County Hunter

The itch to continuously visit new counties kept stalking me. I did really well this year with a long road trip back from Missouri in April. Then I drove all over the Midwest in June. Finally I took the whole family through the Four Corners region of New Mexico and Colorado. My county counting tally stood at 1,425 by the end of the summer and yet I still wanted more. Unfortunately, I’d used up most of my vacation hours for the year. I needed to find the closest unvisited county and hit it on a weekend. Three options existed, all two-or-more hours away. Nothing closer remained anymore.

Pocahontas County, West Virginia

Forest Moon of Endor? No. Green Bank, West Virginia - 1
Forest Moon of Endor? No. Green Bank, West Virginia. Photo by Stephen Little on Flickr (cc)

I should be able to reach to nearest border of Pocahontas County in about 3 hours and 20 minutes. Certainly this would be too far for a dash-and-grab, stepping my toe across the border and heading back home. That would make a round trip of nearly seven hours just to color a single county on my map. Even I thought that sounded ridiculous.

Fortunately, if I decided to select Pocahontas for my excursion, I could find a couple of interesting activities waiting for me there. The media featured Pocahontas periodically because of the town of Green Bank, home of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Scientists searched for aliens with that telescope among other things. In support, the government created a large National Radio Quiet Zone around the observatory to prevent interference with its delicate instruments. Nobody could use a mobile phone, a WiFi router or even a microwave oven within twenty miles of Green Bank. The town also attracted some rather unusual residents in recent years as a result; those who believed that they suffered from electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

Elsewhere in Pocahontas I could visit the Snowshoe Mountain Ski Resort. It offered year-round activities like many ski resorts do now. I could probably get there just in time to see the leaves change colors if I left sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Atlantic County, New Jersey

Atlantic City
Atlantic City. Photo by Eric Haake on Flickr (cc)

A little closer to home, 2 hours and 45 minutes away, I could be in Atlantic County, New Jersey. Theoretically. However, I’d need to thread the needle perfectly to avoid miserable traffic on dreaded Interstate 95. It could also take a lot longer. Then I’d need to add another half-hour to get to the only attraction worth seeing, Atlantic City. Can anyone believe I’ve never been to Atlantic City? I don’t know how that happened. I’ve had a number of opportunities over the year and yet I’ve never made the trip. Gambling isn’t my thing so that explains most of the reason. There are plenty of closer beaches.

Still, I wouldn’t mind strolling along the famous boardwalk, enjoying the flash of casino lights and hunting for every street from the Monopoly game. Really, to be honest, I’d use this as a springboard for a longer drive to capture Atlantic, Ocean and Monmouth Counties. This neatly aligned trio of counties remained the only ones in New Jersey I’ve yet to capture. Then I could mark New Jersey done.

Huntingdon and Blair Counties, Pennsylvania

Route to Huntingdon and Blair
Route to Huntingdon and Blair (Dark Blue)

Instead I chose Huntingdon and Blair Counties in Pennsylvania. I could get to Huntingdon in as little as two hours, the absolutely closest county I’ve yet to visit. I could push deep into Blair all the way to Altoona, the regions largest city, in about three. The Twelve Mile Circle audience won’t find out what I discovered just yet. I’ll keep readers in suspense. However, expect to see an article on Huntingdon and another on Blair in the coming days.

Green Bank and Atlantic City will be visited someday too. Maybe in the Spring. We’ll see.

Jeff Davis

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.

View Larger Map

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.

View Larger Map

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!

Prime Meridian Through Spain

I noticed a query dropped upon the Twelve Mile Circle from one of the search engines. It was a fairly straight-forward request for information, as far as those things go. My anonymous visitor wanted to know about the "Madrid prime meridian line" Do we sense a problem?

View Prime Meridian – in a larger map

The knee-jerk reaction would be to consider this a geographic failing of someone unaware of such matters. Obviously we have either an inadequate educational system or an individual of limited mental recall. After all, the Prime Meridian does not go through Madrid. Although it cuts through Spain, it does not get any closer than about 325 kilometres (200 miles) from Madrid. The person must have lost sight of the geographic proximity of Madrid, or worse, couldn’t distinguishing Madrid from larger Spain.

My mind went there briefly. I was ready to dismiss this inquiry as coming from someone for whom 12MC would never serve a legitimate purpose. I realized the fallacy of that judgment a split-second later of course. Twelve Mile Circle is designed for someone exactly like the person who wonders about Madrid and the Prime Meridian.

There are a lot of interesting features about the Prime Meridian as it slices through Spain. Personally I like the little corner of Valencia that stands on the eastern side of the line (map). I think, if I were to move to Spain, I’d consider Xàbia/Jávea in Valencia’s Alicante province specifically for that reason. Also I’d try to hunt down some people who have homes split by the Prime Meridian (for example) and ask them if they realize an imaginary line runs through their residences. I bet they do.

Let’s put thoughts of the Prime Meridian aside, or at least the one that runs through Greenwich, England. We’ve seen this story before, haven’t we? A similar situation came up when I wrote about the American Meridian that was based on that Naval Observatory in Washington, DC, and was used by the United States before Greenwich became an international standard. I live in the (American Meridian) western hemisphere and work in the eastern hemisphere, and isn’t that all grand?

It’s the same thing here. The placement of the Prime Meridian is arbitrary. It could have been located anywhere, and that’s what many nations did prior to adopting the Greenwich line.

View Larger Map

The Spanish government ran it through the Real Observatorio de Madrid — the Royal Observatory of Madrid — in the mid-Nineteenth Century. The observatory was already in place, having been constructed in 1790. It’s a stunning example of Spanish neoclassical architecture atop a hill and today it houses an astronomically-oriented museum. Spain’s Ministry of Development provides additional information should one wish to visit or learn more (translated to English).

Thus my random visitor searching for the "Madrid prime meridian line" was actually quite astute, with a solid understanding of geography and history.

View Madrid Meridian in a larger map

Let’s move the Prime Meridian a little further to the west, to a line of longitude equaling 03° 41’14.546″ per the July 2000 edition of Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing Journal to recreate Spain’s former Prime Meridian. Indeed, it runs directly through Madrid. Notice also that it splits Spain much more evenly than the Greenwich Meridian. Other towns on or near the meridian include Santander, Burgos, Jaén and Granada.

View Madrid Meridian in a larger map

Look as some of the umbrellas on this beach in Almuñécar in Andalusia. No doubt there are people relaxing on both sides of the line. Somehow I doubt any of them realize the geographic significance of their fortunate placement. For us geo-geeks however, it seems like it might be a great opportunity for a Spanish Meridian Beach Party!

Cheers, random visitor.