Loess

On August 13, 2013 · 1 Comments

What do Council Bluffs, Iowa, the Battle of Vicksburg and the Yellow River all have in common? Loess.

Loess comes from the German löß, and has a common root with the English word, loose. It’s a geological term for a light silty dust blown by the wind that accumulated into thick layers and hills. These deposits, often taking on a pale yellowish-brown or buff color, are capable of covering huge territories with a blanket of dust hundreds of feet thick, formed over numerous repeated cycles of water and wind.

I first became aware of loess at the appropriately named Loess Hills of western Iowa, a remarkable example of this type of formation. My in-laws lived in a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska at the time, on the Iowa side of the river. Their home was located atop one of the hills. This was near the city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, where the "bluffs" of the city’s name were comprised of loess (they even hold an annual Loessfest each year).



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Notice the terrain east of the Missouri River floodplain. These are part of Iowa’s classic Loess Hills area. Anyone driving along Interstate 29 through here can look to the east and glimpse these unusual sedimentary hills at pretty much any random place. They may not seem terribly remarkable until one ponders their interesting geological history and compares them to the flatness of much of the rest of this part of North America.


Loess Hills Ridge
SOURCE: Loess Hills Ridge by FordRanger, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license

As the Iowa Department of Natural Resources explained,

The Loess Hills of western Iowa were formed from 20,000 to 10,000 years ago of finely ground windblown silt from the glacial deposits. As the Pleistocene glaciers melted, the Missouri Valley became a major channel for tremendous amounts of water. Each winter season, as the quantity of melt water was reduced, large areas of flood-deposited sediments were left exposed to the wind. Silt, clay and fine sand were lifted by the wind, carried to the east and deposited.

Particles of loess display some interesting and unusual properties. Their angular structure combined with a propensity for extreme crumbliness and quick erosion results in characteristic bluffs with steep ridges and and rapid drop offs, as displayed in the photograph. Yet, loess is extremely stable when dry and held in place by prairie grasses. The Loess Hills of western Iowa tower up to 250 feet (75 metres) above the Missouri River floodplain quite contently until people cut into the hills for their own purposes. Any soil exposed directly to the elements quickly crumbles away.

I would hear residents remark about the uniqueness of their Loess Hills whenever I visited the area, although "unique" isn’t completely correct. They’d always append a qualifier to their description, "except for some place in China." The place in China was never named, however to their credit they understood that loess formations were unusual.

They were on the right track. The two most significant deposits of loess happen in western Iowa and in China, although the phenomenon can be found to lesser degrees in many other parts of the world. The whole reason it’s called loess rather than loose (or some variation in a Chinese dialect) is because the term derived from deposits found in Germany’s Rhine River Valley, as just one example.

There are even other places with loess in the United States, for instance the eastern bank of the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, Mississippi. An vital element of the 1863 Battle of Vicksburg during the U.S. Civil War — the siege of Vicksburg — took place when Union troops could not dislodge Confederate forces dug-in securely atop the steep loess bluffs along the river. The siege lasted more than a month until Confederate troops exhausted their supplies and had to surrender.

What about China, though?

China’s equivalent of the Loess Hills is called the Loess Plateau. As noted by Wikipedia, it covers 640,000 square kilometres (250,000 square miles)… "almost all of Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces, as well as parts of Gansu province, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region." That’s about the same size as the U.S. state of Texas, or the Canadian Provinces of Alberta or Saskatchewan!



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It’s particularly prevalent along the upper and middle Yellow River watershed. It is loess that contributes the characteristic yellow color to the Yellow River.

Jeff Davis

On April 14, 2013 · 11 Comments

I received an interesting query from loyal reader "Katy" via the 12MC Google+(1) account the other day. She was looking for examples of towns that were named after people that included the namesakes’ first and last names.(2) Several possibilities came to mind and one name in particular, Jefferson Davis, kept recurring.

Jefferson Davis — which I’ll mention primarily for the international audience less familiar with United States history — was the first and only President of the Confederate States of America (1861-1865). His name still invokes a wide spectrum of reactions based upon specific points of view about the Civil War, the Confederacy, Reconstruction and the evolution of the New South. I won’t wade into that topic except to note that different parts of my family fell onto both sides of that conflict so I’m abundantly aware of the range of considerations. I’ll take the cowardly exit and focus solely on the use of Jefferson Davis as a geographic identifier.

The largest territorial expressions of Jeff or Jefferson Davis occur at the U.S. county level: Jeff Davis Counties in Texas and Georgia; Jefferson Davis Parish in Louisiana; and Jefferson Davis County in Mississippi. Additionally there is a Jeff Davis Township that is a part of Little River County, Arkansas. Their formations tend to cluster chronologically at either side of the flip between the 19th and 20th Centuries; far enough removed from the Civil War to not seem treasonous while close enough to be a part of the emotional fabric of people directly involved.



View Jeff Davis in a larger map

Jeff Davis County, Texas

Texas was part of the Confederacy, however it seemed odd to find a county named for Davis so far out along the western edge of this immense state. It actually hearkens back to an earlier history, though.

The direct association between Jefferson Davis and the Civil War is so strong that his earlier life often goes unnoticed. Davis graduated from the prestigious U.S. military academy at West Point, fought as a Colonel in the Mexican-American War, served in the US Congress, and completed a term as Secretary of War during the Franklin Pierce administration (1853-1857). The county in Texas drew indirectly from Davis’ term as Secretary of War.

Fort Davis was established in west Texas in 1854 to protect travelers along the San Antonio-El Paso Road who were being attacked by Native American tribes including the Mescalero Apache (defending their homeland). The fort was named for the Secretary at the time, Jeff Davis. That was nothing unusual. Nobody could predict how his role would change.

Confederate forces captured Fort Davis without firing a shot in 1861 in what would certainly be an important symbolic victory albeit the Union Army wasn’t much of a threat in this remote corner. The Handbook of Texas, published by the Texas State Historical Association noted that the real threat were actually the Mescalero Apache who were described as "unimpressed" by the change of leadership at the fort. Confederate forces abandoned the fort a year later after ongoing harassment and ambushes led by the Apache.



McDonald Observatory; Jeff Davis Co., TX — View Larger Map

Jeff Davis County is notable for a couple of other reasons:

  • It shares a border with Mexico at a single point; a nearly impossible capture for county counters who adhere to every border variation.
  • It’s home to the Davis Mountains which the handbook of Texas called the "highest mountain range located entirely within the state of Texas," and also named for Jeff Davis. McDonald Observatory was built in the dark skies of the Mount Locke summit at 6,791 feet (2,070 metres) and is accessible by the "highest state maintained road in Texas."

Jeff Davis County was established in 1887. One could argue whether the name truly referenced the antebellum Jeff Davis or reflected lingering Confederacy nostalgia, however, it’s undeniable that a prior connection existed.


Jeff Davis County, Georgia

I wish every state had its own version of the Handbook of Texas. It would make research a lot easier. My problem with Texas was culling and summarizing (a nice problem to have); with Jeff Davis, Georgia I had a deficit of information. What little I found confirmed that the county was named for the former Confederate president in 1905.



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Jeff Davis Co. was an outgrowth of Appling and Coffee Counties. It was necessitated by the growth of the town of Hazlehurst which became the seat of government for the new county. Hazlehurst started as a rail town during the Reconstruction era and grew from there. The town’s history page noted: "Georgia’s 142nd county would have been named Cromartie County if not for a custom to name counties only after deceased citizens." John Cromartie was Appling County’s state legislative representative, and very much alive at the time, while Davis had passed away in 1889.


Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana



Birthplace of Louisiana Oil Industry – View Larger Map

Jefferson Davis Parish in Louisiana came into creation within the same basic time period, 1912. It was one of five parishes carved from what was known as "Imperial" Calcasieu Parish, a behemoth of more than 3,600 square miles. I couldn’t find much more information about the circumstances of its naming, although I will note that I’m fascinated by a couple of completely unrelated bits of trivia:

  • This is part of Acadiana – Cajun Country – so it’s interesting to see a departure from French to a Confederacy theme.
  • Jennings, a town in Jefferson Davis Parish, is credited as the birthplace of Louisiana’s oil and gas industry based upon the first oil well placed on the Mamou Prairie near Evangeline in 1901. "To date, over 220,000 wells have been drilled in Louisiana." Here’s a slightly less known fact: that first well, the Heywood #1 Jules Clement well, was actually over the border in neighboring Acadia Parish (map). Just sayin’.

Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi

Jefferson Davis represented Mississippi both as a member of the House of Representatives and as a United States Senator. It’s not unexpected that Mississippi created a Jefferson Davis County in 1906. The African American population of said county was 57.38% in the 2000 Census, though. I’m a little puzzled that the name hasn’t been changed.



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Beyond the borders of Jefferson Davis County and farther south along Mississippi’s Gulf coast in Biloxi stands Beauvoir, the home where Jefferson Davis spent his final years. It is also the site of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. Both properties were damaged extensively in Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, and the library is scheduled for its grand re-opening in June 2013 after extensive renovation.

I don’t have the ability to discuss all 115 geographic features named either Jeff Davis or Jefferson Davis in the US Geological Survey database, although they include mountains, valleys, streams, reservoirs, buildings and schools. A surprising number of them are located outside of the traditional Southern states, too.


(1)12MC is pretty active on Google+ and Twitter; consider joining up if you enjoy Twelve Mile Circle. Those outlets allow me to share items that don’t make it onto the pages here. Links are available at the top of the page and in the column to the right.
(2)Katy offered Maxbass, ND and Carol Stream, IL. I’m still exploring possibilities and will likely feature this in a future article. Feel free to add other examples in the comments and you may find yourself mentioned on 12MC!

Just Keep Turning

On February 10, 2013 · 16 Comments

I think it’s time for another participatory article. The 12MC audience seems to its like little puzzles and challenges. I had to drive to a local shopping center a couple of miles from my home yesterday afternoon to pick up my wife. An Interstate Highway stood between the two locations, acting as a natural barrier, with no direct straight-line route between them. This created a situation requiring the use of several roads both to find an underpass below the highway and then to snake my way back to the desired endpoint.

Once back home again, it occurred to me that I’d taken 9 completely different roads to move from Point A to Point B. The detours and turns increased the driving distance to 3.2 miles (5.1 kilometres). Thus, with some quick math, my little trip involved 2.8 roads per mile (1.7 roads/km). That’s a lot of roads and a lot of turns in a very short distance. Certainly I could find better, though.

Reston, Virginia



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I’m hamstrung by my own neighborhood because it’s built on a grid. Usually that’s a good thing. The most efficient path between two points rarely involves anything more than maybe three or four roads. Only an odd situation such as an inconveniently placed Interstate Highway could raise the count so I needed to look elsewhere.

There are large planned communities on the outer perimeter of my area, built in the style of the now largely discredited cul-de-sac model of urban sprawl. Those seemed ripe for better examples. Some residents have to take multiple roads to get anywhere, even to exit their housing developments. I picked a particularly remarkable occurrence on the metropolitan edge, Reston, Virginia, and quickly improved my result. That’s not intended to pick on the fine residents of Reston of course — I could have selected any of several other communities — it was the first one that came to mind.

The result: 7 roads in 1.2 miles = 5.8 roads/mile (3.6 roads/km).


Kissimmee, Florida



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What might confound the road network more than a planned community like Reston? How about a gated community combining the effect of two awful design elements: cul-de-sacs and limited access. I seemed to recall numerous gated communities in and around Orlando, Florida, and quickly found two such communities adjacent to each other in Kissimmee to wonderful effect.

The result: 9 roads in 1.2 miles = 7.5 roads/mile (4.7 roads/km).


Hot Springs Village, Arkansas



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Then I got greedy. If a gated community produced a great result then the largest gated community in the United States should score even better! That place is reputed to be Hot Springs Village, Arkansas (albeit without a citation). Sometimes assumptions aren’t scalable and this one may be an example. It’s one gargantuan gated community, that’s obvious, with an absolutely spellbinding spaghetti network of roads. The various water features and golf courses also increased road complexity and raised my hopes. However it was more grid-like than it appeared at first glance, using circular patterns rather than rectangles. I generated a decent score although I couldn’t raise it up to the level of Kissimmee or beyond.

Incidentally, when does a gated community grow so large that the alleged benefits of gates become meaningless? Hot Springs Village is 55.7 square miles with a population of nearly 13 thousand. I would have to assume that at some point along the continuum it reaches a semblance of equilibrium with the outside world.

The result: 8 roads in 1.1 miles = 7.3 roads/mile (4.5 roads/km). Good, not best.


Diamondhead, Mississippi



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I discarded size and seized upon the obstacle element introduced by Hot Springs Village. What about a planned, gated community with the addition of internal through-road barriers such as golf courses? I have family that live along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and some of them are located in a community called Diamondhead that seemed to match the criteria. It’s a nice community that happens to have particularly weird streets. I nearly get carsick driving through Diamondhead with all of its crazy turns and switchbacks that drill to the depths of the development. In addition the oddity of Hawaiian-themed names in Mississippi has always confounded me although that’s not particularly germane to the topic today. I’ll just note the dissonance and move along.

I produced my best score yet. Just as importantly, I can reasonably expect to replicate this route in person some day.

The result: 8 roads in 0.8 miles = 10.0 roads/mile (6.2 roads/km); and a variation with 7 roads in 0.5 miles (map) = 14 roads/mile (8.7 roads/km) (if only Malino Place changed names at the T!).


The Contest and the Rules

It’s pretty simple. Try to improve upon 10.0 roads/mile. Feel free to use any of the communities I’ve explored already. I didn’t mine them exhaustively so better examples may be lurking in there. Alternately, feel free to examine places more familiar to you.

  • As always, the default route on Google Maps is the final authority. No additional manipulations are allowed. You can specify only the two endpoints (using lat/long to shorten the distance on the beginning and ending roads is fine).
  • A given road can be counted only once even if Google Maps says "bear left to remain on road X" or "turn right to remain on road Y" or "do a U-turn on road Z" or whatever. You’ll notice that I tossed the second instance of Manoo Street in my Diamondhead example (even though it approximated a turn)
  • Let’s not get silly. We can all find better examples using only three roads. I won’t place a minimum on the number of roads, however, anything with fewer than 7-or-so roads begins to lose credibility. The goal is to produce an example of ridiculousness without becoming a ridiculous example.
  • What if an arrow-straight road changes names multiple times as it crosses town boundaries? I guess it would count although it does conflict with the spirit of the effort. That might be a good idea for a different contest, though.
  • You may conduct your examination using whatever measurement of distance makes you happy. Use chains, nautical miles or astronomical units for all I care, however, please convert your calculations both to miles and kilometres when presenting results. Google has easy converters (e.g., mi to km and km to mi).
  • The results need to be repeatable. Provide the map link or embed the map itself within your comment.
  • In the event of a roads/mile tie, the "better" result will be the one that involves more roads. In other words, 20 roads in 2 miles would be a lot more impressive than 10 roads in 1 mile.
  • Extra kudos will be bestowed upon anyone who has actually walked, biked or driven the submitted route in person.

I would say that any example meeting or exceeding double-digit mileage results (10.0+ roads/mi) or an equivalent (6.2+ roads/km) is pretty impressive. You should feel free to pat yourself on the back and call it a day. I know that my best score can be improved upon however, and I wonder by how much. I need to find a community shaped like a maze or the capital on an Ionic column.

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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