Heartland, Part 5 (Not Just Farmland)

On June 22, 2017 · 1 Comments

A previous article in this series noted the abundance of farmland with little else to be seen during my Heartland excursion. That didn’t provide a completely accurate picture. Variations appeared in unexpected ways although I needed to travel to the margins to find them. We charted our course purposefully. It allowed us to experience a few geological features that maybe didn’t fit cleanly into notional images of the American Midwest. Not everything out there fell within endless fields to the horizon.

Lots of Farmland, Of Course


Rural Iowa

Even the endless farmland offered scenic beauty although its prevalence sometimes made me wish for something else. I began to take it for granted. At some point towards the end of the trip I realized I hadn’t done much to capture its simple elegance. Then I had trouble finding a good subject. Suddenly this barn appeared along a quiet rural byway. It embodied what I’d been sensing all along in thousands of different places throughout the journey. The architecture seemed peculiar to eastern Iowa where I spotted it, and to adjoining western Illinois. The barn itself appeared fairly standard. However I couldn’t recall seeing a similar cupola — or whatever one might call it — quite like it in other parts of the country. I guessed it helped lift hay bales into the loft.


The Beach


Michigan City

Our journey reminded me once again of the magnificent sand dunes on the eastern and southern flanks of Lake Michigan. I recounted the geology last summer when I explored outside of Grand Rapids. Essentially, glaciers melting at the end of the last Ice Age left a lot of debris behind. Winds and waves pushed glacial drift eastward, forming those wonderful sandy beaches of Indiana and Michigan.

Back home, I would never try to drive to the beach during Memorial Day weekend even though the Atlantic Ocean beckoned only a couple of hours away. I’d pick a more obscure day to miss the crowds and traffic. Somehow, even though I should have known better, I failed to grasp that Lake Michigan served a similar purpose for ten million people living in the Chicago metropolitan area. The lake, with its massive size, looked a lot like an ocean with smaller waves and fresh water. Throw in sand dunes and pristine beaches, and it completed the illusion. Feel free to insert sarcastic remarks about Easterners and their ignorance of places beyond their noses if you like.

Thank goodness for Waze. It took us around the worst of the traffic heading into Michigan City, Indiana and saved us at least an hour. I still carried my trusty paper map as a backup although technology certainly saved the day this time. It allowed us to visit the beach at Washington Park (map).


Lighthouses


Michigan City Lighthouse

Actually, I targeted Michigan City for its lighthouses. The combination of Indiana and lighthouses seemed odd, and yet a few lighthouses actually existed along its Lake Michigan shoreline. I collected lighthouse visits, another one of those things I counted compulsively, so it led us that way. Michigan City included two lighthouses, one a museum and one a functioning navigational aid. The beach was just a nice bonus.

A land speculator wanted to create Indiana’s first harbor in the 1830’s. He purchased a site where Trail Creek fed into the lake and he platted a town there. A proper harbor needed a lighthouse to guide ships into its port so he set aside room for that too. The first one didn’t work out as planned so another one came along in 1858 (map) and it came to be known as the Michigan City Lighthouse.

As shipping in Michigan City increased, primarily grain and lumber, a brighter light was needed to guide ships into the busy port. In 1858, the U.S. Government constructed a lighthouse using Joliet stone for the foundation and Milwaukee or "Cream City" bricks for the superstructure.

That’s the one in the photograph, above, the current home of the Michigan City Historical Society’s Old Lighthouse Museum.


East Pierhead Lighthouse

Then came the East Pierhead Lighthouse (map), also known as the Michigan City Breakwater lighthouse, built in 1904. The lens and lantern moved from the old lighthouse to the new one at that time, too. Lighthouse keepers continued to live in the earlier structure while tending the light at the end of the pier. Sometimes ferocious storms pummeled the lake. I imagined what it must have been like trying to scoot along that narrow catwalk from shore to tower as icy waves crashed across the pier. We visited on a day with a light chop and even then a little water pushed onto the concrete.


Canyons


Starved Rock

Canyons seemed unlikely as we drove across the flatness of central Illinois. Yet, Starved Rock State Park included them with abundance. Many features resulted from a cataclysmic event and an unusual geology. The Illinois River ran along the park’s northern edge. A great flood tore through there sometime around 15,000 years ago, an event called the Kankakee Torrent. Melting glaciers had formed a lake and it burst, scouring limestone along the riverbank. It carved huge bluffs in a matter of days. Wonderful scenic vistas crowned those same bluffs today (photo).

The park got its name from one of those bluffs. The explanation tied back to a legend, probably untrue although the story persisted. Supposedly, in some sort of dispute, a tribe of Native Americans besieged members of the Illini tribe who then sought refuge on a bluff. Surrounded, and unwilling to surrender, they died of starvation. The place became Starved Rock.

The park also contained several canyons behind the bluffs. Small streams carved into the limestone in wonderful terraces accompanied by waterfalls. French Canyon, named for the early European explorers of this area, became its most iconic feature (map). That’s the one in the photograph, above. Lots of people traveled to the park just to see that one attraction. It wasn’t much more than an hour away from Chicago, making Starved Rock the most visited state park in Illinois, with two million visitors per year.


Mighty Rivers


Heartland Marathon Series - Day 4

Of course I couldn’t fail to mention the Mississippi River, and the Illinois River was pretty impressive too. I’ve visited the Mississippi several different times in recent years including just a little farther downstream in April. I won’t bother to elaborate on its power again although I’ll note that I’ve always enjoy gazing upon it. Two of our races happened along the river on opposite banks. On one day the course went along a levee in Fulton, Illinois and the next day it did the same in Clinton, Iowa. I took this photo from the Illinois side (map).


Articles in the Heartland Series:

  1. Why, oh Why?
  2. How Not to See a City
  3. Foiled by Memorial Day
  4. Beyond Covered
  5. Not Just Farmland
  6. Americana

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Centers of Michigan

On December 8, 2016 · 2 Comments

For once I wasn’t looking for the geographic center of something, as problematic as that could be given various definitions. Not in Michigan. And for the record, the town of St. Louis claimed to be the "middle of the mitten." It moved to a spot a few miles north-northwest of Cadillac taking the Upper Peninsula into account. However, that was beside the point. Instead I came across two Michigan place names while searching for completely different things. Their similarities deserved closer scrutiny.

Center Line



Center Line, Michigan

Actually I started by investigating Warren, Michigan and I noticed a hole. A big one. A nice rectangle right in the middle of it (map). Naturally I drilled down and discovered the town of Center Line. The much larger city of Warren completely surrounded it. Center Line described itself as "a small close-knit community of 8,257 residents… nestled inside the state’s 3rd largest city"

Warren and Center Line both began as villages in a rural corner of Macomb County. However, Center Line incorporated first, becoming a city in 1936. Warren also started growing rapidly around that same time. Warren Township minus Center Line incorporated as a city in 1957. It simply exploded in population to the point that it completely overshadowed Center Line over the next couple of decades.

I also wondered about the name. There didn’t seem to be any line and it certainly didn’t seem to be the center of anything other than the city of Warren itself, which it predated anyway. The town’s website mentioned "several theories" which also meant nobody really knew the answer. The most plausible explanation seemed to be,

There were three Indian trails leading from the fort at Detroit to other trading posts in the northern wilderness. The first was the river trail which followed the river and ended at Port Huron; the second was the Saginaw trail and ended at Mackinaw at the Straits of Mackinaw. Through the center of the two trails, the Indians had beaten a trail which followed the "center line" [as observed] by the French.

The trail became Sherwood Avenue (map).


Michigan Center



Michigan Center, Michigan

Later I also discovered Michigan Center. Center Line and Michigan Center fell nowhere near each other. A good 85 miles (140 kilometres) separated them. Nonetheless finding a second Center in Michigan excited me. It doesn’t take much to get me going.

The name derived from the Michigan Meridian. Benjamin Hough surveyed the meridian in 1815, marking 84° 21′ 53″ west longitude. Settlers then moved into the area and platted Michigan Center a few years later in 1837. However, the meridian didn’t pass directly through Michigan Center. I measured it. The meridian ran between Michigan Center and the neighboring town of Jackson. I guess they figured it was close enough. Who would really know? Seriously.


Fort Defiance


Fort Defiance,  Defiance Ohio
Fort Defiance, Defiance Ohio. Photo by Tim Tonjes on Flickr (cc)

Then I went down a little tangent. I wondered why Hough followed such an odd longitude when he surveyed the Michigan Meridian. The line actually pointed farther south into a neighboring state. There stood Fort Defiance at the confluence of the Auglaize and Maumee Rivers (map). A town called Defiance, Ohio later grew up there.

General "Mad" Anthony Wayne built Fort Defiance in 1794.

Following the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Wayne utilized Fort Defiance as his base of operations. He ordered the destruction of all American Indian villages and crops within a fifty-mile radius of the fort… Until the War of 1812, Fort Defiance served as one of America’s western-most outposts in the Ohio Country and helped protect local citizens from American Indian attacks…

Fort Defiance also figured in the 1807 Treaty of Detroit. The United States negotiated the treaty with several Native American tribes, namely the Chippewa, Ottawa, Potawatomi and Wyandot. Land to the east of a line drawn due north of Fort Defiance came under American control. That’s why Hough needed to survey that line. It served briefly as an international boundary.

Another Last Stand

On June 19, 2016 · Comments Off on Another Last Stand

John Wilkes Booth‘s last stand was by no means the only infamous last stand. It got me thinking about a wide range of other events from the last couple of hundred years that might fall within the same general guidelines. Last stands happened in many places in many times. I selected a few from the multitude of instances available and fixated on them. Custer’s Last Stand, well, that would practically be synonymous with the definition of a last stand. In fact that was the first thing that popped into my mind as I expanded past Booth. Undoubtedly that notion would be the same for much of the Twelve Mile Circle audience. I couldn’t simply skip it — that would be a glaring omission — so George Armstrong Custer needed a closer examination.

Birthplace


Custer Monument in New Rumley, Ohio
Custer Monument in New Rumley, Ohio by Jayson Shenk on Flickr (cc)

The spot where Custer died, the place of his last stand, was considerably better known than his birthplace. I figured I’d have a difficult time finding it because I didn’t think anyone would really care except for maybe me and a handful of other people fascinated by such things. I guessed wrong. People apparently did care. In fact I even found a Custer Memorial Association in New Rumley, Ohio, at Custer’s 1839 birthplace. They operated a small museum "open the last Sunday of each month from 1:00 to 4:00pm." They also maintained a roadside park open year round on the site of the original Custer homestead, of which little remained except for the foundation of the house where he was born (map).


Childhood

However Custer spent much of his childhood in Monroe, Michigan, with the family of his half-sister.


Custer
Custer by Bill Harris on Flickr (cc)

The people of Monroe erected a monument to Custer after his death (map). He probably got a monument everywhere he ever set foot, or so it seemed, although some hadn’t fared well. Even the citizens of Monroe, a place where he spent much of his childhood, relocated the monument a bunch of times including sticking it out in the woods where vegetation overgrew it, before moving the statue to a more prominent part of town. Officially it was known as the George Armstrong Custer Equestrian Monument, alternately Sighting the Enemy.


Civil War


Gettysburg NBP - August 2008
Gettysburg NBP – August 2008 by Michael Noirot on Flickr (cc)

Famously, Custer finished last in his class at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. However it was 1861, the Civil War was just underway, and the military needed officers in a hurry so they pressed him into service anyway. He performed remarkably well once in a combat role.

Throughout the war Custer continued to distinguishing himself as fearless, aggressive, and ostentatious. His personalized uniform style, complete with a red neckerchief could be somewhat alienating, but he was successful in gaining the respect of his men with his willingness to lead attacks from the front rather than the back.

Custer quickly moved up the ranks, becoming brigadier general then brevet major general of the U.S. Army and finally major general of the U.S. Volunteers in quick succession. He was only 23 years old when he first became a general, the youngest in the army. Custer also served the entire lengthy of the conflict, from Bull Run to Appomattox. At Gettysburg, he commanded the Michigan Cavalry Brigade that was instrumental in stopping a Confederate cavalry attack on the Union army’s right flank. He got a nice monument for that too. Actually, the entire Michigan Cavalry Brigade earned the monument although Custer’s image appeared in a circular bas-relief sculpture just about half way up (map).

I mentioned all of that service because people tended to overlook his distinguished career and skip right to the ending.


The Last Stand


Custer's Grave at Little Bighorn
Custer's Grave at Little Bighorn by Jim Bowen on Flickr (cc)

Twelve Mile Circle is not a history website so I’ll only discuss the Last Stand briefly. There were plenty of other places on the Intertubes, or even entire books, where one could get a better account. Custer died on the battlefield near Montana’s Little Bighorn River in 1876 (map). The United States Army had a rule-of-thumb, naming battles for the nearest body of water during that period (e.g., the Civil War’s Battle of Bull Run and Battle of Antietam) so the engagement came to be known as the Battle of Little Bighorn.

The situation leading up to it brewed for a long time. The government had been forcing Plains Indians onto reservations for awhile by that point. Various elements of the Lakota and Cheyenne resisted fiercely, sparking a whole chain of events known as the Sioux Wars. The final outrage in the eyes of native inhabitants had been a sudden incursion of settlers into the Black Hills of what is now South Dakota. The Sioux considered this a sacred area that had been promised to them in a treaty. That quickly collapsed after word leaked out about gold found in the area. Many bands, fed up with broken promises, left the reservations in an effort to fight for their ancestral lands.

The government began a protracted, coordinated campaign to crush resistance. Custer hadn’t gone out there alone, he simple commanded one force amongst several crossing the plains from late 1875 and into the first half of 1876 trying to tame the rebellion. However Custer made a huge blunder. His aggressive personality that served him well during the Civil War compelled him to rush headlong into battle without understanding the true situation at Little Bighorn.

He thought he was attacking a small encampment. Instead he led 700 men from the 7th Cavalry Regiment headlong into a force three times its size. Sitting Bull’s forces quickly turned the tables and utterly destroyed Custer and his men in less than an hour. Casualties also included Custer’s two brother, Thomas and Boston. Later historical accounts by members of the tribes expressed complete bewilderment that Custer would attack them when they were so strong.

George Armstrong Custer lived only 36 years.

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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