Label Me Elmo

On March 11, 2014 · 1 Comments

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.

Truckin’ Through California

On February 12, 2013 · 1 Comments

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.

Calexico/El Centro

View Larger Map

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

View Larger Map

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.


View Larger Map

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.

National Forest

View Larger Map

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?

Would You Believe?

On March 18, 2012 · 7 Comments

Have you ever dropped into Google Street View and found terrain that just didn’t "look right," that differed from your expectations? I think we all have stereotypical preconceptions of how a place is supposed to appear, especially if we’ve never fully explore the area in person. Below is the image that surprised me a few days ago. See if you can guess the location. I guarantee you’re very familiar with its name. One could always hover a cursor over the image and reveal the answer instantaneously, but why spoil the fun? Scroll down when you’re ready for the answer.

View Larger Map

It’s Los Angeles, California. I’ll confess I cheated just a little bit. It’s the county of Los Angeles (map) as oppose to the City of Los Angeles (map) which is also part of the county. Still, a resident of this desert patch in the farthest reaches of northeastern Los Angeles County could say with a half-straight face that she lives in Los Angeles. Those not familiar with the area tend to forget just how far it sprawls, and that it’s not solely oceanfront, palm trees, traffic jams and endless subdivisions. Nearly ten million people live in Los Angeles County, but not in this corner.

Ready from another one? I’ll follow a similar pattern. I’ll post the image first and the answer below it. Scroll past the image when you’re ready and see if your mind took you in the proper direction. Remember, it’s not as it seems. The immediate answer will always be incorrect although other subtle clues may reveal it.

Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty at New York - New York Hotel and Casino
SOURCE: Flickr via Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

I’ll start with an easy one. Let’s begin with the premise that it’s not the real Statue of Liberty. How many fake Statues of Liberty could there be? More than I imagined, actually. I had to use a Flickr photograph instead of Street View because it would have become too obvious (see what I mean?). This version is a half-scale replica standing in front of the New York – New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The U.S. Postal Service admitted that it printed three billion postage stamps with the image of the wrong Statue of Liberty in 2011, the one in Las Vegas instead of the actual Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. An eagle-eyed stamp collector noticed certain differences in facial features and hair style. Linn’s Stamp News broke the story and it spread to the mainstream news media. The New York Times reported,

You might think that the post office would have just gone with the original, the one off the tip of Lower Manhattan that for 125 years has welcomed millions of New York’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Instead, they accidentally used the 14-year-old statue that presides over thousands of weary gamblers a week.

Context, of course, makes all of the difference. Only an expert can tell the difference when pertinent visual clues have been removed.

A Day in the Park

View Larger Map

What could be nicer than a day in the countryside on a lovely green lawn? Would you believe a lovely lawn in the middle of the inhospitable Australian Outback? One generally considers the Outback to practically define rugged, remote and dry. Nonetheless thirty-thousand people live Alice Springs in the Northern Territory deep within that expanse. They certainly deserve to have an attractive facility like the Jim McConville Oval where they can play "softball, junior baseball, slo-pitch, cricket, football" and the like. It’s odd to see a patch of sod in the desert, and in fact, swing the street view image around and notice how dry it appears elsewhere.

Chinese Arch

Ver mapa más grande

You’ve probably got the hang of this game now. It’s not China and I’d venture that many of you already concluded that it must be Chinatown. But which one? This one happens to be in Mexico City, which I did not realize had a Chinatown until I wrote this. The arch can be found near Barrio Chino which is centered nearby along Dolores Street. Many Chinese immigrants came to Mexico at the turn of the last century for many of the reasons they also came to the United States: as an abundant labor supply, particularly for railroad construction. The Chinese community has largely assimilated into the larger Mexican population and Chinatown today has been reduced to a couple of blocks.

English Town Square

Shanghai - Thames Town
Flickr via Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license.

I desperately wanted Google Street View imagery for this location so I could wander through it vicariously but Google doesn’t provide that type of coverage in this country yet (hint). Welcome to Thames Town, not somewhere in England but an area of Songjiang Town near Shanghai, China. That’s nowhere near its namesake but right along the Yangtze River instead. This is a 21st Century housing development built intentionally in an English architectural style. They even have a website which is almost legible when run through translation software.

The Guardian featured Thames Town in an article prior to its construction,

With a fake turreted castle and at least one windmill, there is a danger that the site in Songjiang could turn into a British Disneyland that might serve as a monument to the excesses of Shanghai’s overheated property market. But the architects say they are designing a working community.

That ideal does appear to have been delivered judging by photographs available through the Intertubes.

Classic Mosque

Größere Kartenansicht

Where could this be? It’s very clearly a mosque with minarets but it’s not located anywhere near the Middle East. This is the Berlin Mosque (Die Moschee, Berlin), the oldest mosque in Germany and dates to the late 1920’s. It was damaged but not completely destroyed during World War II and renovations are still underway even today.

I’m sure the 12MC audience can find other unusual juxtapositions like the ones I’ve highlighted. Please feel free to post them along with a map links in the comments.

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