Last Chance

Speaking of odd town names (we were just speaking of those, weren’t we?), what about Last Chance? Every place deserved a last chance, I supposed. The U.S. Geographic Names Information System listed more than three hundred of them. Many — no surprise — aligned with mining claims. Also they frequently referenced ditches, streams and gulches, probably running near those old mines. However that wasn’t always the case. A handful of populated places rose to the top of the list too. It took an unusual outlook on life, I figured, for someone to name a settlement Last Chance.

Last Chance, Colorado

Last Chance, CO (0)
Last Chance, CO. Photo by Michael Sauers on Flickr (cc).

Colorado’s Last Chance clung to life, just barely. It sat about 80 miles (130 kilometres) due east of Denver (map). Truly, a straight shot. Head straight north of Denver and hit Fort Collins, or straight south and hit Colorado Springs, or straight west and, well, hit a wall of mountains. Straight east should hit something more important than a hamlet on life support.

The original settlers of Last Chance probably felt the same way. Travelers driving through Colorado’s empty eastern plains to and from Denver took the straightest possible path during the early automotive period. Back then, Last Chance served as a literal last chance for motorists to refuel, grab a meal, or sleep in an actual bed anywhere between Denver and a vast nothingness. The town’s name became a marketing tool and a warning. Stop there or suffer the consequences.

The Ghost Town website summarized the rise and fall of Last Chance quite succinctly.

Last Chance was a town that grew up with the automobile and died when the interstate took the traffic south to I-70. It was a busy center for travelers in the 1940s and 1950s, and probably earlier than that.

Indeed, Interstate 70 heading east from Denver took a distinct southeastern curve about 30 miles (50 km) short of Last Chance before turning east again. Last Chance couldn’t survive that cruel routing.

Last Chance, Oklahoma

Last Chance Baptist Church
Last Chance Baptist Church
via Google Street View, July 2016

I couldn’t find any information about how the Last Chance in Oklahoma earned its name (map). The settlement seemed to simply vanish. It wouldn’t surprise me if the US Geological Survey dropped it from the database entirely someday. Only the Last Chance Baptist Church remained behind as a reminder. By the way, Last Chance might be the best church name ever. That choice positioned it perfectly as the final opportunity for redemption before banishment to the fiery pits of Hell. It gave sinners one last chance.

A post office didn’t exist in Last Chance as far as I could tell, if indeed one ever existed there. Addresses in Last Chance bore the postmark of nearby Okemah. Nothing much important happened in Last Chance although Okemah registered a minor brush with fame. Okemah had a famous native son, the legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie born there in 1912. An oil boom began around that time in the same general area, leading me to wonder if perhaps Last Chance got its name from the boom somehow?

Last Chance, Iowa

The Last Chance of Iowa fared about as well as its counterpart in Oklahoma. Here, the sole remaining sign of its existence was a cemetery. While I liked Last Chance as the name of a church I disliked it as a cemetery (map). A final resting place seemed to signify the end of any remaining chances. Last chance? More like no chance. At least I learned how it got its name, though. I found a website about cemeteries in Lucas County that offered a surprising amount of information. I was really impressed by the detail it presented about such an obscure location.

Last Chance is one of those Lucas County place names that, because of its oddity, generates stories. But the truth seems to be that its first storekeeper, William McDonald McHenry, named it offhandedly after it occurred to him that he was living in a place that didn’t yet have a name… he said, "Let’s call it Last Chance." And they called it so, more in a joke than in earnest…

Last Chance sat favorably along the Mormon Trail. Thousands of Mormon emigrants and many others walked the trail during the middle of the 19th Century. Some travelers moved their households without any pack animals, becoming a special category of Mormons called the Handcart Pioneers. Then the transcontinental railroad opened. Last Chance disappeared because of the railroads. The typical story prevailed. Railroads, long the lifeblood of small rural villages in the Heartland, all bypassed Last Chance. Decline later led to collapse.

I found additional Last Chance settlements in Idaho, California and North Carolina. However, even less information existed about any of them. It seemed that every Last Chance was down to its last chance if any of them ever had a chance at all.

Center of Power

Pioneers migrating into the central sections of the United States during the Nineteenth Century found a unique opportunity to shape their governance. Counties formed across the prairie in precise straight lines, with the local seat of government often platted somewhere conveniently in the middle. Names bestowed upon these geographic slices frequently reflected prominent local businessmen or national politicians or even Native Americans that had been displaced in the process. Sometimes their names represented more practical considerations. Nothing would be more unimaginative than naming a centrally-located county seat Center or some variation.

I found several such county seats. Invariably their etymologies reflected their central placement within a surrounding county. That failed to excite me so I took it for granted and tried to find something more interesting, something actually worth mentioning. I investigated a few and left the rest for others.

Center, Shelby Co., Texas

Welcome to Center
Welcome to Center by J. Stephen Conn on Flickr (cc)

I began with Center (maps), the seat of government in Shelby County, Texas, because that’s where I first noticed the trend. It inspired the search for others. One of my favorite sources, The Handbook of Texas included an anecdote about its status.

In an election called in January 1866 Center was voted the new county seat, but a number of people disputed the results, and no action was taken for some months. Finally, in August of that year some Center residents stole the county records and moved them to Center, thereby permanently establishing Center as the county seat.

Shelby was one of the original counties dating to the founding of the Republic of Texas. The town fell within a gray, somewhat lawless area during that time. Vigilantes ran roughshod through Shelby and Center during an era that became known as the Regulator-Moderator War, "a feud in Harrison and Shelby counties in the Redlands of East Texas from 1839 to 1844."

Center also happened to sit about eleven miles from Shelbyville. Simpsons fans would understand the significance of that because Shelbyville was a town neighboring Springfield. One could add Center to the long and tenuous list of possible settings for Springfield, the fictional hometown of the Simpsons.

Central City, Gilpin Co., Colorado

Central City, Colorado
Central City, Colorado by Jasperdo on Flickr (cc)

The "Richest Square Mile on Earth" (map) commonly described the layout of Central City, Colorado once the 1859 gold rush put it on the map:

John Gregory discovered "The Gregory Lode" in a gulch near Central City. Within two weeks, the gold rush was on and within two months the population grew to 10,000 people seeking their fortunes. William Byers, founder of the Rocky Mountain News, and some companions pitched their tents on open ground squarely in the center of the mining district. Thus Central City was born and was soon the leading mining center in Colorado.

Many of those old Western boomtowns crashed after prospectors stripped everything of value from the soil. Central City faced similar challenges and hoped to find salvation in a different form in the late 20th Century; gambling. The town attracted several casinos. Their neighboring town, Black Hawk, came to the same conclusion and also courted high rollers. Unfortunately for Central City, only one road led into town from Denver and that’s where most of the gamblers lived. Drivers had to travel through Black Hawk first and most of them never even made it to Central City. That wouldn’t last. Central City built a new road, an expressway, several miles long that bypassed Black Hawk and attached directly to Interstate 70 in 2004.

Centerville, Hickman Co., Tennessee

Grinder's Switch Depot
Grinder's Switch Depot by Brent Moore on Flickr (cc)

The usual story. Centreville fell at the approximate center of Hickman County. It was also the hometown of comedian Minnie Pearl and it featured heavily in her comedy routines albeit under a different name. I imagined many 12MC readers wouldn’t be familiar with her trademark appearance and catch phrases. Perhaps a snippet from her biography from the Country Music Hall of Fame might set the proper context:

Minnie Pearl, a member of the Grand Ole Opry cast from 1940 until her death in 1996, was country music’s preeminent comedian and one of the most widely recognized comic performers American culture has ever produced. With her straw hat and its dangling $1.98 price tag, her representation of herself as a man-chasing spinster in the small town of Grinder’s Switch, TN, and her great-hearted holler of "How-DEE! I’m just so proud to be here" as she took to the Opry stage, Pearl became an icon of rural America even as she lovingly satirized its ways.

She’d been born Sarah Ophelia Colley in 1912 in Centerville where her father owned a successful lumber company. The future Minnie Pearl enjoyed watching lumber from her father’s sawmill being loaded onto rail cars on a spur track that attached to the main railroad. The side track was known as Grinder’s Switch (map) — a real place near Centerville — that she later incorporated into her humorous routines as a proxy for a generic hillbilly backwater. It became an integral part of her fictional persona. In reality Ms. Colley was a well-educated college graduate from a prosperous family.

Centerville, Appanoose Co., Iowa

Centerville, Iowa, East State Street
Centerville, Iowa, East State Street by photolibrarian on Flickr (cc)

The county seat for Appanoose Co. deserved a special mention for what it was not; the Centerville name didn’t relate to its location (map). Or did it?

Several sources including A Dictionary of Iowa Place-Names insisted that the original name had been Chaldea and that its new name was supposed to be Sentorville or Senterville in recognition of a Tennessee politician/minister (possibly William Tandy Senter). The story explained that the town filed incorporation papers in the 1850’s and a bureaucrat somewhere along the line mistook Senterville for a spelling error and "corrected" it to Centerville. It would be hard to imagine someone creating such an oddly specific story and yet the namesake politician never had anything to do with Iowa. Oh, and Centerville was platted smack-dab in the middle of Appanoose County. That seemed like too many interesting coincidences.

The Complete List

I found a total of fourteen county seats with a Center theme (including the ones described above) that served as local seats of governments for the counties that surrounded them.

  • Alabama: Centre, Cherokee Co.
  • Alabama: Centreville, Bibb Co.
  • Colorado: Central City, Gilpin Co.
  • Iowa: Centerville, Appanoose Co.
  • Maryland: Centreville, Queen Anne’s Co.
  • Michigan: Centreville, St. Joseph
  • Minnesota: Center City, Chisago Co.
  • Missouri: Centerville, Reynolds Co.
  • Nebraska: Center, Knox Co.
  • Nebraska: Central City, Merrick Co.
  • North Dakota: Center, Oliver Co.
  • Tennessee: Centerville, Hickman Co.
  • Texas: Center, Shelby Co.
  • Texas: Centerville, Leon Co.

I can’t promise that this list recorded every example because I compiled it by hand. It should be close, though.

Kansas Mountain Time

Loyal reader Mr. Burns pointed out that my intended Dust Bowl route will traverse a psuedo-geo-oddity, moving from Central Time to Mountain time heading due north. That happens in other places sporadically, although not as rarely as moving east from Mountain Time into Pacific Time for example. One can’t be too choosy in this depopulated corner of the nation so I will take what I can get. Mildly unusual works for me.

The whole concept of Mountain Time in Kansas feels strange. Maybe it’s the name. The thought of referencing jagged peaks to a Great Plains state like Kansas seemed alien and out of place. Nonetheless, four of Kansas’ 105 counties on its westernmost edge do in fact observe Mountain Time, and there were many others that did the same in previous decades.

View Larger Map

Most interstate travelers probably enter Mountain Time in Kansas while driving along Interstate 70, about 35 miles before they hit Colorado. Look closely at the image and notice the green sign announcing the change. Mountain Time intrudes into Sherman, Wallace, Greeley and Hamilton Counties. I will likely clip only the southernmost of those counties, namely Hamilton. Even the small rural road I plan to use appears to have a time zone notice (street view) so it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Time Zones are defined in Title 49 of the United States Code of Federal Regulations, which deals with Transportation. That’s an historical artifact reaching back to the rise of railroads dependent upon standard times to define passenger and freight schedules. According to the Department of Transportation, standard times were created in 1883 (and each location could select its preferred time), then switched to Federal oversight in 1918 via the Interstate Commerce Commission, and finally shifted to the Department of Transportation in 1966 upon its creation.

49 CFR 71.1 clearly defines the Kansan portion of Mountain Time for those who simply must know the pertinent details.

(d) Kansas-Colorado. From the junction of the west line of Hitchcock County, Nebraska, with the Nebraska-Kansas boundary westerly along that boundary to the northwest corner of the State of Kansas; thence southerly along Kansas-Colorado boundary to the north line of Sherman County, Kansas; thence easterly along the north line of Sherman County to the east line of Sherman County; thence southerly along the east line of Sherman County to the north line of Logan County; thence westerly along the north line of Logan County to the east line of Wallace County; thence southerly along the east line of Wallace County to the north line Wichita County; thence westerly along the north line of Wichita County; thence westerly along the north line of Wichita County to the east line of Greeley County; thence southerly along the east lines of Greeley County and Hamilton Counties; thence westerly along the south line of Hamilton County to the Kansas-Colorado boundary; thence southerly along the Kansas Colorado boundary to the junction of that boundary with the north boundary of the State of Oklahoma.

View Larger Map

Consult a map and it’s easy to understand why a few Kansas counties continue to cling to mountain time.

Goodland, Kansas, a town within Mountain Time and sitting astride I-70 is located 200 miles (322 km) east of Denver, the capital of neighboring Colorado. Likewise, Goodland is 344 miles (554 km) west of Topeka, the capital of Kansas, and 406 miles (653 km) from the state’s largest metropolitan area, Kansas City. Clearly Goodland had an incentive to skew towards Denver rather than Kansas City. Nonetheless the bump can lead to time confusion. The best, in fact the only article I found that addressed this situation came from the Rocky Mountain News in 2008 — "Clock Change a Daily Challenge in Part of Kansas." It’s worth a read.

View Mountain Time in Kansas in a larger map

Mountain Time in Kansas shifted farther west over the past century. It used to run much closer to the 100th Meridian, a traditional division between east and west not only in the United States but also in Canada. Notice the current area of Kansas in Mountain Time (shaded) versus the boundaries recognized by various railroads in 1908, the black lines. Railroads focused on their tracks and not on the surrounding countryside so it’s difficult to reconstruct an exact historical time zone boundary line. The dark horizontal lines should be viewed as rough approximations exaggerated in length to enhance visibility.

View Larger Map

Dodge City was one of those places on the boundary a hundred years ago. The town and its residents observed Central Time, which was their prerogative during the period before Federal oversight. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad defined time a little differently. They drew a line precisely through the Dodge City railway station. Trains heading east from this point recognized Central Time. Trains heading west recognized Mountain Time. The railroad constructed two large decorative sundials on either side of the figurative line to recognize the distinction, a visual reminder to passengers and crew alike. Those some sundials still stand at the station today, recently restored, a relic of a period when Mountain Time cut much deeper into Kansas. Both sundials appear in the satellite image.

I couldn’t find a photo with a Creative Commons license to embed on this page so feel free to open a new tab to view one on Flickr. They wanted to charge $35 for a license to embed it here. Sheesh!

The momentum is pushing all of Kansas into Central Time although the four holdout counties don’t seem to be in much of a hurry.

Completely Unrelated

I know there are a couple of beer geeks in the audience. You may want to check out my Findery post about my recent visit to the smallest brewery I’ve ever seen.