The final day, like the end of all great adventures, was bittersweet. Nobody wanted to stop and yet we all had our lives to get back to and our responsibilities awaiting us that needed attention the next day. Most of the day’s ride would fly noticeably downhill. All of the gradual elevation we’d earned over many strenuous hours would come back to us in a 23-mile joyride into Cumberland. All we had to do was reach the final crest a few miles farther down the path. Mother Nature envisioned one more little trick. Prevailing winds cranked up to a sustained 20 mph with gusts even higher, and blew from the opposite direction than usual. Heading out of Meyersdale going uphill with a strong headwind after riding so many miles seemed unusually cruel.
Eastern Continental Divide
Which Way Will the Water Flow?
A little wind couldn’t stop us though. It felt like conditions that I’d biked through all winter long so I pushed forward to the highest point along the trail, the Eastern Continental Divide (map), and waited for my companions. Loyal followers of Twelve Mile Circle will understand my excitement. This was a genuine geo-oddity of some significance. Water poured directly atop the divide would roll either towards the Gulf of Mexico or towards the Atlantic Ocean; two very different locations determined solely by the simple fate of how it teetered along a razor-thin line. I sacrificed a small stream to the Geography Gods from my water bottle and wondered about the journey it would take. Actually it probably evaporated on the spot although I didn’t want to spoil my little fantasy moment.
The keepers of the GAP Trail obviously understood the importance of the Divide too. The small tunnel at this pivotal spot included an elevation map (photo) as well as several murals outlining the history of the area and the trail.
Now the well-deserved downhill sprint could begin.
Big Savage Tunnel
Big Savage Tunnel
Remember my long list of worries during the planning? The Big Savage Tunnel (map) was right near the top. I didn’t have a fear of tunnels even though this one was particularly long, and the longest on the trail at 3,300 feet (one kilometre). Rather I feared it might be closed. There wouldn’t be an easy detour if its imposing steel doors were padlocked.
Its restoration took two years and $12 million so the Allegheny Trail Alliance wasn’t in any hurry to go through the trouble again. They closed the tunnel every winter to prevent ice damage. The tunnel would open again in early April or "sometime" in April or definitely before May, according to various websites I consulted. We’d had a particularly cold winter and I figured it might delay the schedule. I watched the trail alerts anxiously until I saw an announcement saying it had opened for the season on April 3, 2015; two weeks before we would need it. I could relax.
The tunnel was in great shape, well lighted and a smooth ride.
Mason & Dixon Line
Mason & Dixon Line
Another fascinating geographic division appeared just after we passed the landmark tunnel, the renowned Mason & Dixon Line (map). Twelve Mile Circle readers should be well acquainted with the line so I won’t go into great detail (e.g., surveyed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon circa 1763-1767, the traditional dividing line between north and south in the United States, the state boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland). For me, it provided a great opportunity to take a bunch of photographs of our bicycles in two states at the same time. Shouldn’t bikes get a little geo-oddity love too?
It was bound to occur. Oddly the first and only bit of misfortune during our entire trip happened a mere fourteen miles from our goal. One of our group ran over a twig at the exact same time as a gear shift. A twig hitting at that vulnerable point must have acted as a lever, twisting the chain and locking the pedals. Even so we were lucky in adversity. This happened right before the Frostburg trailhead. We walked our bikes into town, had lunch, and made arrangements for a bicycle shop in nearby Cumberland to pick up the bike for repair while dropping-off a rental for the remaining few miles. We lost very little time, thankful that it hadn’t happened on an earlier day several miles from the nearest town.
Finishing the GAP
Mile 0 in Cumberland, Maryland
On the Maryland side, the trail followed active tracks of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. Active, yes, although not very frequent. The WMSR was a weekend excursion line operating only during the warmer months. I would have been overjoyed to see a vintage steam engine chugging up the mountain directly next to the bike trail. I’m not sure I’d have felt the same way if I’d been in the Brush Tunnel at the time — bikes and trains share the same tunnel (photo) — although seeing an antique train in general would have been nice. Unfortunately the first train of the season wouldn’t run for another couple of weeks.
I pedaled past the town of Mount Savage (photo) which I mentioned in an earlier article, Savages. It was pretty enough sitting way down in the valley although we were on a mission at that point, nearly finished and I kept going. One last attraction did entice us to stop, the Bone Cave only four miles from our destination. Workers constructing a railroad cut stumbled upon the cave in 1912. They found fossilized bones from Pleistocene-era animals dating back 200,000 years. Fossils included cave bears, saber-toothed tigers, mastodons and wolverines, some forty different species according to a marker placed at the entrance.
Finally the surface turned from gravel to asphalt, an oddly quiet situation after riding on rougher road for most of the last four days. People began to appear on the trail in abundance for the first time; walkers, joggers and recreational bikers. This offered another tantalizing clue that civilization couldn’t be too far ahead. Cumberland appeared on the horizon and we rolled into town for our final mile. The trail ended at Canal Place, back where we’d caught our shuttle four days earlier. The countdown to Mile 0 finally ended. We offered congratulations to each other, took plenty of photos as evidence and headed towards our cars. Two hours later I was back home, still feeling great and wondering when I might be able to do something like that again.
The Great Allegheny Passage articles:
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.