Marking the Meridian

A random one-time reader landed on Twelve Mile Circle recently. That unknown visitor sought information about the Prime Meridian, and I’ll get to the specific request in a moment. I knew I’d discussed this meridian before. However, in searching my archives and after examining the Complete Index I discovered that I’d never actually marked the place where it all started in Greenwich, England (map).

The Royal Observatory; Greenwich, England, UK

Prime meridian at Greenwich
Prime meridian at Greenwich. Photo by Duncan Stephen on Flickr (cc)

More than nine years writing 12MC and no photo? Really? We’ll fix that right now.

I won’t spend a lot of time talking about it because I think most of us already know the story. Greenwich appeared in a number of 12MC articles, for example from an American perspective. The agreed-upon line went through the Royal Observatory for a number of historical reasons. I’ll borrow some text directly from its website.

In 1884 the Prime Meridian was defined by the position of the large ‘Transit Circle’ telescope in the Observatory’s Meridian Observatory. The transit circle was built by Sir George Biddell Airy, the 7th Astronomer Royal, in 1850. The cross-hairs in the eyepiece of the Transit Circle precisely defined Longitude 0° for the world. As the Earth’s crust is moving very slightly all the time the exact position of the Prime Meridian is now moving very slightly too, but the original reference for the prime meridian of the world remains the Airy Transit Circle in the Royal Observatory, even if the exact location of the line may move to either side of Airy’s meridian.

Modern calculations placed the meridian about 100 metres east of the line where all the tourists commonly gather. The Daily Telegraph noted that a rubbish bin marked the actual line, not the fancy marker.

Meridiano de Greenwich; Candasnos, Spain

Meridiano de Greenwich
Meridiano de Greenwich; Candasnos, Spain
via Google Street View, July 2016

A wonderful arch crossed motorway Autopista del Nordeste (AP-2) at kilometre 82 outside of Candasnos, Spain (map). This was the object my random visitor hoped to find on the 12MC website. It very much marked the Prime Meridian and the search engine link landed on my Prime Meridian Through Spain. However I didn’t include anything about the arch on 12MC because I didn’t know it existed. Whoever it was left disappointed, probably never to return.

That troubling outcome, of course, led me to search for the arch and I found it without too much trouble. Unfortunately I never uncovered any information about its construction, who commissioned it, when it happened, or any other details. Precious little information even existed about the town of Candasnos itself. I consulted the Spanish version of Wikipedia to see what I could learn. It told me that the economy depended on agriculture and people exiting the Autopista for services as they drove along through the countryside.

That little exercise turned out to be a bit of a bust. I came across an interesting website however, devoted entirely to Prime Meridian markers. I could appreciate something like that, and I did, a kindred spirit who enjoyed a very specific geographic peculiarity. Why not use that as a source for finding a couple more fascinating Prime Meridian markers? That sounded like a great idea. Let’s do it.

Rue du Méridien; Neuvillalais, Pays de la Loire, France

Eglise de Neuvillalais on Wikimedia Commons (cc)

The meridian went through France so that seemed like a good place to hunt for more markers. I found a particularly nice one in the village of Neuvillalais (map) in the Pays de la Loire region. According to French Wikipedia, the name traced back to Latin, nova villa, meaning new town. Its residents did not have a demonym until 2016 when the municipal council declared they were all "les Neuvillalois." That shouldn’t have fascinated me, yet somehow it did.

They named the primary road through town Rue du Méridien. Only one business existed within the village boundaries, a bar-restaurant-grocery store called Le Méridien. A line made of cobblestones marked the Prime Meridian as it traversed a roadway intersection near the center of town. A giant globe marked its passage where it crossed the front yard of a church. More recent photos suggested that the globe might have disappeared sometime in the last couple of years. What a pity.

Meridian Rock; Tema, Ghana

I always try to feature content from Africa because I don’t think the continent gets enough attention. However, many times I find it difficult to find any good material on the Intertubes. I struck pay dirt down in Ghana though. The line passed all the way through there, a fact I once recognized in Prime Meridian Capital Cities.

The notion seemed daunting when I heard about Meridian Rock (map) in the city of Tema, just east of Accra. Literally, it was a rock, and it sat just offshore of a local beach. Like I could find Street View coverage or a Creative Commons photo of a rock in the water? That’s why I practically did a cartwheel when I found a YouTube video of this obscure object. The same gentleman also posted a video of another meridian marker in Tema, on the grounds of the "Presbyterian Church of Ghana on the Greenwich Meridian." That was the actual name of the church. Awesome.

In 2014, the Ghana Tourism Authority launched an effort to mark the meridian in various parts of the country. They hoped to turn them into "a hot tourism spot."

…we are looking at erecting signages to indicate the imaginary line… we are also looking at developing special places within the settlements where people can visit, and we are also looking at erecting a ‘Wall of Fame,’ where people can say that ‘I have crossed the Greenwich Meridian’ in, say Salaga, for instance, so that he can pay something small and have his name inscribed on the wall.

I don’t know where the project stands today. I don’t think I’d go to Ghana solely to visit the line although I’d certainly seek it out if I happened to be there for some other purpose. Maybe the GTA could sponsor me?

Tombolo(s) of Connecticut

I have an odd affinity for tombolos. I don’t know why. It’s completely irrational. Even one of the earliest Twelve Mile Circle articles focused on the phenomenon.

I’ll stick with a definition I drafted back then and quote myself.

A Tombolo is a narrow neck of land that forms between the mainland and an island, or between two islands, as sand and sediment deposit between them. Waves hit a landform at a specific angle determined by surrounding currents. Over time this can build up to a sandbar or sand spit. If there happens to be an island or a rock nearby, and if the sediment builds up at exactly the right angle, then the two can join as one. Vegetation may take hold on the new land and further anchor a tombolo into place.

What’s the deal with Connecticut though, and why did I cryptically title the article parenthetically? It’s due to a persistent rumor, folklore, assertion or whatever that only a single tombolo exists in the state of Connecticut. Steve of Connecticut Museum Quest and I discussed this occasionally over the last four years; not intensely, just as a curiosity that arose periodically.

I’ve learned to be skeptical whenever is see claims of the "only" whatever, probably because the 12MC audience always proved me wrong whenever I made an assertion like that. I’ve been humbled so many times. On the other hand, Connecticut is a really small state. It had an air of plausibility. The story came up again from one of Steve’s readers so I decided to see if I could either prove or remove the "single Connecticut tombolo theory" for good.

Charles Island

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Charles Island in Milford became the centerpiece of the claim, the supposed magic tombolo singularity.

Charles Island Tombolo Connecticut 337 AD
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Admittedly, this seemed to be a great example of a tombolo and a highlight of Silver Sands State Park.

The early history of Silver Sands focuses on Charles Island. The Island is connected to the mainland by a sand/gravel bar (tombolo) that is submerged at high tide. Captain Kidd is reputed to have buried his treasure on the island in 1699. The only remains on the island are of a Catholic retreat center from the 1920’s-30’s

There were all sorts of supernatural claims about Charles Island, about it supposedly being haunted and evil with all sorts of wild ghost stories and no evidence to back them up. The Wikipedia page was particularly embarrassing with a completely unreferenced section called "Legends of hauntings, treasure and a curse."

Was this the only tombolo in Connecticut, though? No. Not even close.

Menunketesuck Island

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Steve’s reader mentioned Menunketesuck Island, off of the coast of Westbrook. It followed the same pattern as Charles Island, albeit considerably more obscure, with a similar sandy connection to the mainland accessible only at low tide. Personally, I thought this one seemed to be just as legitimate as the tombolo at Charles Island.

Bushy Point

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Might there be others though? Yes! Yes, there were others.

I uncovered Bushy Point at Bluff Point State Park in Groton. As the park website described it,

State holdings include a north-south strip of the mainland, a portion of the headland bluff fronting the Sound, and the tombolo or sandspit forming a beach of nearly one mile in length. The beach terminates in a small, rocky island called Bushy Point.

I’ve marked the USGS location with an arrow because there are so many other geographic features nearby. Drill down though, and notice the sand deposited between mainland and island.

Captain Harbor Tombolos

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After pondering the likelihood of three Connecticut tombolos between mainland and tied-islands, I turned my attention to island-to-island tombolos. I recalled my adventure with Steve last summer during our Connecticut Extremes Adventure, as we searched for the state’s southernmost point on Great Captain Island. I swore I saw a tombolo although I couldn’t tell if it was natural or man-made.

In fact there appeared to be at least three tombolos in Greenwich’s Captain Harbor once I looked at the maps a little closer.

Great Captain Island

Great Captain/Captains/Captain’s Island. I took this photograph during our brief stop. Notice the causeway. Did the causeway come first or was it used to solidify an existing sandbar? The Town of Greenwich provided an explanation,

The island is a remnant of a glacial moraine. It contains a diversity of rock types- gneiss, schist,
granite-with a very large glacial erratic on the southern side. The Eastern and western sections are
connected by a tombolo – sand or gravel bar.

That led me to believe the tombolo formed naturally and was later enhance and preserved by the causeway.

Island Beach and Wee Captain Island. I had the same suspicion here, and again the Town of Greenwich came to the rescue,

Island Beach formerly known as Little Captain’s Island… lies about 3,500 feet due east of the larger Great Captain’s Island, and is connected by a 600-foot long tombolo, or intertidal sand bar, to Wee Captain’s Island, a privately-owned half-acre island off its easterly side.

Calf Island and Shell Island. This tombolo existed within the same proximity. Calf Island was part of the Stewart B. McKinney. National Wildlife Refuge. The Calf Island Conservancy explained:

At 31.5 acres, Calf Island is the largest offshore island in Greenwich, CT. It is located directly south of Byram Harbor, approximately 3,000 feet from the mainland, and is connected at low tide to the Greenwich Land Trust’s Shell Island.

I then looked at various Connecticut islands and shoreline farther along Long Island Sound and spotted numerous likely candidates. I didn’t have time to research them individually, however, I’m sure it could be done if the ones I’ve already mentioned didn’t seem sufficient. That’s a polite way of saying I began to get bored with it and others should feel free to pick up the charge.

Governors Island

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Not every island connected to mainland would qualify as a tombolo. A tombolo, by definition, is formed by wave action. I found a recent article in the Hartford Courant, A Journey To A Windswept Island In Goodwin State Forest, that claimed that Governors Island was a tombolo.

After a brief walk east along Estabrooks Road, I returned to the forest and Pine Acres Pond Trail, which runs along the entire eastern shore of the pond. After its shadowy start in a deep pine forest, the canopy opens overhead as the trail winds past a large swamp and across swaths of huge rocks to the tombolo – a spit of land that connects to Governor’s Island.

I don’t think the pond would be large enough to generate the necessary wave action to create a true tombolo. I’ll bet it’s a pretty spot, just maybe not a tombolo. I’m thinking sediment washed downstream rather than waves.

Nonetheless, I think I found sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Connecticut doesn’t have a tombolo (singular) it has tombolos (plural).

Connecticut Extremes: Are We There Yet?

It’s been a protracted series of Extreme Connecticut geography articles and you’re probably growing a little weary of them by now. I was in a similar position somewhere around this same point during our long and busy adventure. Nonetheless, nobody had ever visited the state’s four cardinal extremities in a single day before. We were making history and this wasn’t a time for geo-wimps. With Steve of CTMQ in the lead and Scott of The Scenic Drive and myself along for the ride, we summoned up additional energy and enthusiasm, and pushed ever onward.

View Extreme Connecticut Geography Tour in a larger map

We left the corner of Connecticut once known as Litchfield County (before Connecticut disestablished its county structure in 1960). Our departure made me somewhat wistful. Litchfield, truly, upended all of my preconceived notions and stereotypes of Connecticut, with its forested ridges, green valleys, rolling streams and quaint country towns. I’d love to come back to northwestern Connecticut again someday in a slightly less whirlwind fashion.

Litchfield also contained more than its fare share of geo-oddities. Much greater distances would need to be covered from here onward.

Westernmost Point in Connecticut

Each of the farthest directional extremes of Connecticut presented its own unique challenge. This continued with the westernmost point, directly aside New York’s Route 120 — King Street — an extremely busy road with a monument hidden behind a thicket beside a blind curve. We had to park on the opposite side of the road, dash across the street Frogger-style and and dig through grass to the monument before a truck with a side view mirror might clip us.

Disappointingly, Connecticut doesn’t seem to hold its geography monuments in particularly high regard. Back home in Virginia, various historical societies volunteer to care for markers and even protect them in cast-iron cages. In Connecticut? One finds the westernmost stone forlorn in neck-high weeds that probably haven’t been mowed in years. It’s difficult and dangerous to approach the marker even if one knows its exact location.

King Street is famous for another reason. It’s the road that New York stole from Connecticut. It happened a couple of miles away from the westernmost point. Steve had my back on this one. He knew I was excited about the stolen road so he took a brief detour along the east side of Westchester County Airport just to be kind. It wasn’t on our agenda.

Finally the Great Captains Island ferry beckoned us. This presented the greatest logistical challenge of the day. It may be the single most difficult geographic extremity should one wish to replicate our Connecticut adventure. Even so, we were actually in pretty good shape at this point. We’d made up time lost earlier due to my lack of humidity hiking skills, and we positioned ourselves perfectly for a 2:00 crossing.

A bureaucrat who escaped from the old Soviet Union must have designed the process to visit Great Captains Island. The town of Greenwich owns the island and they don’t like non-residents like you and me visiting. From what I’ve seen on the Intertubes — and I can’t confirm this independently so take it with a grain of salt — there was a lawsuit a few years ago that finally opened it up for non-resident visitors. True or not, Greenwich still makes it as difficult as possible for those of us who are not worthy.

Here are the roadblocks and our resolution:

  • The ferry runs only at the higher end of the tide cycle. Greenwich publishes a schedule every year and that figured prominently in our planning. We had to select a date that matched our personal summertime plans, fit within the timing of our drive through Connecticut, and coincided properly with the cycle of the moon. August 4, 2012 was quite literally the only feasible date.
  • The weather has to cooperate. The ferry cannot operate during thunderstorms and those are entirely too common during summer afternoons. This was a complete crapshoot and we were lucky. Thunderstorms rocked Connecticut’s coastline the very next day.
  • Then, don’t even think about showing up at the docks without a non-resident daily park pass. They are not sold at the ferry either. One has to go to the Greenwich town hall or civic center. Steve made arrangements with a friend who lived in town to get the pass on our behalf who met us at the docks. This transaction reportedly took about 45 minutes — time we would not have had available otherwise.
  • Parking is another challenge. The municipal lot at the docks charges dearly for its convenience. Steve had a secret parking place I won’t reveal so we skirted the issue.
  • After that, and only when all challenges are met, can one purchase a ferry ticket to depart for Great Captains Island

Southernmost Point in Connecticut

Here’s the completely crazy part. We negotiated those logistics, jumped through every kind of hoop, went through unreasonable pain and expense, and remained on Great Captains Island for a grand total of nine minutes! Otherwise we would have been stuck there for an additional hour and we had a schedule to keep. At least we amused the ferry crew.

What was that I said about things I’d like to see again someday? Yes, this is one of them.

It was a nice ride on the ferry back-and-forth; very relaxing. It always feels good to out be on the open water.

Smallest Indian Reservation

Back on shore, we completed another round of quick drive-by captures, this time the smallest Indian reservation in the United States (above), Connecticut’s smallest town (Derby), and a minor detour for a pre-celebration beer.

I wanted to stop briefly and take a photograph of the sign outside of the Golden Hill Paugussetts’ quarter-acre reservation. What were the odds of them actually holding an event in their back yard? Well, 100% on that day. I didn’t want to feel like a complete schmuck stopping in front of their home and pointing a camera at them. This was the best I could do, and I’ve cropped out the portion where they were holding their barbeque to preserve their privacy.

Apologies to the Golden Hill Paugussetts if they happened to notice three guys with cameras driving by slowly. We were only attempting to document the extremes of Connecticut, and in this instance the entirety of the United States. We meant no harm.

Easternmost Point in Connecticut

As if we hadn’t trampled on private property and poked into peoples’ personal space enough times during the day, we had to do it all over again to capture the easternmost point in Connecticut. This could be accessed feasibly only by going through a horse farm. We found some cover. There was some kind of horse show going on that day and many of the participants had traveled great distances. They formed a makeshift campground with a cluster of recreational vehicles. We felt comfortable with the notion that nobody would notice an additional car slip into the mix.

That was true until we had to peel away from the crowd to reach the easternmost point itself. We felt we had a decent cover story if someone questioned us (nobody did) so we hopped out and pushed through brambles and wetlands. Steve had some directions that were like, "look for a big oak tree near a thicket of pines and an abandoned junk yard" or something equally vague. Dusk was approaching. It had been a long day. Scott and I were ready to call this one "close enough." Steve persevered in spite of the waning interest of his crew and located the marker a few minutes later.

We had one more item on the itinerary: the Connecticut-Massachusetts-Rhode Island tripoint. Steve had been there before on a previous adventure. Scott and I felt like we’d gotten more than our fair share already. Sometimes on needs to know when it’s time to let it go and call it a day. We’ll save that one for someone who wants to try to break our record.

I arrived back at my hotel sixteen hours after we’d begun. It was a remarkable day of extreme Connecticut geo-oddities. Steve is already planning Round 2. I suggested a visit to all 169 Connecticut towns in a single day.

Other articles in this series: