It adorned a cliff on the Maryland side of the Potomac River across from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (map). I’d seen it dozens of times over the years, a constant presence as I toured the town or rode my bike along the C&O Canal Trail. Its smoothed painted surface cracked over the years, the letters faded, and I never could tell exactly what it said from a distance. I’d seen a Ghost Sign.
This type of advertising used to be quite common as the 19th Century crossed into the 20th. Nobody thought twice about slapping some pigment on a wall, a barn, or in the case of Harpers Ferry, upon nature itself. This unknown author chose a prime spot on an outcrop known as Maryland Heights, scaling down the precarious ledge to apply his commercial message. Back during the Civil War, Union and Confederate forces both occupied the heights at various times, ringing it with artillery. They wanted to control the highest point of elevation above a key town at a major river confluence. An advertiser claimed those same heights a generation later although for a peaceful purpose.
From her house on High Street in 1906, Clara Riley watched as sign painters created a huge advertisement, out of a milk and whitewash mixture, on the side of the mountain. Mrs. Riley remembered the year because she was in labor with her first child while the sign was being painted.
The sign could be seen practically everywhere in Harpers Ferry. More importantly, everyone riding a train on a heavily traveled railroad line saw an advertisement for "Mennen’s Borated Talcum Toilet Powder" just as they entered a tunnel directly below the sign. That’s what it said, as I learned.
Apparently people in an earlier era liked to purchase a tongue-twister of a product called Borated Talcum Toilet Powder. I think it lost some of the superfluous wording later and simply became Talcum Powder. Meanwhile, the Mennen brand continued to exist, now owned by Colgate-Palmolive. In recent years they made a popular deodorant called Mennen Speed Stick. Then in the early 1990’s they practically sparked an entire musical genre when they marketed a deodorant to teenage girls called Teen Spirit. Smells Like Teen Spirit!
Frankly, I hadn’t paid much attention to Ghost Signs. I’m not even sure how the subject popped into my mind for a Twelve Mile Circle article. Other people took it very seriously, though. They fixated on it with the same intensity as my obsession with county counting. I could respect that. After all, these signs became the subject of a popular website, a Twitter account with more than 5,000 followers, and a Flickr group with more than 30,000 images. The popular press also expressed an interest, for example in articles from The Guardian and The Independent. Ghost signs completely eclipsed my humble efforts on 12MC.
Clearly something in those signs sparked such intense devotion. They acted as connections to earlier times, fading a little bit further as each year passed. They were survivors. However, ghost signs also seemed ephemeral, like on any given day someone might return to find their favorite sign gone. A nostalgia formed around them. Some have been fortunate and have been saved from destruction as cherished historical artifacts. Many more will disappear. I know that I’ll keep a better eye out for them now that I’m tuned in to the phenomenon.
For instance, I’ll stay on the lookout for the Lincoln Hotel and Butte Special Beer sign on Park Street (map) if I’m ever in Butte, Montana.
The name Sam Roberts came up often as I researched ghost signs. He, apparently, began cataloguing them worldwide about a decade ago from his base in London. Often he listed his favorite example as the sign for Black Cat Cigarettes on London’s Dingley Road (map). Regrettably, he reported the loss of that mural in September 2016, covered up by a new building constructed next to it. Another wonderful ghost sign lost.
A mine is a hole in the ground owned by a liar (attributed to Mark Twain).
I began some initial planning for a brief county counting trip to West Virginia that I hope to undertake in a couple of months. Examining potential routes, I noted a county called Mineral that I would hit in some of the likely scenarios. I’d crossed into Mineral before, as recently as last year, right across the north branch of the Potomac River from Cumberland, Maryland. I’d never really thought about it at the time. Now I wondered, how did Mineral gets its name? What mineral came in such abundance to deserve its own county?
I also found three more Mineral Counties, a total of four. They seemed interesting in their own ways.
Many minerals came from the mountains surrounding Creede (map), the local seat of government in Mineral County, Colorado. However, silver put it on the map. Prospectors came to Colorado first for gold beginning in 1859 and then for silver a decade alter. Colorado underwent a protracted Silver Boom during the last three decades of the 19th Century. Booms jumped from place to place, the final one happening in Creede in 1890.
The town leapt from a population of 600 in 1889 to more than 10,000 people in December 1891. The Creede mines operated continuously from 1890 until 1985. Creede’s boom lasted until 1893, when the Silver Panic hit all of the silver mining towns in Colorado. The price of silver plummeted and most of the silver mines were closed. Creede never became a ghost town, although the boom was over and its population declined.
Robert Ford also lived in Creede. Ford originally belonged to Jessie James’ criminal gang and reputedly killed James to collect a reward in 1882. He died in Creede in 1892, shot in the back by Edward O’Kelley. O’Kelley came to be known as "the man who killed the man who killed Jesse James." A policeman, Joe Burnett, shot and killed O’Kelley in Oklahoma City in 1904. That made Burnett "the man who killed the man who killed the man who killed Jesse James." The chain stopped there. Burnett died of a stroke in 1917.
Mineral County, Montana felt so superior that it named the county seat Superior (map), although it may have been named for the founder’s hometown in Wisconsin. Gold became Mineral’s namesake mineral originally, triggered by a rush on nearby Cedar Creek in 1869. However silver also existed in abundance.
The history of Mineral County is steeped in the tales of rich gold and silver mines. From the first mining efforts in the early 1860s to the present day, mining has been important to the people who first settled here and to those who now live in this county. Today, people still actively work mining claims, which are an important part of the county economy and heritage.
Neither gold nor silver made the greatest contribution to Mineral County history. That distinction went to sheets of paper in the form of a Bible’s printed word. Gideons International placed its very first Bible in the Superior Hotel in Superior, Montana. A Gideon named Archie Bailey stayed at the hotel regularly and sought permission to place a Bible in each of the hotel’s 25 rooms in 1908. Gideons followed that simple act with another 2 billion Bibles left in hotel rooms around the world for the next century and counting.
Hawthorne Army Depot
Twelve Mile Circle featured a town in what later became Mineral County, Nevada, in Aurora: A County Seat in Two States. Simultaneously! I’ll summarize the situation briefly. Gold brought prospectors to the area in 1860. The border between California and Nevada left a lot to be desired and both states claimed the same strip because of its mineral wealth. A later, more definitive survey placed Aurora in Nevada although it didn’t matter in the long run because everyone abandoned Aurora when the gold ran out.
Mineral County survived because of its other important feature, a bunch of nothing. What better place for the Federal government to locate the largest ammunition depot in the world? It covered 147 thousand acres (230 square miles; 600 square kilometres). Hawthorne Army Depot (map) grew around Mineral’s county seat at Hawthorne on three sides. It dated back to 1930 and continues to operate today, underpinning the entire economy of the county.
Mineral County is on the left bank of the river. My own photo.
None of the other Mineral Counties rivaled the one in West Virginia with its nearly 30 thousand residents (map). Ironically, I found fewer stories about this one than any of the others. The mineral in question may have been iron ore or maybe coal. However, coal derived from organic material so it didn’t actually meet the definition of a mineral. Neither did I find any cool stories. Sure, George Washington owned some of the land, and some minor Civil War action happened there. The same could be said for nearly every other county within a couple hundred miles.
Several places named Hurricane — all found far from a coastline — interested me a few weeks ago. From there I wrote a simple article I called Inland Hurricane. I also wondered if the same peculiarity extended to other weather phenomena so I began to search for more. I found mixed results. Even so I still uncovered some interesting stories so I considered the effort a success.
The Hurricane article mentioned a town in West Virginia. It didn’t surprise me to see a Tornado included within the same state (map). I love West Virginia for its awesome names. Kentucky too. Those two seem to compete with each other for the most outlandishly creative place names.
Tornado ceased to be Tornado for several years. According to the Charleston Gazette Mail, an unnamed local resident complained about the name and the U.S. Board of Geographic Names changed it to Upper Falls in 2010. This referenced a series of small rapids along the Coal River just outside of town. However nobody bothered to check with the rest of the community. They preferred the original Tornado by a wide margin, a name used since 1881. That began a big kerfuffle involving lots of local politicians and the name reverted back to Tornado in 2013.
I never did discover why Tornado became Tornado back in 1881. It could have come from the whirling water of the nearby rapids. Maybe an actual tornado blew through there long ago. Who knows?
Rain am Lech, Germany, at night
Imagine the difficulty of finding information about a German town called Rain (map). Nearly all of my searches ran into stories and photos of actual heavy precipitation in Germany and precious little information about the town sharing the name. Finally I learned through trial and error that I could search for "Rain am Lech" and get decent results. The River Lech ran through Rain just before its confluence with the Danube.
The biggest thing to happen in Rain probably occurred in 1632 during the Thirty Years War. This conflict pitted Protestant against Catholic forces as the Holy Roman Empire crumbled. War raged for more than a decade across central Europe before Swedish general Gustavus Adolphus pushed towards Bavaria and up to the banks of the River Lech. His opponent, Count Johan Tzerclaes of Tilly and the Catholic League occupied the opposite bank in a defensive position. Gustavus Adolphus used withering artillery and superior tactics to breach the river, and pushed into Bavaria to threaten Austria. Tilly died of wounds a few days later. War would continue for many more years.
Unfortunately I didn’t understand German well enough to find the etymology of Rain. I started sensing a pattern with my second failure.
I felt certain however that Saudi Arabia’s Ha’il (%u062D%u0627%u0626%u0644) didn’t get its name from falling ice. Ha’il was both a region and a town (map), with more than a half-million people in its larger area. I thought I’d find a lot more information about a place with so many inhabitants and yet little existed even on Arabic language sites. It had some old castles, lots of wheat fields and a university. The Saudi tourism site included an overview:
When visiting Ha’il you can travel through the countryside in 4x4s, mountain climb in Nafud Al Kabir, or head west of the city to explore the mountaintops of Aja… It is a beautiful setting where visitors can see a variety of wildlife and take memorable photos, climb mountains, take hikes and enjoy nature and animals in a natural environment.
Google Translate suggested that the English equivalent of %u062D%u0627%u0626%u0644 might be something like obstacle or barrier. The town began as a fortress along an important caravan route. Could that have been the origin of its name?
Finally, I found a place with a clear, unambiguous origin. Officially a body of water in southwestern Montana went by the name Earthquake Lake (map). Most people shortened it to Quake Lake. I loved that rhyming name; it had a certain poetic style. An actual, genuine earthquake formed this lake too. According to the US Forest Service,
It was near midnight on August 17th, 1959 when an earthquake near the Madison River triggered a massive landslide… over 80 million tons of rock crashed into the narrow canyon, blocking the Madison River and forming Earthquake Lake. This earth-changing event, known as the Hebgen Lake Earthquake, measured 7.5 on the Richter scale. At the time it was the second largest earthquake to occur in the lower 48 states in the 20th century.
The lake’s formation came with a sad price. Twenty-eight people died during the quake that created it.