Twelve Mile Circle has received a steady drip of visitors who seem to want to know the shortest automobile route that could be taken to touch all of the New England states. I don’t see these queries every day although they comprise a consistent two or three every month-or-so and they have been landing on 12MC for years. I don’t know if they traced back to some long-forgotten Internet trivia contest or where they originated. It’s been on my list of potential topics for a very long time and I kept telling myself that I’d have to get around to it eventually. I wasn’t feeling particularly intellectual today so I passed the time fiddling around with Google Maps instead. This became the day to answer the query.
“New England USA” by MissMJ – Own work by uploader, Image:Blank US Map.svg, Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Many 12MC readers hail from international destinations so I’ll begin with a definition of New England for their benefit. The rest of you can skip to the next paragraph. In the United States, New England consists of six states: Connecticut; Maine; Massachusetts; New Hampshire; Rhode Island and Vermont. It’s the red area marked on the map, above. New England was settled by English colonists in large numbers — thus the name — beginning with the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth in 1620 (my recent visit). Let’s move on to the real question now that everyone understands the challenge.
I manipulated Google Maps several ways and the shortest distance that touched all six New England states came to 227 miles (365 kilometres). I’d embed the map directly within this page except that it differed from the one I created for some odd reason. That’s just one more limitation of the current version of Google Maps. Instead, I embedded a photo that I took during my recent trip to Cape Cod that looked quintessentially New England-ish and I invite the audience to open the map in a different tab to follow along.
Notice how I straightened the lines to minimize distances. I’m sure readers could find slightly shorter routes using my map as a starting point and then selecting even more obscure local roads, or perhaps by attempting something completely different. Be sure to post any solution in the comments with a link to the resulting Google Map. My solution should take about 5 hours and 6 minutes without traffic, which means that someone would have to time this journey carefully since it would involve a jaunt directly through the middle of Boston. That would work out to an anemic 45 miles per hour-or-so (72 km/hr) even under the absolute best of conditions. Could the same objective be completed faster? Of course it could.
I threw the back roads out the window and focused on Interstate Highways as much as I could instead to find the quickest solution. Google Maps liked that solution better and embedded it correctly. It was longer, 253 miles (407 km), although highway speeds more than made up the difference. The route began farther north in White River Junction, Vermont (I rode a scenic train there once), followed I-89 to Manchester, New Hampshire, cut east to barely touch Maine, swung around Boston rather than drilling through it and then ran downward to Rhode Island and due west to Connecticut. This solution should clock-in at 4 hours and 1 minute during optimal conditions with a much hire average speed, about 63 mph (101 km/hr). I tried repeatedly to get it below 4 hours even though I knew it was a meaningless psychological barrier. Maybe someone else can find a quicker solution. Your challenge is to find one that’s 3 hours and 59 minutes or less. That would make me happy.
Hopefully this post will satisfy the multitude of anonymous visitors who want to know the shortest/quickest route through all six New England states, even though none of them will ever return to 12MC again. I enjoyed the mapping challenge. Maybe someday someone will attempt these solutions in the real world. It might make a nice Sunday drive.
I alluded to postal ZIP codes in the recent Zip Lines and I’ll carry that theme through the next couple of articles. I’d stumbled upon the United States Postal Service’s Fun Facts. Someday maybe I’ll explore what exactly makes a fact "fun" although for now I think I’ll simply steal liberally from that page and ponder some of its claims in greater detail. Today I’ll focus on post offices and in the next article I’ll shift to methods of delivery. Spoiler alert: don’t visit that USPS page unless you want to ruin the surprises.
Alma Colorado 2010 by Gord McKenna, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
There was a surprising amount debate about the town with the highest elevation in the United States. I explored that previously in something I wrote a couple of years ago. Was it Leadville, Colorado, was it Alma, Colorado or was it some poseur town that annexed an adjoining ski resort? There was no doubt, however, about the post office building with the highest elevation. Clearly, that was the one in Alma (map) at 10,578 feet above sea level, serving ZIP Code 80420.
Rocky Mountain High, indeed. I’ll refrain from making any jokes about the highest post office being located in Colorado where a certain herbal substance has been legalized. We’re talking strictly about elevation here.
Northernmost and Westernmost – 48 Contiguous States
La Push to Sumas, Washington
It’s not that I don’t love Alaska and Hawaii, its that they skew anything to do with directional superlatives in the United States. I’ll give a little nod to Alaska momentarily although for purposes of northernmost and westernmost post offices I’ll focus on the contiguous 48 States. They were both in Washington and not too distant from each other. Best of all, the preferred route calculated by Google required a ferry. That would put it pretty high on the 12MC list of sites I’d like to visit someday. I’ll bet readers in Seattle could probably accomplish this easily. Wouldn’t it be cool to tell folks that you’d been to the northernmost and westernmost post offices in the Lower 48 in a single day? Perhaps mail yourself a letter from each spot? Maybe I’m the only one who would find that interesting. I don’t know.
The northernmost post office served Sumas, Washington, Zip Code 98295. The ZIP Code abutted the Canadian border although that wasn’t special. Lots of other locations shared that attribute. What made Sumas different, however, was the physical location of its post office building just a stone’s throw away from the actual border. I also wondered about the name Sumas. The City of Sumas provided an explanation. It also provided a website that looked like it had been transported through a dial-up model directly from the 1990’s. Wander over there if you’re ever feeling nostalgic about how the Intertubes used to appear including the use of 3-D buttons as links, educating people to "click here" and the placement of a site counter at the bottom of the page.
Sumas (pronounced Soo’mass) means "land without trees". Although lake and swamp once covered most of the area there was also a considerable area that because of natural flooding was a wide open grassland.
The westernmost post office, on the Olympic Peninsula, served ZIP Code 98350 in La Push, Washington. Its name also had an interesting etymology: "La Push is from French La Bouche, meaning ‘The Mouth’ of the Quillayute River, adapted into Chinook Jargon."
Barrow, Alaska by NASA ICE, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
The USPS bestowed a tie for the coldest post offices, for Barrow, ZIP Code 99723 and Wainwright ZIP Code 99782, both on Alaska’s North Slope along the Arctic Ocean. The site didn’t offer an explanation for "coldest" although I knew that neither of those locations represented the lowest temperature ever recorded in Alaska. That happened that at Prospect Creek on January 23, 1971, when the thermometer fell to -80°F / -62°C. Rather, I believe the claim was based on average temperature. Barrow routinely remains below freezing for eight months of the year, often considerably below. However its oceanfront location and lack of elevation variation tends to keep its very cold temperatures relatively stable versus the spikes and drops found farther inland. It’s also getting warmer.
Instrumented weather and climate observations were first made at Barrow during the first International Polar Year in 1881-82. The modern era of weather observations commenced in 1920. Climate observations have continued uninterrupted to the present. These observations support what every resident in America’s northernmost town can see: climate change is happening—right now—in obvious and dramatic fashion.
Ochopee Post with flag by Chris Griffith, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Look at the cute little post office for Ochopee, Florida, (map) serving ZIP Code 34141. Just look at it. The entire building covers only 61.3 square feet (5.7 square metres). A nearby historical marker explained the situation.
Considered to be the smallest post office in the United States, this building was formerly an irrigation pipe shed belonging to the J. T. Gaunt Company tomato farm. It was hurriedly pressed into service by postmaster Sidney Brown after a disastrous night fire in 1953 burned Ochopee’s general store and post office. The present structure has been in continuous use ever since-as both a post office and ticket station for Trailways bus lines-and still services residents in a three-county area including deliveries to Seminole and Miccosukee Indians living in the region. Daily business often includes requests from tourists and stamp collectors the world over for the famed Ochopee post mark. The property was acquired by the Wooten Family in 1992.
It wasn’t a joke. It was a temporary fix that became permanent due to inertia.
Oldest in the Same Building
Hinsdale Post Office by Doug Kerr, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
I don’t know why this one fascinated me. Nonetheless it seemed remarkable that the post office serving Hindsdale, New Hampshire (map) had remained in the same building for two centuries, or about a century and a half before ZIP Code 03451 even existed. It didn’t have much of a backstory beyond its age. The town said its "1,327 square foot building was constructed on September 25, 1816, following the appointment of Hinsdale’s first postmaster in 1815." From an architectural perspective, "A Field Guide to American Houses describes this design as a Gable Front Family Folk house common on the East Coast of the U.S. before the Civil War." That was about all I found.
The short-lived Republic of Indian Stream owed its existence to frustrations rooted in divergent interpretations of the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolutionary War between the United States and Great Britain. The treaty included a number of provisions including those designed to establish firm boundaries between Canada and the United States. Ironically, a document intended to create a bright demarcation actually created additional confusion.
The treaty devoted an entire section, Article 2, to preventing "all disputes which might arise in future" along the border. That purpose seemed both noble and fair. The problem centered on its reliance on geographic landmarks to create a line, specifically its use of watersheds. The confusing portion of the clause read:
…that angle which is formed by a line drawn due north from the source of St. Croix River to the highlands; along the said highlands which divide those rivers that empty themselves into the river St. Lawrence, from those which fall into the Atlantic Ocean, to the northwesternmost head of Connecticut River; thence down along the middle of that river to the forty-fifth degree of north latitude…
It sounded fine in theory. However the United States and the Great Britain couldn’t agree on the placement of the "northwesternmost head of Connecticut River."
Was the northwesternmost head at Halls Stream, Indian Stream, Perry Stream or the Connecticut River itself? The United States favored Halls Stream while Great Britain favored the Connecticut River. One would have thought those little details might have been discussed and resolved before ink dried on paper. They were not. Negotiators failed to clarify their intent and created a small disputed area between Halls Stream on the west and the Connecticut River on the east.
The former belligerents negotiated the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and the United States ratified it the following year. Yet dueling interpretation remained fully intact for nearly a half-century afterwards. Finally local residents reached their breaking point. They tired of double taxation, military recruitment and rule of law. People in this disputed territory declared themselves to live in an independent state, the Republic of Indian Stream, in 1832. The couple of hundred residents formed their own legislature, minted their own coinage, established their own law enforcement, and set about creating the infrastructure of a tiny nation. The United States and Great Britain were not impressed. They continued to squabble and bicker while ignoring the notion of a sovereign Indian Stream.
Pittsburg, NH by Axel Drainville, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)
The Republic, if it truly ever existed, ended in 1836. A force from Indian Stream "invaded" Canada to free one of its local citizens who had been arrested for an outstanding debt and imprisoned there. This created an international incident. The Republic quickly authorize its annexation to the United States and the New Hampshire Militia occupied the territory to protect it. Great Britain decided the dispute wasn’t worth the trouble and acquiesced to an American interpretation using Halls Stream as the border.
River Road Covered Bridge by James Walsh, on Flickr
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After finally resolving the boundary dispute, the former Republic of Indian Stream became New Hampshire’s Town of Pittsburg. It’s attractions included the beautiful Connecticut Lakes, a string of lakes along the Connecticut River named without regard to imagination, First Connecticut Lake, Second Connecticut Lake, Third Connecticut Lake and Fourth Connecticut Lake. It also included the Happy Corner Covered Bridge over Perry Stream. Other than an historical marker, there isn’t much evidence of the old Republic any longer.
Events in northern New Hampshire have been considerably more sedate ever since.