Rise and Fall of Idahome

Interesting things pop-up unexpectedly as one searches for completely different topics. I wanted to find every town with a state name, a laborious manual process undertaken for Geographic Matryoshka with US States. Dutifully, I entered each name into the Geographical Names Information System (GNIS) one-by-one and tallied the results. My search for Idaho produced towns such as Idaho, NY; Idaho, ND; Idaho, OH; Idaho, PA and Idaho, TN. However there were other results on the screen because the values weren’t truncated. That’s when I noticed what I thought might be one of the better place names in the United States, the remarkable Idahome in Cassia County, Idaho.

Goodness knows I’ve always been captivated by a solid portmanteau. This was one of the best, a remarkable combination of Idaho and Home. There’s no place like home! I couldn’t think of any similar state combination. I supposed Utahome came close or maybe twist it a little more to create Ohiohome. Maybe the Arapaho tribe of Native Americans could create a place called Arapahome. Still, Idahome actually existed and it had been recorded as a placename by the U.S. government.

Idahome, Idaho

I should clarity that point. GNIS said Idahome existed. Boots on the ground might argue with that point. Sure it existed — in the past tense — although it existed in its current form only as a ghost town with a derelict grain elevator and the faint footprints of a few former residences.

Abandoned town site of Idahome by Linda Paul on Flickr (cc)

What could have possibly happened to a place with such a noteworthy name? An historical marker placed on Highway 81 at the old townsite (map) provided a nice summary:

After wheat crops flourished in this dry farm area, Idahome sprang up here in 1916 as a railroad terminal. Irrigation projects boosted its economy. When wheat farms disappeared and highway traffic replaced rail service here, Idahome became a ghost town. Its grain elevators, lumberyards, stores, airport, oil company, school, newspaper and people are only past memories. An elevator and a few building foundations mark its site.

Wikipedia also had a minor Idahome entry although it contained an unsubstantiated claim. "The community was named by a railroad surveying party that found a bag labeled ‘Idahome Flour Co.’ at the site; the railroad made the place a stop with the flour company’s name." That sounded fine although in apocryphal terms. Evidence contemporary with the flourishing of Idahome in the early Twentieth Century contradicted the formative fable. Imagine that. An assertion made on Wikipedia without attribution proving to be wrong.

IdaHome Flour Building
IdaHome Flour Building by Nicholas D. on Flickr (cc)

Idahome was an obscure locale even when it thrived although it left a small paper trail in its wake that was captured by Google Books. Idahome wasn’t the name of a flour company originally, it was a brand used for wheat flour by the The Twin Falls Milling & Elev., Co. of Twin Falls, Idaho, as noted in the January 1912 edition of Northwestern Miller. Another publication of the period, The American Miller and Processor, elaborated further.

WHERE IDAHOME FLOUR IS MADE. The new plant of the Twin Falls Mill and Company, located at Twin Falls, Idaho, was started but a short time ago. The company is in possession of a new 400-barrel mill electrically operated, located in a brick building 36 by 64 feet, four stories high. The mill is thoroughly equipped with the latest mill machinery, eight stands of rolls, cleaners packers and all the various machines. The mill is so arranged that the capacity can be increased to 600 barrels if trade demands, and has been made for the adding of a plant to manufacture breakfast food of all kinds. A months before starting, the company held a contest offering a prize for the most acceptable name a flour, and as a result have accepted and patented the two names "Idahome" and "Shoshone Mist."

More important, the railroad didn’t name Idahome for a discarded bag, it was developed specifically as a terminal to serve the Idahome brand of flour. By 1918 the N.W. Ayer & Son’s American Newspaper Annual and Directory noted that Idahome had become a town of 300 people complete with the short-line railroad, telephone service, a bank, the mill and a sugar beet factory. It was also a local center for lead and silver mining as well as for agricultural pursuits including the grazing of sheep and cattle. At some point the name of the company did change to Idahome Grain & Produce Co. although that happened after the mill had been established and in any case the end was near. In 1919 the company moved to nearby Burly. Soon one of the best named locations in the nation began on its path towards oblivion.

It was too good for the name to simply die, though. Its memory lived on in Idahome Road, leading from the old town site to Interstate 84 (street view). There were also several likely unrelated mentions:

Most inexplicably, and I’m sure completely coincidentally, there was an Idahome Street in West Covina, California (map)

Hot Springs Everywhere

Twelve Mile Circle has featured hot springs before. There was Hot Springs, Virginia in Taking a Bath. There was Hot Springs County, Wyoming and its county seat of Thermopolis in The Largest Smallest US County. Geothermal activities existed in many places and I’d taken notice plenty of times. Nonetheless I was mildly surprised when I spotted a virtual visitor dropping onto the site from Hot Springs, South Dakota. I’d not heard of that one before. I wondered how many places were named Hot Springs — just Hot Springs and not Something-or-Another-Hot Springs — scattered around the continent wherever warm water bubbled from deep below. There were many. Some of them were even worth mentioning.

These towns dated back to an earlier age when natural hot springs were a much bigger attraction than they are today. Eventually even budget accommodations like the Super 8 and Motel 6 installed hot tubs that plugged into wall sockets. However, back at the dawn of American settlement, hot waters warmed by the earth as if by magic seemed wondrous.

Hot Springs, Arkansas

View of Batthouse Row from Hot Springs Mountain Tower, Hot Springs National Park, Hot Springs, Arkansas
View of Batthouse Row from Hot Springs Mountain Tower, Hot Springs National Park, Hot Springs, Arkansas by Ken Lund, on Flickr (cc)

I supposed I should start with the obvious one, Hot Springs, Arkansas. If anyone mentioned Hot Springs, chances were good that this would be the one. It had been a resort town for most of two centuries and even today boasted thousands of residents. Hot Springs was the oldest Federal reserve in the United States, set aside for future generations all the way back in 1832 before becoming a full-fledged National Park in 1921.

Hot springs in the middle of town? Water. That’s what first attracted people, and they have been coming here ever since to use these soothing thermal waters to heal and relax. Rich and poor alike came for the baths, and a thriving city built up around the hot springs. Together nicknamed "The American Spa," Hot Springs National Park today surrounds the north end of the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas.

One of the most interesting features was Bathhouse Row, a collection of eight buildings constructed in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. (map). Each one had been designed with increasing opulence by entrepreneurs competing with each other to attract the most visitors searching for curative waters.

Hot Springs, South Dakota

The Mammoth Site, Hot Springs-12
The Mammoth Site, Hot Springs-12 by Gouldy99, on Flickr (cc)

I figured I should look at Hot Springs, South Dakota next since that was the one that started me down this tangent. The site went back in history although it didn’t seem to catch-on as a spa town.

Called Minnekahta (warm waters) by the original white settlers in 1879, the town’s name was changed to Hot Springs in 1886. Earlier, the Lakota and the Cheyenne Indian tribes fought for control of the natural warm waters. Legends tell of a hostile encounter waged in the hills high above the gurgling springs on a peak called Battle Mountain.

A more recent find actually fascinated me more, the Mammoth Site discovered in the 1970’s when a new housing development was being built on the edge of town (map). Excavators stumbled upon the remains of a karst sinkhole that had once been a spring during the Pleistocene era about 26,000 years ago. Megafauna, particularly Columbian and Woolly Mammoths, occasionally wandered too far into the spring and couldn’t escape. Their skeletons were beautifully preserved where they died. It remains an active archaeological site.

Hot Springs, North Carolina

lover's leap - hot springs, north carolina
lover's leap – hot springs, north carolina by sarahriceNC, on Flickr (cc)

Hot Springs were discovered in the early days of settlement after the American Revolution where Spring Creek fed into the French Broad River in North Carolina. It became a spa town and a resort built around the springs continues to operate at that location in the modern era (map). It may be better known, however, as a stopping point on the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail was built through the town of Hot Springs over seven decades ago, and today white blazes still mark the path through town and over the bridge across the French Broad River, before heading north up to the vista, Lover’s Leap. The Trail is unequivocally intertwined with the town – it is the first town, headed on a northbound hike, through which the Trail literally overlaps the town’s main street.

I imagine a dip in the hot springs might feel pretty good to a thru-hiker who has already marched hundreds of miles on foot along the mountaintops.

Hot Springs, Nevada

Hot Spring, Nevada

The actual town of Hot Springs, Nevada ceased to exist a long time ago. It is a ghost town: "As near as one can tell, the doctor closed up shop in the mid-1870s and no other interest emerged in the area. Today absolutely nothing remains of the wooden bathhouse but the hot springs are going strong." A park for Recreational Vehicles, Bailey’s Hot Springs, later occupied the site and continues to serve travelers. According to the website, "Hot Mineral Baths [are] Included" — a nice perk for those wanting to park an RV overnight.

Good Fortuna

Fortuna was the Roman goddess of prosperity and luck. That would be an excellent name for any location hoping for some of that mojo to rub off. I was aware of a Fortuna in California (map), probably the largest Fortuna in the United States. It was settled in the heart of redwood country.

Along the Avenue of the Giants
Along the Avenue of the Giants by Images by John 'K', on Flickr (cc)

I’m sure it’s very nice and I’d love to go there someday and take a drive down the Avenue of the Giants. However this Twelve Mile Circle wasn’t about that particular Fortuna. Maybe I’ll circle back to that eventually. Not today.

Another Fortuna

Rather, I became fixated on the Fortuna I’d uncovered as I investigated the intricacies of what divided Divide County in North Dakota. There sat tiny Fortuna, population 22, all alone on the Great Plains (map). Let’s ride along on a little driving tour given by some random guy on YouTube, shall we?

Hmmm… there wasn’t much there, was there? A church, a gun club, a curling club, a few houses and a senior center.

Don’t be deceived. Look below the surface and every place is a geo-oddity. I myself live in the smallest self-governing county in the United States. I’m sure your little corner of the world has its own unusual geographic distinction too. Fortuna (pronounced For-Toona) was fortunate enough to have two unusual features, one created by nature and one caused by the arbitrary placements of lines by man.

We already discussed the first condition in County Divided: the Brush Lake Closed Basin. Fortuna fell barely within the eastern edge of this endorheic basin. Sandwiched between Arctic and Atlantic watersheds, water falling in Fortuna wouldn’t flow to either ocean. Instead it drained to nearby Brush Lake just over the border in Montana where its overland journey ended, trapped in a gouge carved by ancient glaciers during the last Ice Age.

US Time Zones via Wikimedia Commons, in the Public Domain

The second feature was somewhat more esoteric. According to North Dakota State University, Fortuna had the distinction of having the latest sunset on the summer solstice for any town in the Lower 48 United States, at 10:03 p.m. That occurred because of a confluence of a couple of different situations. Fortuna happened to be located at the far western edge of the Central Time Zone. The zone had a nub in northwestern North Dakota that made Fortuna considerably farther west than almost any other place along the time zone edge.

The exception was a corner of west Texas east of El Paso, say, somewhere like Van Horne (map). It was just a little farther west than Fortuna. However there was a different factor that more than made up the difference: latitude. I put the points into a great circle mapper and found that Fortuna was about 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometres) farther north than Van Horne. Thus, with that large of a difference I think it would be safe to speculate that sunset happened later on the summer solstice in Fortuna’s corner of North Dakota than anywhere else in the Central Time Zone. I suppose I could also check the other three U.S. time zones in the Lower 48 for their westernmost extremes although I’m simply not that motivated. The Intertubes said it was true and I left it at that.

But Wait, You Also Get This

Fortuna had history. I hardly would have expected anything of historical significance in such a remote area. Yet, ironically its remoteness actually created its importance. Out-of-sight places made ideal locations for a variety of Cold War artifacts.

Fortuna Air Force Station
Fortuna Air Force Station via Wikimedia Commons, in the Public Domain

The U.S. government constructed Fortuna Air Force Station just outside of town, a radar base operating from 1952 to 1984. It was designed to track enemy aircraft and coordinate their interception should Soviets bombers have attacked the United States. The site was completely abandoned once the Cold War faded and fell away. Ghosts of North Dakota visited the old station recently and noted,

We got word that this base was to be demolished in 2013, so we set out to photograph it before it was too late… The radar dishes and domes were removed long ago, and the site has since been heavily vandalized and scavenged. The salvage rights were sold some years back and the team that did the salvage knocked holes in the walls of most of the buildings to remove boilers and scrap metal.

The station may soon become just another patch on the plains before too long, however Veterans of the 780th AC&W Radar Squadron still keep in touch.

What does the future hold for the town of Fortuna? Perhaps something fortunate. This quadrant of North Dakota has boomed in recent years because of oil discoveries in the Bakken formation. The population of Divide County increased by more than 10% between 2010 and 2013 (the latest figures available) after decades of decline.