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, 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
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, 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.
The Geographic Names Information System listed 94 populated places in the United States called Rome. I figured maybe some should exist in other nations that created a bunch of new places around that same time period. Alas, I didn’t find any such places in Canada, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand. Why Rome seemed so popular in the U.S. (and only the U.S) remained a mystery. I still enjoyed a peek at some of the more engaging Romans of the New World.
Romulus and Remus in Rome Georgia. Photo by Lee LeFever on Flickr (cc)
Americans of European descent began to push into northwestern Georgia in the 1830’s, displacing native Cherokee. One group settled at the confluence of the Etowah and Oostanaula Rivers, at the beginning of the Coosa River. This would be a perfect spot to gather locally-grown cotton and move it downriver to Mobile Bay, to a port on the Gulf of Mexico. They needed a name. Five men placed their choices in a hat; Hamburg, Pittsburg, Warsaw, Hillsboro and Rome. Obviously someone pulled out Rome, and that’s the name that stuck starting in 1834. Rome had seven hills just like its more famous namesake in Italy. That seemed to be the only reason.
Rome suffered the effects of the Civil War like many Georgian towns. I decided to skip forward in time instead and focus on its odd fascist connection.
City officials placed the Capitolene Wolf nursing Romulus and Remus in front of City Hall (map). It faithfully replicated the original at the Pallazio Del Conservatori in Rome (map). That made sense.
Roman legend held that a wolf suckled the abandoned twins Romulus and Remus. As adults they quarreled about where to found a new city. Romulus killed Remus and named the new city after himself. The statue of the Capitolene Wolf commemorated what I’d guess might have been a happier time in their lives.
Officials in Georgia did not commission the statue. It came as a gift. The American Cotillion Company decided to build a rayon factory in the city. However, it didn’t do it all on its own. It formed a joint venture with an Italian company. The statue came courtesy of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1929, arriving "as a forecast of prosperity and glory… from Ancient Rome to New Rome."
Rome removed the statue in 1940 and flew an American flag in its place during the Second World War. It didn’t reappear until 1952.
Rome, New York
Fort Stanwix. Photo by Anne White on Flickr (cc)
Rome also sprouted in New York in the mid-19th Century although its history of settlement went back a century earlier. The Jervis Public Library in Rome offered an interesting explanation for the name.
There are several theories as to how Rome, New York got its name; none of them are definitive… The name, "Rome," apparently first had been applied to the township to which the village belonged. The township was formed in 1796 from Steuben township, and named "Rome" as part of what is now called the Classical Naming Period, a time when upstate New York communities were being named after classical European cities. This type of naming was, for some reason, a popular trend at the time.
Once again I decided to skip a bunch of history and focus on a single narrow era. Rome existed for a very specific reason. It stood at the point of the Oneida Carry (aka the Great Carrying Place). Here, only a couple of miles separated the Atlantic watershed from the Great Lakes watershed. Traders and trappers used the portage as a way to connect the English colonies to a distant frontier hundreds of miles inland, deep within the North American continent. The St. Lawrence River — much farther north — wouldn’t be practical for merchants in New York City. Their emissaries paddled up the Hudson River to the Mohawk. There they portaged over the Oneida Carry to Wood Creek then paddled onward to Oneida Lake, the Oswego River and finally to the Great Lakes themselves.
European troops battled over this spot repeatedly. The English built Fort Stanwix (map) there to protect it during the French and Indian War. Britain and the new United States clashed at the Oneida Carry during the Revolutionary War, and Americans fortified it during the War of 1812. It became obsolete overnight during the canal era a couple of decades later. Rome became just another port along a canal and nobody needed a portage anymore.
New Rome, Ohio
Speed Trap. Photo by – POD – on Flickr (cc)
Why would I include New Rome, Ohio on this list (map)? It didn’t have the name recognition of the others and it didn’t even exist anymore. History at this location came much later, a brief period from its founding in 1947 to its dissolution in 2004. The village never covered more than a few blocks on a 12 acre footprint. Yet it held a dark secret.
It’s population fell from 111 in 1990 all the way down to 60 in the next census a decade later. People grew disgusted with the clan that controlled New Rome and the police force that relentlessly harassed residents and visitors alike. Car and Driver called it a Town Without Pity.
New Rome didn’t have much of a tax base although it straddled a major road for a quarter mile. There it created one of the most notorious speed traps in the nation, generating nearly $400,000 a year at its height. The speed limit dropped suddenly at the village border so police could catch "speeders." A stoplight gave them time to check everyone else for a laundry list of petty violations like dirty license plates. Nearly everyone in power was related by blood or by marriage and money collected had a habit of disappearing.
New Rome’s Demise
It got so bad that Ohio passed a narrowly-tailored law that allowed the dissolution of very small towns with few public services and repeated instances of malfeasance. As memorialized by New Rome Sucks,
The village of New Rome died abandoned and alone on September 9th, 2004. Born in 1947 it has been a source of corruption and abuse for many years and will never be missed. Funeral will be held on September 18th. The procession will start at 2:00pm in the old Kroger parking lot and will be lead by Jim Bussey and the New Rome Sucks Crew.
Thus came the fall of the inglorious New Roman Empire.
The rain that began the previous afternoon continued all night. It lifted, however, just as we began the first full day of our adventure. I probably would have headed to Pittsburgh’s two famous funiculars, the Duquesne Incline and the Monongahela Incline had I been alone. However I had my older son with me so I made a concession. He loved zoos and I wanted him to enjoy the trip too.
Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium
I can take-or-leave zoos although I admitted that the one in Pittsburgh was better than many we’ve seen. We arrived just as the gates opened at 9:00 am, the very first people admitted for the day. We toured the grounds mostly by ourselves that first hour. Many of the animals got their first meal right around opening so we managed to see most of them awake and active. The zoo also featured an aquarium, one of the few in the nation including both attractions in the same park. Naturally we saw every single exhibit in excruciating detail. I never complained as I kept up my best Good Dad behavior. I knew I’d bore him later with some of my geo-geek sites. We finally ran out of animals after about four hours.
My son felt happy to add another zoo map to his growing collection.
Onward to the Panhandle
Now I could focus on the real meat of the adventure, heading towards West Virginia’s northern panhandle to capture some new counties. I’d planned a short, simple drive for the day since I knew the zoo visit would consume a big chunk of it. First we hit Brooke County as we entered West Virginia on US Route 22. Then the highway took a slight northern jog near downtown Weirton, just nicking Hancock County before crossing back into Brooke and shooting across the Ohio River into Jefferson County, Ohio. I snagged three new counties in about five minutes. My elapsed time in Hancock lasted less than thirty seconds. It still counted!
I’ve been thinking about reader Brad Keller’s comment on my recent Northern Panhandle of West Virginia article. He said he’d heard that Weirton (map) might be the "the only city in the US that touched both the Eastern and Western border of their state." Reader January First-of-May offered Juneau, Alaska as another possibility, an option that I also considered. The Cairo, Illinois suggestion, however, hadn’t come to my mind and I thought it might be legitimate. I also thought of Laughlin, Nevada (map) bordering on California and Arizona. If I wanted to cheat I might also suggest the city of Washington in the District of Columbia. The boundaries were made coterminous in 1871, so by definition Washington touched all of the District’s borders.
Wheeling Our Car Down to Wheeling
Wheeling Suspension Bridge
via Google Street View, October 2015
We remained on the Ohio side of the river on Route 7 — part of the Ohio River Scenic Byway — until to just outside of Wheeling. We crossed back into West Virginia, choosing to drive over the historic Wheeling Suspension Bridge (map) rather than using the standard Interstate Highway crossing. It was the largest suspension bridge in the world when constructed in 1849. Obviously the original designers didn’t envision vehicles heavier than horse-drawn wagons when they built it. That meant tight traffic controls in modern times: no trucks, buses or trailers. Cars needed to maintain 50 foot intervals. Traffic lights at either end restricted the number of cars on each pass. We crossed without any trouble in our little sedan.
The day went so well that we had time stop at West Virginia Independence Hall (map), a place that I mentioned previously. This time I could use one of my own photos in the article. Visitors guided themselves through the building although the docent offered a suggestion: start in the basement, take the elevator to the third floor and work back down to the first. That sounded fine so we started in the basement with an introductory video recounting how West Virginia became a state in 1863. I knew the story already so I spent more time paying attention to the actors than the events portrayed. The video must have been filmed in the late 1970’s because the hairy, bearded men all looked like the Bee Gees circa Saturday Night Fever. The women all sported poofy manes of that same era. The production values reminded me of a vintage episode of Little House on the Prairie. What was it about again?
The rest of the tour unfolded much more routinely. The third floor recreated the original courtroom where leaders of the day discussed their break from Virginia. The second floor contained an exhibit of various Civil War battle flags, and the first floor held all of their permanent exhibits. The restoration faithfully replicated every detail. Despite its historical significance, the building was allowed to fall into total disrepair in the Twentieth Century. It became a decayed hulk by the 1960’s. The restoration took decades, finally completed only a few years ago.
Articles in the Counting West Virginia Series:
- Let’s Begin
- The U
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr