SUMMIT COUNTY!
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The actual "Summit" referenced by the county name isn’t the county highpoint at all. It’s the highpoint of an historic remnant from the early-industrial age: the Ohio and Erie Canal. It sort-of followed the map image I embedded above — while Google provides driving, walking, bicycle and public transportation options, it doesn’t include water routes, so you’ll need to use your imagination. How times have changed. Canals were once a major form of transportation used to open wilderness areas to settlement and trade. Ohio had several hundred miles of canal by the middle of the 19th Century.
The Ohio and Erie Canal was a particularly complicated undertaking since it had to traverse the St. Lawrence Continental Divide. One part of the waterway flowed north via the Cuyahoga River, to Lakes Erie and Ontario, to the St. Lawrence River and finally to the North Atlantic. The other side of the waterway flowed south via the Tuscarawas River, to the Ohio River, the Mississippi River and then to the Gulf of Mexico.
Lock 5 on the Ohio and Erie Canal
SOURCE: flickr under an Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license
The summit happens atop the crest between the two watersheds. A complete crossing required passage through 49 locks including an engineering marvel called the Cascade Locks. As the Northeast Ohio Journal of History described:
Akron’s Cascade Locks are a unique artifact left over from Ohio’s canal era—an era that began in 1825, and ended in 1913 in a catastrophic flood. They are the remains of a steep staircase of seven locks on the Ohio & Erie Canal that permitted canal boats to ascend 70 feet in less than half a mile to reach the Akron Summit—the highest point in on a canal more than three hundred miles long. The Cascade Locks were part of the canal system that transformed Ohio from a primitive wilderness into the third most populous state in the union.
That’s a great article by the way. You should read it.
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The Ohio and Erie Canal contributed to the success of cities such as Cleveland and Columbus. It also created the very reason for Akron’s existence. A savvy speculator, Simon Perkins, understood that canal boats would take much of a day to cross the divide using slow but effective locks. People in transit needed services and this key constriction created perfect conditions for a town to provision them. He was influential enough to finagle a route across the divide through land that he owned. The resulting town, Akron (from the Greek, "high place") quickly became an industrial powerhouse. More than a half-million people live within its metropolitan area today.
The summit of the canal that inspired names for a city and a county was located at Lock 1, just west of the original Akron town center at Main & Exchange Streets.
The history I uncovered was infinitely more interesting than the original anonymous query. I’ve barely scratched the surface. Much more information can be found at the websites of the Cascade Locks Park Association, Ohio and Erie Canalway and the Ohio and Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor.