Marks on trees served as road signs during North America’s colonial times, a period when much of the population was illiterate. Certain patterns of slashes or notches conveyed specific information about the nature of a pike or landmarks a traveler might find farther down down its path. Three notches served as a frequent glyph although its meaning varied depending on geography.
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I first noticed the phenomenon in Maryland when I spied Three Notch Road, and I became curious about its derivation. This is a significant traffic corridor today, primarily Maryland Route 235 running along the spine of what is known as Southern Maryland colloquially, then part of Maryland Route 5 heading deeper into the suburbs outside of Washington, DC. The History of Caroline County, Maryland, From Its Beginning offers an explanation for the name. It referred to a 1704 colonial-era law that applied across early Maryland:
And the roads that lead to any county Court house, shall have two notches on the trees on both sides of the road as aforesaid, and another notch a distance above the other two. And any road that leads to a church, shall be marked at the entrance into the same, and at the leaving any other road, with a slip cut down the race of the tree, near the ground. Any road leading to a ferry, and dividing from other public roads shall be marked with three notches of equal distance at the entrance into the same.
Maryland’s Three Notch Road road led to a ferry three hundred years ago. The ferry disappeared, lost to history long ago, while the name of the road carried the legacy forward. It’s difficult to picture that idyllic scene today. Suburbia continues to nibble away at an historically rural landscape.
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Three Notch’d or Three Chopt Road in Central Virginia has been studied extensively. It ran originally from Richmond across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the valley (the true "almost heaven"). I’ve marked the portion that continues to retain its basic path and identity into the present. U.S. Route 250 and to a lesser degree Interstate 64 follow the old Three Notch’d road fairly faithfully. A marker in Charlottesville commemorates its historical significance:
Three Notch’d Road – Also called Three Chopt Road, this colonial route ran from Richmond to the Shenandoah Valley. It likely took its name from three notches cut into trees to blaze the trail. A major east-west route across central Virginia from the 1730s, it was superseded by Route 250 in the 1930s. Part of Jack Jouett’s famous ride and the Marquis de Lafayette’s efforts to prevent Gen. Charles Cornwallis from obtaining munitions took place along this road. Today West Main Street and part of University Avenue approximate the Three Notch’d Road’s original course through present-day Charlottesville.
Jack Jouett, as every kid who went to elementary school in Virginia knows, was the Commonwealth’s version of Paul Revere. He alerted Thomas Jefferson, then Governor of Virginia, that British troops were on the way to capture him in 1781. Just as Plymouth overshadows Jamestown, Revere overshadows Jouett. Nonetheless, Virginia’s Three Notch’d Road had its brief moments of fame.
I searched the VDOT article for the significance of the road’s three notches. I found references to the name being applied for the first time in the spring of 1743. The notches were an intentional name for a primary route applied in a manner similar to numbers on major roads today. Three Notch’d Road was the colonial equivalent of an Interstate highway with a numerical designation.
The source dispelled other theories:
Since the word ‘notch’ is a synonym for ‘gap,’ it is possible that the ‘three notches’ may have referred to the three gaps accessible from this road, but this is purely conjectural as the main road down the Valley was originally marked with ‘two Knotches and a cross.’ The occurrence of the name Three Notch’d Road as early as 1743 would seem to effectually squelch the tradition that the three notches referred to George III since he did not become king until 1760.
I’ve actually been on Three Notch’d Road more times than I can count. Oddly, the name never registered on my mind until I began my investigation for this article.
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The Andalusia Star News discussed a Three Notch Road that "ran from Pensacola to Fort Mitchell in Russell County, Alabama." I’ve marked an approximate segment of the route as it exists today, extending from East Three Notch Street in Andalusia, AL to North Three Notch Street in Troy, AL to the tiny hamlet of Three Notch.
The road connected Pensacola, Florida with a fortification set far inland on the eastern edge of Alabama in 1824 — Fort Mitchell (map). The Creek War with Alabama’s native American population had taken place only a decade earlier. Hostilities still simmered and the United States Army established garrisons in the wilderness to protect settlers. In turn, those fortifications had to be supplied. That was the purpose of Three Notch Road.
As the article explained, "Since there were no steamboats on the Chattahoochee River at the time, the army had to transport troops and supplies from Pensacola to Ft. Mitchell by land through Indian Territory." It further noted that, "Capt. Daniel E. Burch marked the route using three notches on trees for a crew under Lt. Elias Phillips to follow" during construction.
The name of the road led to speculation about its origin. One legend said that General Andrew Jackson, who came through the area at various points during his expeditions and battles with native Americans, may have left three notches as he beat a path through the bush. The road was named at a later date, as the story goes, for Jackson’s notches. However, several of the sources I consulted viewed this as both speculative and insupportable. The evidence simply doesn’t exist.
The notches were left behind to guide a road construction crew according to the most probable explanation.
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Three Notch Road was the first route blazed into Missouri by settlers of European descent. A great resource discussing this situation already exists on the Intertubes, the Southeast Missourian’s Drive on the Oldest Road in Missouri complete with a well-done Google map. I can’t add much to it. Feel free to skip my summary and jump directly to that source if you like.
The origin traced back to 1735 when France controlled much of the vast North American interior. They’d discovered lead a few miles north of present-day Fredericktown, Missouri and began digging at Mine La Motte in 1717. Three Notch Road connected Mine La Motte, in the middle of nowhere at the time, with the settlement of Ste-Geneviève on the Mississippi River. No road would have been constructed through this incredibly isolated wilderness had it not been for the mine. "La Motte" translates "root ball" if online tools can be relied upon, so this may have been the Root Ball Mine. Maybe one of the French 12MC readers can provide a better translation.
As for the triple notches, the article explained, "it was common to mark minor roads with one notch, secondary roads with two notches, and major roads with three notches." Thus, this would have been a major road of great significance according to the definition.
I found references to other Three Notch Roads (as an example). I didn’t have time to research this topic any further although I know they are out there.
I posted an article a few days ago that I called The Other White House. I thought I was being rather topical by posting it on Presidents Day, featuring a bunch of White Houses that shared nothing in common with the famous one in Washington, DC except for a name. I felt pretty smug, maybe clever even, then gave myself a pat on the back and called it an evening. Except I was wrong.
A reader with the curious name "Saint Cad" brought the error to my attention:
To be pedantic, it was not Presidents’ Day in the US. It is true that Nixon tried to have the holiday name changed to honor all Presidents but it failed in Congress. The holiday is still officially Washington’s Birthday.
To which the U.S. Government Office of Personnel Management, when I chased-down their interpretation, confirmed in wonderfully bureaucratic fashion:
This holiday is designated as "Washington’s Birthday" in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law.
I suppose I could make some lame excuse that I was referring to one of those "state and local governments and private businesses" when I called it Presidents Day. However I didn’t know it was officially George Washington’s Birthday, a sad statement on my part since I’m usually the master of useless trivia. Saint Cad was entirely correct. The 12MC fact checkers will be sacked.
Flickr by clio1789 via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license
I will now rewrite the article in recognition of Saint Cad, changing the title to "The Other Mount Vernon" to reference President Washington’s estate on the Potomac River (map). However I’m going to twist my usual formula. I’ll provide only a single example instead of the usual three or four. Then I’m going to make everyone sit through one of my silly travel anecdotes. That’s right. Feel free to mention 12MC deficiencies and then risk invoking storytime.
I’m being sarcastic of course. I don’t mind anyone catching my mistakes. I make lots of them so there are plenty to go around. You still have to listen to my story, though.
Mount Vernon, Illinois
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The City of Mount Vernon in Illinois is a fairly significant place with about 15,000 residents. Its history page notes that the town, "was originally to be called Mount Pleasant but, after heated discussion, the name was changed to Mount Vernon in honor of George Washington. It was common at that time to name towns after Revolutionary War Heroes."
The Interstate Highway System has been kind to Mount Vernon. It’s perched at a major crossroads, south of Chicago on I-57 and between St. Louis and Louisville on I-64. That’s why I stopped in Mount Vernon. It’s next to the Interstate. Now it’s time for the story.
I volunteered to help my wife drive from her university residence to her parents’ house back before we were married so she could come home for part of the summer. I guess her parents didn’t trust me yet because her little brother came along for the ride. Mount Vernon was about the halfway point on a two-day drive so it was convenient to stop there for the night. Her parents had made arrangements ahead of time for a motel room that they’d booked at a bargain price.
Those were the days before TripAdvisor and Street View. The motel, well, I guess one could describe it as placed on the wrong side of the tracks. It looked like a prop from an episode of COPS. It was a bit run down although not too bad otherwise, a typical 2-story vintage motel with rooms facing outward towards the parking lot and a balcony walkway on the front.
We were sitting on the second-floor walkway directly outside of our room, sipping a couple of beers on a warm summer evening after a long day on the road. We spotted a middle-aged man, highly intoxicated, weaving and stumbling his way along the sidewalk. He was heading towards a honky-tonk, a windowless cinder block shack with a solid front door. He turned to enter the bar and – WHAM! – walked straight into the wall. Fell right over. Then got up and opened the door like nothing ever happened.
We’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the story over the years with the in-laws ("remember the time you put us up in that seedy neighborhood with the drunk that walked into the wall?").
I never said it was a great story.
That’s my sole memory of Mount Vernon, Illinois. I’m sure it’s a lovely town otherwise. I went onto Street View and I’m 95% certain I know the location although the honky-tonk seems to have been demolished. The 5% chance of slandering the wrong motel prevents me from posting its exact coordinates.
Presidents Day Washington’s Birthday.
I stumble across the most fascinating bits of information in unexpected places. It happened this time as I examined the unusually-wide median strip between the eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate 8 in southern California. I learned of a nearby oddity further down the highway while reviewing various roadfan websites.
A motorist will encounter the lowest overland elevation in the entire Interstate Highway System just to the east of the extreme central reservation I’d discovered earlier. It is listed as 52 feet (16 meters) below sea level by the U.S. Government’s Federal Highway Administration.
It’s not the lowest elevation of any road of any type within the U.S. — that’s Badwater Road in Death Valley which provides access to the lowest public restroom in North America (~ -282 ft, -86 m) — just the lowest natural point of elevation in the Interstate Highway System. It’s still pretty impressive, though.
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This happens in the vicinity of Exit 107 where I-8 crosses the New River. Notice the channel. The road dips down here as it crosses the river over a short bridge. Where, I wondered, could the New River be flowing if it was already more than fifty feet below sea level here? Certainly it would not be flowing to the sea. It much be part of an endorheic basin, and indeed that is the case.
The New River begins in Baja California, Mexico where it’s known as the Río Nuevo. It passes through the wonderfully conjoined portmanteau cities of Mexicali and Calexico. From there it flows under the I-8 bridge west of El Centro, and on to the Salton Sea. The surface elevation of the Salton Sea is -226 ft (-69 m) so whatever flows along the New River won’t leave the Salton Sea on its own unless it’s able to evaporate.
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That’s a problem. This Street View image from the point of lowest Interstate elevation shows one of the most polluted bodies of water in the nation. Sewage, pesticide-laden agricultural runoff, and industrial waste from businesses located along the ditch then dump into a basin without an outflow. Toxins and pathogens collect in extreme concentrations, creating a most foul situation. Those driving at high speed along I-8, crossing this point of lowest elevation, likely never consider the drawbacks of this dubious honor.
Let’s put one more asterisk onto the claim. There are other places along the Interstate Highway Systems with a lower elevation. However, they are located in tunnels. A similar situation exists in Canada.
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The Intertubes claims that the Fort McHenry Tunnel carrying I-95 traffic through Baltimore, Maryland represents the absolutely lowest Interstate elevation at 107 ft (33 m) below sea level. It passes in close proximity to historic Fort McHenry, as implied by the name, the battlefield site inspiring the Star Spangled Banner. It then drops below Baltimore Harbor. I’d post a Street View image except that the interior of a tunnel isn’t exactly the most exciting scenery available (check for yourself if you must).
While the exalted position of the Fort McHenry tunnel seemed to be conventional wisdom for the cyberspace masses, it was not the only candidate offered. I discovered numerous other claims. I could not, however, nail-down a definitive source. Another option included the I-93 Thomas P. "Tip" O’Neill Tunnel, part of the Big Dig project in Boston, Massachusetts. The I-64 Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel in Virginia was also mentioned frequently. I know we have several roadfans who read 12MC regularly so hopefully someone can provide a proper citation and we can put these issues to rest. I’ve driven through all three of these tunnels so I’m covered no matter how it turns out. Funny, I never realized I was experiencing a true geo-oddity during any of my transits.
I’ve never driven on I-8 through California though. I look forward to experiencing both the wide median and the lowest overland elevation someday.