Last Chance

Speaking of odd town names (we were just speaking of those, weren’t we?), what about Last Chance? Every place deserved a last chance, I supposed. The U.S. Geographic Names Information System listed more than three hundred of them. Many — no surprise — aligned with mining claims. Also they frequently referenced ditches, streams and gulches, probably running near those old mines. However that wasn’t always the case. A handful of populated places rose to the top of the list too. It took an unusual outlook on life, I figured, for someone to name a settlement Last Chance.

Last Chance, Colorado

Last Chance, CO (0)
Last Chance, CO. Photo by Michael Sauers on Flickr (cc).

Colorado’s Last Chance clung to life, just barely. It sat about 80 miles (130 kilometres) due east of Denver (map). Truly, a straight shot. Head straight north of Denver and hit Fort Collins, or straight south and hit Colorado Springs, or straight west and, well, hit a wall of mountains. Straight east should hit something more important than a hamlet on life support.

The original settlers of Last Chance probably felt the same way. Travelers driving through Colorado’s empty eastern plains to and from Denver took the straightest possible path during the early automotive period. Back then, Last Chance served as a literal last chance for motorists to refuel, grab a meal, or sleep in an actual bed anywhere between Denver and a vast nothingness. The town’s name became a marketing tool and a warning. Stop there or suffer the consequences.

The Ghost Town website summarized the rise and fall of Last Chance quite succinctly.

Last Chance was a town that grew up with the automobile and died when the interstate took the traffic south to I-70. It was a busy center for travelers in the 1940s and 1950s, and probably earlier than that.

Indeed, Interstate 70 heading east from Denver took a distinct southeastern curve about 30 miles (50 km) short of Last Chance before turning east again. Last Chance couldn’t survive that cruel routing.

Last Chance, Oklahoma

Last Chance Baptist Church
Last Chance Baptist Church
via Google Street View, July 2016

I couldn’t find any information about how the Last Chance in Oklahoma earned its name (map). The settlement seemed to simply vanish. It wouldn’t surprise me if the US Geological Survey dropped it from the database entirely someday. Only the Last Chance Baptist Church remained behind as a reminder. By the way, Last Chance might be the best church name ever. That choice positioned it perfectly as the final opportunity for redemption before banishment to the fiery pits of Hell. It gave sinners one last chance.

A post office didn’t exist in Last Chance as far as I could tell, if indeed one ever existed there. Addresses in Last Chance bore the postmark of nearby Okemah. Nothing much important happened in Last Chance although Okemah registered a minor brush with fame. Okemah had a famous native son, the legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie born there in 1912. An oil boom began around that time in the same general area, leading me to wonder if perhaps Last Chance got its name from the boom somehow?

Last Chance, Iowa

The Last Chance of Iowa fared about as well as its counterpart in Oklahoma. Here, the sole remaining sign of its existence was a cemetery. While I liked Last Chance as the name of a church I disliked it as a cemetery (map). A final resting place seemed to signify the end of any remaining chances. Last chance? More like no chance. At least I learned how it got its name, though. I found a website about cemeteries in Lucas County that offered a surprising amount of information. I was really impressed by the detail it presented about such an obscure location.

Last Chance is one of those Lucas County place names that, because of its oddity, generates stories. But the truth seems to be that its first storekeeper, William McDonald McHenry, named it offhandedly after it occurred to him that he was living in a place that didn’t yet have a name… he said, "Let’s call it Last Chance." And they called it so, more in a joke than in earnest…

Last Chance sat favorably along the Mormon Trail. Thousands of Mormon emigrants and many others walked the trail during the middle of the 19th Century. Some travelers moved their households without any pack animals, becoming a special category of Mormons called the Handcart Pioneers. Then the transcontinental railroad opened. Last Chance disappeared because of the railroads. The typical story prevailed. Railroads, long the lifeblood of small rural villages in the Heartland, all bypassed Last Chance. Decline later led to collapse.

I found additional Last Chance settlements in Idaho, California and North Carolina. However, even less information existed about any of them. It seemed that every Last Chance was down to its last chance if any of them ever had a chance at all.

Triple Letter

An unwary visitor arriving on the Twelve Mile Circle through some random search once again provided fodder for an article topic. The query forwarded by search software said: "name of the county, state and cities starts with s?" Usually this means someone is trying to complete an online geography contest or perhaps an old-school crossword puzzle. The answer would be somewhere within the sum of all towns starting with S in Saluda, Spartanburg, and Sumter Counties in South Carolina and starting with S in Sanborn, Shannon, Spink, Stanley and Sully Counties in South Dakota. For example, Stateburg, South Carolina would fit the definition. It’s in Sumter County. S-S-S. There are probably dozens of possibilities. Can we go home now?

Nothing is every that easy on 12MC. I decided to up-the-ante a couple of different ways. First, I considered only those towns or cities that were also the county seats, and I expanded the universe to all fifty states. It was a manual process so I can’t guarantee the results. I could have overlooked something.

First I created the set of states and counties that began with the same letter (154 instances). Then I checked each of their county seats. That produced 45-ish results. Maybe. What is the county seat of New York County; is it New York City? What do we do with Oklahoma City knowing that portions of it extend into multiple counties? Can one of Virginia’s weird independent cities have a "county" seat? I included them anyway. Others might disagree.

Some examples were better than others. I created a scale of impressiveness based upon the results I complied. They are included in a shared spreadsheet you should feel free to review, or not.

  • Outstanding: All started with the same letter and all three were different words
  • Technically Correct, Plus: Same letter, repeated word, plus a portmanteau, and I love portmanteaus so that should count for something extra: Milaca in Mille Lacs County, MN. Yes they threw an extra "a" onto it but let’s not split hairs.
  • Technically Correct: Same letter with repeated words. Conejos in Conejos Co., Colorado and Hilo in Hawaii Co., Hawaii were good examples.
  • Lacking Originality: OK/OK/OK/OK (throwing in the state capital for good measure too) and NY/NY/NY.
  • No: The large preponderance of instances. The county seat started with a different letter than the county
  • Double No: Very rare examples of counties with two seats and by the way neither of them started with the same letter as the county and state. Punks.

My interests focused primarily on the "outstanding" examples, of which I found only 7 occurrences amongst the 3,143 counties and county-equivalents in the United States.

(1) GGG: Gibson, Glascock County, Georgia

Gibson referred to Judge William Gibson who shelled out the cash to build the local courthouse.

Glascock (map) was General Thomas Glascock, a Congressman and a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Seminole War of 1817. He was apparently able to conceive at least one child in spite of his name.

(2) MMM: Mt. Clemens, Macomb County, Michigan

Christian Clemens Grave, Mt. Clemens, Michigan

Christian Clemens first surveyed and then popularized the town he named for himself, Mount Clemens. He’s still quite revered in Mt. Clemens according to lots of material I found on the Intertubes, and he’s buried at Clemens Park in town. One can see his grave marker in Street View without too much effort.

Another War of 1812 officer provided a name for Macomb: U.S. General Alexander Macomb, who later went on to become the commanding General of the U.S. Army although that happened after the county was named for him.

(3) NNN: Nelson, Nuckolls County, Nebraska

How often does a place get named after someone’s middle name? That’s apparently the case with Nelson: Horatio Nelson Wheeler. I guess one could also claim it gave homage to Lord Nelson in a roundabout way too. Mr. Wheeler provided the land for the town and had no larger claim to fame.

Nuckolls were the Nuckolls Brothers, Lafayette and Stephen, who were early Nebraska pioneers, legislators, and businessmen (map).

(4) OOO: Okemah, Okfuskee County, Oklahoma

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Okemah derived from Chief Okemah of the Kickapoo tribe. Linguistically it may translate from a Creek word for "person of high stature" or something similar.

Okeham is know best as the birthplace of Woody Gutherie. A photograph of his home is listed on the Library of Congress website. I don’t know about its copyright status so feel free to go there and view it on your own.

A number of websites including were created in 2012 to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the folk singer’s birth. It used a great Woody Guthrie quote to describe Okemah:

Okemah was one of the singingest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns.

Okfuskee also had a Native American derivation. The Okfuskee people were part of the Muskoke/Muskogee (Creek) confederacy in Alabama prior to their removal to Oklahoma.

(5) WWW: West Bend, Washington County, Wisconsin

Finally, an easy one. Washington County (map) honored George Washington. West Bend referenced a western bend in the Milwaukee River where the town was founded.

(6) WWW: Wautoma, Waushara County, Wisconsin

Then, the next example returned to a Native American theme. Waushara translated to "big fox."

Wautoma might mean "good earth" or "good life" which is an improvement over it’s original name, Shumwaytown. The most fascinating geographic feature of Wautoma is that it’s composed of three major, separate non-contiguous areas, and several smaller parcels (map). There’s no truth to the rumor that Wautoma translated into "town who’s boundaries got thrown into a blender."

(7) WWW: Worland, Washakie County, Wyoming

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Worland was named for "Charles Henry Worland, who in 1900 built a dugout saloon and stage station on the west side of the Bighorn River"

Chief Washakie was a leader of the Eastern Shoshone Indians.

Totally Unrelated

Flickr recently increased its storage to one terabyte per account. I’m in the process of uploading something like 10,000 photographs in full size and I don’t think I’ll hit even one percent!