Prince George Exclave

On March 19, 2017 · 6 Comments

Every once in awhile I receive a tip where I need to drop everything so I can search for an explanation. Frequent reader "Aaron" discovered an exclave that I’d never seen before. Shockingly, it appeared in my own home state of Virginia and I’d actually driven through the exclave during my county counting adventures. How did I not notice it?

That’s all it took to suck me down into a rabbit hole for most of a Saturday afternoon.


The Exclave

The exclave definitely existed. I examined several sources and found it each time. Check it out:


Prince George Exclave
Prince George Co., VA Exclave
via Mob Rule

Virginia’s independent city of Hopewell carved its territory from the northwestern corner of Prince George County, at the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers. Prince George surrounded Hopewell on three sides — east, west and south — while Chesterfield County hugged its northern shore across the Appomattox. However, a tiny dot of Prince George stood alone, stranded from the rest of the county. This overlapped a segment of Virginia State Route 10, Randolph Road. Someone driving south from Chesterfield along the road would first hit Prince George (sign) and then enter Hopewell (sign) only 0.32 miles (0.5 km) later. This wasn’t an inconsequential road either. It supported an Annual Average Daily Traffic Volume of 19,000 vehicles.


Prince George Exclave View
Inside the Exclave
via Google Street View, September 2016

This brief slice of Prince George coincided with a bridge crossing the Appomattox, from the river midpoint to where the bridge returned to dry land. The exclave formed a rectangle no wider than the bridge itself. I will visit it someday. Fortunately there appeared to be a safe point to explore it, on Riverside Avenue directly below the bridge. That, of course, fell within the exclave too.


Annexation by Independent Cities


Hopewell Welcome Sign
Welcome to Hopewell. Photo by J. Stephen Conn on Flickr (cc)

The Commonwealth of Virginia maintained an odd assortment of independent cities, a highly rare arrangement within the United States. Of the 41 independent cities found in the U.S., 38 of them fell within Virginia (only the cities of Baltimore, St. Louis and Carson City did not). I’ve mentioned this anomaly several times in 12MC over the years, usually in reference to my county counting pursuits. Those independent cities were not subservient to their surrounding counties and thus "counted" as county equivalents.

I hadn’t looked much at the mechanics of it until now. Fortunately I found a publication from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. The arrangement extended all the way back to Virginia’s colonial era, an artifact carried over to modern times. Cities could annex land from adjacent counties as needed. However, counties generally did not like to cede their territory. This situation begged for an equitable process so the General Assembly adopted revised procedures in 1904. It required proposed annexation to go to a special court composed of three judges who would listen to both sides before making a decision. The court approved about 80% of annexations over the years according to this publication. Virginia recognized 128 of 160 proposed city-county annexations until it implemented a moratorium in 1987. Annexations caused too much animosity between cities and counties.

Hopewell incorporated as an Independent City in 1914. Thus, it followed the 1904 procedures. The 3-judge panel would have adjudicated Hopewell’s formation and any expansions. The resulting exclave must have been an explicit and intentional act on Hopewell’s part. There must have been a specific reason for Hopewell to exclude that tiny sliver of Prince George. It was not an accident.


Byrd Road Act


Harry F. Byrd
Harry F. Byrd. Wikimedia Commons; in the Public Domain

Then what might have been the reason? I found a likely candidate in some Depression-era legislation, Chapter 415 of the 1932 Acts of the General Assembly. This was more commonly called the Byrd Road Act. Harry Flood Byrd controlled Virginia politics for a half century through his Byrd Organization, a powerful political machine. He served as governor from 1926-1930, then as a U.S. Senator from 1933-1965. The legislation in question focused on secondary roads, enacting Byrd’s vision even though he no longer served as governor.

The Depression hit Virginia’s rural counties particularly hard. They didn’t have enough money to pave most of their roads, much less maintain them. They Act offered a novel solution. Control of secondary roads reverted to the state at the discretion of each county. State tax receipts would then fund construction and maintenance. An estimate at the time predicted that the Act "would reduce rural taxes by $2,895,102 annually." This seemed like an excellent trade-off and nearly every county accepted the offer (and today only Henrico and Arlington Counties control their own secondary roads as a result).

However, money had to come from somewhere. The Act excluded independent cities which still had to maintain their own secondary roads. Additionally, more people and more wealth concentrated in cities. Therefore state taxes paid by city residents subsidize road construction and maintenance in counties. Cities got hit twice, once for their own roads and again to support rural roads throughout the state. That was just fine by the Byrd Organization which found its base of power in rural counties. Even today people marvel at the wonderful, beautiful roads in the middle of nowhere throughout Virginia. Thank the Byrd Road Act.


Conclusion

Now, back to that bridge carrying drivers on Route 10 across the Appomattox River. If Hopewell annexed the land and water beneath the bridge then Hopewell’s taxes would have to maintain the bridge. If Hopewell declined to annex the bridge — leaving behind a tiny pocket of Prince George County — the state of Virginia would have to maintain it. That created a powerful financial incentive for Hopewell to exclude the bridge from its annexation proposal. Prince George County wouldn’t care. It wouldn’t have to pay for maintenance regardless.

I never found an official government document that said explicitly that this was the reason. However, I believed a preponderance of the evidence pointed clearly towards that direction. It made perfect sense and no other reason seemed plausible. The only other mention of this exclave anywhere on the Intertubes seemed to reach a similar conclusion.


Ironic Addendum

Virginia’s counties got a great bargain in 1932. However, the system began to fray over the decades especially for rapidly urbanizing counties. A report published by George Mason University in 2011 concluded,

Almost one-third of Virginia’s secondary road system is currently deficient, and programs designed to attract county participation in construction and maintenance are not working… the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) secondary construction program has provided minimal funding support for constructing new secondary roads in recent years…

Some localities, like Fairfax County with over a million residents, began to chafe under a system where the state controlled its secondary roads. Insufficient, traffic-clogged roads threatened to strangle the county with gridlock. Fairfax even began to explore conversion to independent city status in order to regain that control.


One Final Note

A special thank you to Aaron. This page now serves as the definitive source of information for the maybe ten people on the entire planet who want to know about this exclave. I can’t believe I spent more than 1,200 words talking about a plot of land only a third of a mile long by a hundred feet wide. That’s why you read Twelve Mile Circle. Right?

Newsworthy River Cutoffs

On December 1, 2016 · 4 Comments

Rivers can make great boundaries when they cooperate. Frequently they do not. These creatures of nature flow where they want to flow. Sometimes they erode deep furrows through solid rock, changing course only after eons pass. Other times they cross alluvial plains, shifting into multiple ephemeral streams awaiting the next flood. Problems will undoubtedly occur when people rely upon frequently-shifting rivers as boundaries. The shifts create winners and losers.

Two recent border situations came to my attention, handled in distinctly different ways by those involved.

The Red River



Reader Glenn seemed amused by the craziness of the border between Texas and its neighbors — Oklahoma and Arkansas — along the Red River, in an email he sent to 12MC a couple of months ago. The border rarely followed the river exactly, it reflected a version of the river that existed a long time ago. Many of the cutoffs on the "wrong" side of the river still retained names from a bygone day; Eagle Bend, Horseshoe Bend, Whitaker Bend and Hurricane Bend. Others seemed to represent the year of the flood that changed the underlying channel; such as 1908 Cutoff and Forty-One Cutoff.

Fixing the Border


Bend in Red River, Texas
Bend in Red River, Texas. Photo by brewbooks on Flickr (cc)

I might have left it at that, a simple observation of a messed-up situation. However, the decision to use the Red River beginning with the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819 continues to reverberate today. This treaty between Spain and the United States addressed a host of boundary issues. A line along the Red River remained in place when México gained independence from Spain in 1821, when Texas gained independence in 1836 and when Texas joined the United States in 1846. The river had different intentions though and meandered as it pleased.

The Red River figured prominently in a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Oklahoma v. Texas, 260 U.S. 606 (1923). The Court noted that even though the river wandered, it remained within two "cut banks" broadly defined.

… we hold that the bank intended by the treaty provision is the water-washed and relatively permanent elevation or acclivity at the outer line of the river bed which separates the bed from the adjacent upland, whether valley or hill, and serves to confine the waters within the bed and to preserve the course of the river, and that the boundary intended is on and along the bank at the average or mean level attained by the waters in the periods when they reach and wash the bank without overflowing it.

The Court set the boundary between Texas and Oklahoma on the south side of the Red River. Surveyors then marked and set the boundary.

The Current Dispute

Except the river kept changing while the boundary, as determined by the Court in 1923, remained fixed. The latest dispute began within the last several years. It got much more complicated. While the line between Texas and Oklahoma began at the south bank, the Federal government held the portion from the middle of the river to the south bank in public trust for Native Americans. This formed a narrow strip, a 116 mile (190 kilometre) ribbon. Much of that strip is now on dry land. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management estimated that 90,000 acres actually belong in the public domain, and not to the people living there, farming it or grazing their cattle for the last century. Lawsuits continue to rage.


The River Meuse


Netherlands Belgium Border Adjustment
Netherlands / Belgium Border Adjustment
Underlying Map from OpenStreetMap

Reader Jasper sent me a heads up that Belgium shrank and the Netherlands grew on November 28, 2016. The two sides came to an amicable agreement and adjusted their border. Didier Reynders of Belgium and Bert Koenders of the Netherlands signed a treaty in Amsterdam, in the presence of their respective monarchs, King Philippe and Queen Mathilde, and King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima. The announcement came in a Press Release with coverage in local media (Google Translation of an article in Flemish).

The areas in question fell along the banks of the River Meuse, forming a portion of the boundary between the two nations. They established their original border there in 1843. However, these neighbors decided to straighten their common river to improve navigation in stages between 1962 and 1980. This left a piece of the Netherlands and two pieces of Belgium on the "wrong" side of the river between Visé and Eijsden (map). Police could not access these spots easily and they became havens for illegal activities. This included a situation where a headless body washed ashore on one of the exclaves. Territorial complexities hampered the investigation.

In an unusual twist and in a supreme act of neighborly cooperation, the two nations simply agreed to swap their stranded parcels. It seemed the most logical option, and yet, it remained exceedingly rare in other border situations worldwide. Nobody wants to be the loser. Belgium simply gave up 14 hectares (35 acres) in the deal and called it good.

Michigan, Part 5 (Do Overs)

On July 31, 2016 · 0 Comments

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.


Lost Peninsula


Lost Peninsula

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.


Howder Street


Howder Street

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:

  1. County Adventures
  2. Breweries
  3. Rambling and Wandering
  4. Above and Below
  5. Do Overs
  6. Parting Shots

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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