Transporting a participant through a grueling six day, six state race series created a huge benefit for a geo-geek such as myself, the inherent need to cover a lot of territory. I’d driven through parts of the target area previously on a cross-country trip many years ago. I’d completed the typical tourist trek through Badlands, Mount Rushmore and Devils Tower on an Interstate 90 flyby in 1992. I didn’t have much of a chance to stop and linger during that long ago road trip. This time it would be different. I’d poke into completely obscure corners as dictated by race sites.
The series embodied two underlying premises, running and geography. The race director had to align six distinct events as close as possible to the confluence of multiple state borders to minimize travel distances, generating unusual selections removed from tourist trails. It served the needs of a very small and elite target audience; marathoners (and half-marathoners) who wished to complete a race in each of 50 US states. I held only one goal in common — the geographic portion — and that was enough. I was going to grab some rare spots on the map and leave the extreme athletic achievements to others.
We crossed a lot of state borders. Our efforts focused on passing between various small towns near state boundaries where each race would take place the following morning. Routes generally strayed away from Interstate highways although I did enjoy driving a completely legal 80 miles per hour (130 km/hr) briefly on I-90 as we left Wyoming.
I began to notice something peculiar on the lightly-traveled back country byways of the High Plains. There always seemed to be a pull-out by the side of the road at each state border where one could safely park a vehicle and walk to the boundary sign to snap a photograph. It seemed that highway officials recognized the precious few tourist attractions and went out of their way to turn anything noteworthy into a photo op. The next thing I knew, and without really trying, I’d compiled a collection of state border signs for Nebraska (above), Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota. The Nebraska sign (map) showed Chimney Rock which I will talk about in a future installment. I didn’t stop for Colorado. I’m not sure why, I think I was getting tired of the game by then.
I completed a personally memorable state milestone during the trip that I’d been chasing for awhile. I’d long since visited all 50 US states, completing that journey more than a dozen years ago. However a handful of those crossings involved lackluster efforts, barely placing a toe on the other side of the border. My Montana "visit" had been particularly egregious, a thirty second effort when I visited Yellowstone National Park on the aforementioned cross-country trip so many years ago. One of the races took place in Baker, Montana so I spent the night there. I also spent a night in South Dakota two days later, whereas previously I’d only driven across the state without stopping. With those two events, I could now say I’d stayed at least one full night in every state.
Amidon, North Dakota (map)
Notwithstanding, counties were the real stars of the trip as I colored a slew of hard-to-reach spaces on my county counting map. Our route zigged and zagged in counterintuitive directions as I steered across as many county borders as possible while eliminating doughnut holes. I realized I might not travel this way again anytime soon. This might be my only chance. I drew a nice, solid rectangle of captured counties on the eastern side of Wyoming and Montana, and the western side of North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, tallying 28 new counties in the process. My total stood at 1,301 at the end of the journey, 41.1% of counties in the United States.
As an example, the first race was held in Baker, Montana and the second race in Bowman, North Dakota. Here was the path I blazed between them.
Logic would have dictated an easy 45 minute straight-line drive to the east. Instead I drove three sides of a square for two and a half hours, capturing four new counties I would have missed otherwise: Wibaux, MT; Golden Valley, ND; Billings, ND and Stark, ND. Plus I got to visit the scenic badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. See how it worked?
That wasn’t even the most ridiculously contrived route, either. I think that honor went to day five when I drove between Chadron, Nebraska and the final race in Sterling, Colorado.
That little exercise converted a trip that should have lasted less than three hours into something extending nearly four and a half hours. However, I added four Nebraska counties that would have created a large doughnut hole otherwise: Sioux; Scotts Bluff; Banner and Kimball. The out-and-back portion also allowed me to visit Chimney Rock National Historic Site before returning to Scotts Bluff National Monument where I could cross additional county lines.
I also recorded several minor county milestone in the process.
- Counties, Plural. I have now been to counties — plural — in each of the 50 states. The fewest was Hawaii with two of five counties visited. I’m in the double digits for most states.
- Smallest of the Smallest: Wyoming had the fewest residents of any state during the 2010 Census, with a population of 563 thousand. Niobrara County had the fewest residents in Wyoming, with 2,484 people. Not only did I visit Niobrara, I stayed overnight in its county seat, Lusk. Granted there were counties in other states with smaller populations (e.g., Loving County, Texas with 82 residents). Still, I thought it was a memorable triviality to be in the least populated county in the least populated state.
- A Very Small Seat: We passed a curious sign as we drove south from the North Dakota badlands to the next race in Bowman, ND. Diminutive Amidon (map) perched along US Route 85 proclaimed itself to be the "Nation’s Smallest County Seat." Oh, and also North Dakota’s "Longest Running County Fair." I had to stop for a photo. Later I checked the claim. Wikipedia said Amidon was the smallest seat until 2010 when it was passed by Brewster, Nebraska population 17. Being the 2nd smallest seat didn’t bring the same glory, I guess, although the sign remained. At least Amidon still had the fair
Some 12MC readers recommended a visit to Carhenge since it would have fallen on the most direct route. I didn’t make it. Quite simply, county counting provided an explanation. Something had to give. I couldn’t leave any doughnut holes behind so Carhenge fell off the schedule.
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
Nearby I spotted an automobile with a Nebraska license plate, or more properly a "vehicle registration plate" I supposed. That wasn’t an everyday occurrence here in the Mid-Atlantic more than 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometres) from that Midwestern state. Often I’ve wondered what would bring a driver such a long distance from his home after I’ve spotted such an unusual plate. In the Washington, DC area it was generally someone serving in the military at one of the many local bases, although now I’ve started going down a tangent. Back to the point, it reminded me of one particularly fascinating feature of Nebraska’s plates, that they traditionally contained not-so-secret geographic codes within the identification scheme. That beautiful pattern began to break down in recent years and I’ll get to that in a moment.
NEBRASKA 1954 and 1965 —TRAILER LICENSE plates by Jerry “Woody” on Flickr (cc)
One could, and to a degree can determine the county where the driver lived when the vehicle was first registered. The state began issuing county-coded plates in 1922 and fixed its pattern on the current population. All plates issued within the most populous county began with with the number 1 and so on down to the 93rd county. The current enumeration at that time was the 1920 Census so Douglas County grabbed number 1 with with 204,524 residents. That made sense. The city of Omaha fell within Douglas County and it had a lot of people. Number 2 went to Lancaster County with 85,902 residents. Again, that made sense. Lancaster contained Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska, and naturally it had a lot of people too. The pattern continued all the way down to remote Hooker County with a mere 1,378 residents in 1920, designated thereafter with the number 93. Interestingly enough, that was the largest population Hooker County ever had; there were only 736 people living there in 2010.
Thus, in the image of the vintage Nebraska license plates displayed above, one could surmise that the top plate would have been registered to a vehicle in Douglas County (1) and the lower plate would have come from Keith County (68) towards the western side of the state.
Omaha by Pat Hawks on Flickr (cc)
I’ve never lived in Nebraska although I spent significant time there for maybe a five year period ending about a dozen years ago. I got pretty good at memorizing the license plate codes for counties surrounding Omaha because I’d see them fairly regularly. That’s why I was sad to hear about changes to the system as I researched this article. The system was already starting to break down because of specialty plates (a new one was announced just a few days ago to mark the state’s sesquicentennial) and personalized plates. However I’d stumbled upon a more direct assault, Nebraska Revised Statute 60-370.
I guess one could blame Nebraska’s growing popularity, particularly along the expanding edges of Omaha and Lincoln. Reserving the first digit for a 1 or a 2 would limited the number of unique combinations available on the rest of the plate. Plus there was Sarpy County to further complicate the situation. It’s diminutive 1920’s population earned Sarpy a lowly 59 on the list. It’s become a booming Omaha suburb in recent decades, growing at a 20% pace, with nearly a hundred and sixty thousand residents by 2010. Sarpy more than anything else blew the entire basis of the old code to pieces. The third most populated county in the state still had code 59.
The statute was revised to read:
… registration of motor vehicles or trailers in counties having a population of one hundred thousand inhabitants or more according to the most recent federal decennial census shall be by an alphanumeric system rather than by the county number system.
Certainly, the vast preponderance of Nebraska counties by number retained their geographic codes. However the set of counties with the biggest chunks of people switched to boring three-letter / three-number patterns found just about everywhere else. I took a quick look at Nebraska counties with "a population of one hundred thousand inhabitants or more" (i.e., Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy) and compared them against the state as a whole. Those three counties alone accounted for an astounding 54% of Nebraska residents. The remaining 46% were spread amongst the other 90 counties!
I also learned that several other states had license plate coding schemes that identified counties to one degree or another. Wikipedia had the details although not contained on a single page. I’ve done the hard work so readers won’t have to hunt for the information themselves.
Geographic codes may be more common outside of the United States. I know that one could tell the home registration of vehicles in Ireland by an alphabetic code as I’d observed when I was over there last summer. For example, one could easily identify most of the tourists in Killarney because their automobiles had a "D" in the middle position of the plate. That meant the vehicle came from Dublin and was likely picked-up as a rental car when the visitor landed at Dublin Airport. It also meant that it might be an American not used to driving on the left side of the road. Proceed with caution!
I examined a stack of family files online and I learned that a distant relative lived in Houston, Texas. That wasn’t completely unexpected because I’ve traced numerous family members back through there. However the records didn’t make sense as I read through them. Geographic identifiers seemed unfamiliar and out of place. I slowly realized that they referenced Houston County, not the City of Houston. Wouldn’t it make sense for Houston, the city, to actually reside within Houston County? Yes it would although that wasn’t the case. The City of Houston fell more than a hundred miles away in Harris County.
There were a handful of other instances where counties and major cities that shared their names in the same state failed to overlap. I examined the top 100 cities by population in the United States and found six occurrences, Houston included. The cities had more inhabitants than the same-named counties in every example, usually considerably larger and sometimes ridiculously larger. Invariably the counties were prefaced by "not to be confused with…" when described by sources, such as in "Houston County, not to be confused with Houston."
I attempted to rank the six examples based on two factors, the percentage difference in their respective populations and the physical distance that separated them. Then I focused my attention on the counties because they were so much more obscure than the cities. Each one had at least a single bit of interesting trivia.
Wichita County, Kansas
Grain Elevator by Eric Crowley, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Wichita County (map) had a population of 0.5% of the City of Wichita, and was located 262 miles (422 kilometres) away. That was by far the biggest difference in population and distance. Wichita won.
Kansas was notably violent in the Nineteenth Century along a lawless frontier. Fights often broke out in the western counties as they were being drawn, settled, and placed within a governance structure. Money could be made or lost based on a location where a county seat might or might not be established. The dispute in Wichita County was called the "Bloodiest of Them All." A history written as part of a Depression-era project of the Works Progress Administration, Kansas, a Guide to the Sunflower State, described the situation:
With the organization of Wichita County in 1886, the two towns became bitter rivals for the county seat. As usual, both factions resorted to extralegal measures. Gunmen were imported "to preserve order." From Dodge City the Coronado partisans brought a former sheriff while Leoti sent to wild and wooly Wallace for a crew of "fun-loving" cowboys who terrorized all law-abiding citizens… On the eve of the county seat election Coulter and six or seven other young men from Leoti loaded a case of beer into a rig and drove over to the rival town… A burst of gunfire precipitated a pitched battle in the town’s main street.
Perhaps that’s one reason why Wichita County still prohibits the sale of alcohol by the drink even though Kansas amended its Constitution to allow that about thirty years ago.
Houston County, Texas
Houston County — First County Created Under Republic of Texas, June 12th 1837 by bk1bennett, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Houston came in second place in my analysis so let’s go ahead and talk about it. Houston County (map) had a population of 1% of the City of Houston, and was located 116 miles (187 kilometres) away.
The ever-useful Handbook of Texas became indispensable once again. It noted that Houston was the first county created in the brand-new Republic of Texas in 1837. Sam Houston, President of Texas, signed the order. He won the war so he could name anything after himself, and he did. The City of Houston was founded in the same year, obviously also named for Sam Houston. The city did better, about a hundred times better at least by population.
Austin County, Texas
Old Austin County Jail, Bellville, Texas by Patrick Feller, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Texas had too few heroes from the Revolution for its very large geographic footprint, it seemed, and only so many names to share. I found a similar situation for Stephen F. Austin. Austin County (map) had a population of 3% of the City of Austin, and was located 114 miles (183 kilometres) away. The area that became the County of Austin played an important role during the years immediately prior to Texas forming into a republic in 1836. Although Washington-on-the-Brazos became the initial capital of an independent Texas upon the establishment of its constitution (as 12MC described in One Star Many Centers), San Felipe had served that same purpose as the provisional capital immediately prior to and during the revolution. San Felipe (map) was the focal point of the original Stephen F. Austin colony and it was located in what later became Austin County.
Lincoln County, Nebraska
Golden Spike Tower and Visitors Center, North Platte, Nebraska by David Becker, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Lincoln County (map) had a population of 13% of the City of Lincoln, and was located 226 miles (364 kilometres) away. It had a fairly sizable town — North Platte — so that pushed it farther down on the list. North Platte was noted for the world’s largest rail yard at Bailey Yard. Lincoln County displayed a justifiable sense of pride in its monstrous rail yard and erected the Golden Spike Tower, "an eight-story building which overlooks the expansive railroad staging area" (map). This must be nirvana for rail fans.
Boise County, Idaho
Horseshoe Bend Idaho by Richard Bauer, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Boise County (map) had a population of 3% of the City of Boise, and was located 27 miles (43 kilometres) away. The downfall of Boise County in my calculations was that it practically abutted the City of Boise, pushing it way down on the list. Boise county had two major towns, Idaho City and Horseshoe Bend. I used the term "major" loosely as neither had more than a few hundred residents. Nonetheless the fine citizens of Horseshoe Bend, being the larger of the two, attempted to grab the county seat of government by wrestling it away from Idaho City. They made at least two recent attempts, in 1974 and in 2004. However, unlike their counterparts in Kansas a century ago, their weapon of choice was a petition for referendum rather than a gang of drunken cowboys with guns. Their attempts failed. They might have had been more successful with drunken cowboys.
Richmond County, Virginia
Richmond County Courthouses by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Richmond County (map) had a population of 4% of the City of Richmond, and was located 52 miles (84 kilometres) away. Interestingly, the two Richmond places in Virginia represented different things. Richmond County, formed in 1692, derived its name from Charles Lennox, 1st Duke of Richmond. The City of Richmond, founded in 1737, was named for the town of Richmond in the southwestern part of London, England. I’m sure if I tried hard enough I could probably connect those two Richmonds together somewhere back in English history. I took a basic glance and followed threads back from both directions and grew tired of the task. Someone with more patience than I should feel free to give it a go.
I’ll mention two other possibilities that I discovered and discounted: Baltimore City vs. Baltimore County in Maryland and St. Louis City vs. St. Louis County in Missouri. Those were both instances where a city split from a county and became an independent entity. Those didn’t feel like the same situation presented elsewhere.