A weird pattern emerged as I researched an article a couple of months ago and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Was it a geo-oddity or simply an oddity? Would it fit within the subject matter of 12MC? Would some readers find it too bizarre? Ultimately I decided I could focus on a tenuous geographic connection and shoehorn the topic into a suitable article.
Consider the following list of people and determine their commonality: Richard Nixon, Malcolm X, Andy Warhol, Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and Joey Ramone. Think about it for a moment if you’d like or continue reading and let the answer reveal itself. Being a native New Yorker might be helpful.
The answer wasn’t a list of attendees from the world’s strangest cocktail party. It was something more permanent. Would it help if I mentioned that I was working on Presidential Death Locations when I encountered the list?
They all died at the same hospital.
Joey Ramone, Godfather of Punk Rock by Tony Fischer, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
The topic was morbid enough that I considered saving it for Halloween. However I tried something like that last year and apparently I enjoyed the resulting article a lot more than the Twelve Mile Circle audience. It didn’t receive much attention and it fell pretty flat, just another example demonstrating my inability to predict audience reactions.
Indeed, a big list of famous people all died at the same hospital in New York City (map). I found that fascinating. Maybe some of you did too, maybe the rest of you did not.
I discovered two more salient points as I continued with my research. First, Wikipedia produced some rather remarkable lists when I searched it for "notable hospital deaths." Admittedly, I stole liberally from Wikipedia because nobody had yet created a definitive collection of celebrity deaths sorted by hospital (and here I though everything was available on the Intertubes). Second, very few hospitals had a meaningful collection of notable deaths. Clusters were confined to places where famous people of various stripes congregated during their lifetimes, limited primarily to New York City and the greater Los Angeles area. That made sense.
Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City, New York
Wendell Wilkie campaigns in Mass. by Boston Public Library, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Lenox Hill Hospital (map), a teaching hospital for various universities and also in Manhattan, began in the 19th Century as the German Dispensary. The name changed to Lenox Hill during the First World War when it was fashionable to whitewash every possible remote connection to Germany. Lenox Hill didn’t have quite the eclectic pedigree of notable deaths as displayed by NewYork–Presbyterian although it still had a pretty impressive spread including Wendell Willkie, Ed Sullivan, Alvin Ailey, Alger Hiss and Nipsey Russell (politician, showman, dancer, spy and comedian).
Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, Burbank, California
Walt Disney statue at Disney World. My own photo.
Quite predictably, celebrity deaths at hospitals in the Los Angeles metropolitan area tended to skew towards show business personalities. That still provided a wide spectrum. Case in point, if one were to consider a fictional dinner party in the afterlife, imagine a guest list including Walt Disney, Corey Haim, John Ritter, and Ronnie James Dio. They all passed away at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank (map). The location was particularly convenient for Walt Disney as he sought treatment for lung cancer. The hospital was directly across the street from Walt Disney Studios.
John Ritter had the added distinction of being born at the hospital and passing away at the same place 54 years later. I imagined the list of celebrities who arrived into this world and departed for the great beyond at the same location must have been rather short. That’s your 12MC trivia for the day.
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, California
003la by Mike Atherton, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Oddly enough, Twelve Mile Circle featured Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (map) in a previous article, Comedy Duos, that focused on the intersection of two streets, Burns and Allen. As I noted at the time, "The intersection’s full name was N George Burns Road and Gracie Allen Drive. Burns and Allen were major benefactors of the hospital."
Cedars-Sinai was dubbed "Hollywood’s Glamour Hospital" by the Hollywood Reporter. Its list of celebrity patients stretched for pages and naturally some of them never recovered. Groucho Marx, Andy Kaufman, Eazy-E, Frank Sinatra, and Ernest Borgnine all spent their final moments there.
I’ll display Elmo one final time, just like in Counterintuitive Saints, even though this article will have absolutely nothing to do with Sesame Street. Why? Because that’s what 12MC wants to do at the moment. How often does one get to feature Elmo?
Elmo, not St. Elmo
Own photo, taken at 2013 White House Easter Egg Roll
I should probably recap some other salient points from the earlier article while I’m at it. First, St. Elmo (St. Erasmus) was the patron saint of sailors and abdominal pain. However a different St. Elmo — a fictional title character for a wildly popular romance novel written by Augusta Jane Evans in 1866 — happened to inspire multiple places and geographic labels in the United States during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. I’m sure enthusiast of Victorian-era literature could draw uncountable comparisons and inferences between the book and its title character, the fictional St. Elmo Murray, and the historical saint of mariners and intestinal distress. I’ll ignore that entire perspective and stick with geography.
Seriously though, many different sources listed St. Elmo as one of the best selling U.S. novels of the Nineteenth Century, contending for popularity with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur. My education must have been horribly deficient because I’d never heard of the book until last weekend. I wondered if my situation was a spectacular case of ignorance and forgetfulness, or if St. Elmo simply fell so far out of favor over the last century as to become completely obscure. It’s disconcerting.
Anyway, let’s go examine some objects named for the book.
St. Elmo Estate
St. Elmo Estate, Columbus, Georgia, USA
Evans finished writing St. Elmo at the home of her aunt, Mary Howard Jones, in Columbus, Georgia. Mary was the widow of Seaborn Jones, a former U.S. Congressman, who had passed away a few years earlier. Seaborn Jones commissioned this estate in 1833 and named it El Dorado.
Researchers familiar with St. Elmo and its author believed that its fictional estate, La Bocage, was based largely upon the Seaborn Jones property. A subsequent owner even changed the name from El Dorado to St. Elmo as a tribute.
While it must have been a grand estate during its heyday and while the vintage home remains quite impressive, the surrounding acreage succumbed to typical suburb. The only notice of the estate’s exalted place in American literature is an historical marker in front of the property and nearby St. Elmo Drive (map).
That was just one example, and a fairly logical one. Augusta Evans Wilson, 1835-1909: A Biography, By William Perry Fidler (1951) noted a near-frenzy of more unusual designations.
There were steamboats and railway coaches named "St. Elmo." Many southern towns had "St. Elmo Hotels," and at least two villages were named for the book. There was a "St. Elmo" punch, a very strong "St. Elmo" cigar, and several blue-ribboned dogs named "St. Elmo." Many country estates or city mansions were called "La Bocage" after the Murray estate in the novel. A remarkable number of children have been christened Edna Earl, for the heroine, or St. Elmo.
Readers can explore the various St. Elmo towns on their own using GNIS. I’ll focus on some other possibilities.
St. Elmo Historic District
St. Elmo Historic District, Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA
Chattanooga, Tennessee included a St. Elmo Historic District named for the book, "nestled in the valley of Lookout Mountain below the curling stretch of the Tennessee River known as Moccasin Bend." A page maintained by the District claimed that "Evans had spent several summers on Lookout Mountain and found the view similar to that of St. Elmo Castle in Naples, Italy." She apparently did visit Lookout Mountain at least once during the Civil War although I never could corroborate "several summers" or the Castle claim.
St. Elmo Cigar Company
Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, California, USA
This location was much more difficult to finger. First I had to find the St. Elmo Cigar Company, which probably disappeared about a hundred years ago, and then follow it back to its exact location. Eventually I stumbled upon the Los Angeles Herald, 3 September 1905 courtesy of the California Digital Newspaper Collection.
… manufacturers of high grade clear Havana cigars and dealers in leaf tobacco, the plant of the company being located in the massive four story brick building at 216 Central avenue… brands of clear Havana cigars made by the company are "St. Elmo," "Senator White," "Sample Case" and "La Corona."
A "massive four story brick building" no longer existed anywhere along the 200 block of Central Avenue in Los Angeles (street view). Times changed. That area later became Little Tokyo.
St. Elmo Hotel
St. Elmo Hotel, Ouray, Colorado, USA
I found numerous historical references to multiple hotels named for St. Elmo in the decades immediately following publication. The only example that still seemed to be standing with its original name was the St. Elmo Hotel in Ouray, Colorado. As its website mentioned,
Construction started on the St. Elmo.. in the spring of 1897 and was completed the following spring… The hotel was the miner’s hotel… The St. Elmo Hotel is one of the few hotels in the region that has enjoyed almost continuous operation, and today operates as a small finely maintained nine room bed and breakfast inn.
This hotel would have been built, named and operated during the correct era. However I couldn’t find that one final piece of evidence to tie the name to the novel. Even so it probably remained the leading candidate for that possibility.
I really wish I could have found a recipe for St. Elmo punch, too.
This has absolutely nothing to do with the Grateful Dead although they were indeed from California and noted for Truckin’. It is literally about trucks in California. Feel free to listen to Truckin’ in the background if that would make you happy though.
It all started out more grandiosely. I recalled a particularly awful drive on Virginia’s Interstate 81 last November where it seemed like every other vehicle on the highway was a truck. Some were driving with extreme aggression and well above the posted speed limit. The rest were poking along well below the limit. I grew increasingly aggravated as I slalomed between them.
That incident later inspired an online quest to find a highway with the highest percentage of trucks primarily so I could forever avoid it. That quest continues. I haven’t given up that search. Meanwhile I do have an answer for California. I found a great page from the California Department of Transportation. I was able to download a spreadsheet of annual average daily truck traffic in 2011, which I then sorted appropriately to determine all California state highways with more trucks than cars. It happens rarely. Only a small handful of places throughout the state met that standard. Imagine the nightmare of routes where more than half of all vehicles are trucks, not "seems like it" but genuinely so, consistently, day after day, forever.
Of course I plotted the offending locations. I found it fascinating that almost all of them happen near borders.
View California Truck Routes in a larger map
I examined each area and I tried to determine what might account for an overabundance of truck traffic, paying particular attention to apparent clusters.
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The top spot went to Rt. 115 at its junction with Rt. 78 in Imperial County. Trucks composed an astounding 81.9% of recorded vehicle traffic passing this point in 2011. That is such an amazing statistical outlier — no other point in the California managed to crack even 60% — that I had to wonder if it might have been a typographical error. I checked the math and it seemed to work. Nearby, Route 98 at Cole Road in Calexico also scored high with 56.36% trucks.
All truck traffic crossing from Mexico into the United States along this particular stretch of the border uses the "Calexico East" Port of Entry. That might explain Route 98. I’m not sure it explains Rt. 115. It doesn’t seem to follow a logical path between the port of entry and the outside world. Farms and fields surround the junction. Maybe trucks address some sort of agricultural purpose here instead?
Los Angeles/Long Beach
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This one seemed more straightforward. The adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the two busiest container ports in the United States. Add their volume together and they handle three times the cargo of the next busiest port, New York/New Jersey.
Two spots nearby both hit 57.52% truck traffic, on Rt. 47 where it crosses the Commodore Heim Lift Bridge and shortly thereafter where Rts. 47 and 103 split. Notice their placement on the map above. They are practically equidistant between two very active ports. A massive volume of containers heads in-and-out at any given time and this route serves a good option. It’s a wonder truck percentages weren’t higher.
Maybe the brief stretch of Interstate 40 from Needles, California to the Arizona state line falls within this same cluster, even though it’s completely across the state? The highway provides a straight shot between the ports and several distant metropolitan areas including Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Amarillo and even Oklahoma City. The southeastern interior of California wouldn’t account for much local traffic, and containers originating in Asia would need to roll east in a steady stream to distant inland cities.
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I was going to guess that truck traffic near Bakersfield might be serving agricultural needs until I drilled-down to the exact spot. The junction of Rts. 58 and 33 happens in McKittrick, which falls outside of the fertile San Joaquin Valley. The terrain looked rather rough and pretty much dug-up by human activity. Thank goodness for Wikipedia and the likely explanation:
The town is in the center of a large oil-producing region in western Kern County. Along State Route 33 to the south of the town is the Midway-Sunset Oil Field, the second-largest oil field in the contiguous United States; within the town itself, as well as to the west is the McKittrick Field; to the northwest is the huge Cymric Field; and along Highway 33 beyond Cymric is the large South Belridge Oil Field, run by Aera Energy LLC. East of McKittrick is Occidental Petroleum’s Elk Hills Field, formerly the U.S. Naval Petroleum Reserve.
I don’t know if every truck passing through here serves the oil industry, however it seems like a plausible reason for much of the 55.55% truck volume, absent further evidence.
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Of all roads with greater than 50% truck traffic, only Route 161 in Siskiyou County fell outside of southern California. It’s about as far away from the others as possible. The anomaly recorded 55.25% truck traffic at the far northern extreme of the state. There might be an agricultural reason because of nearby farms. There might also be another reason, forestry: Winema National Forest, Fremont National Forest, Modoc National Forest, Shasta National Forest and Klamath National Forest are nearby as are areas accessible to commercial logging. Maybe the trucks are hauling logs?