Heartland, Part 2 (How Not to See a City)

On June 11, 2017 · 3 Comments

Undoubtedly we’ve all seen articles in print or online with titles like “Three Perfect Days in [whatever city].” They highlight the virtues of a given place with all sorts of supposed insider tips that push beyond the usual tourist hangouts. This won’t be one of those articles. In fact I’m pretty sure this could be the worst city guide ever. Why would I even include Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a series of articles on the American Heartland? Even though the geographic footprint of the "Heartland" varied somewhat from person-to-person, undoubtedly little if anything in Pittsburgh met even the most generous definition.

That highlighted my situation. I never made Pittsburgh my destination. It always served as a waypoint on some other adventure, a perpetual bridesmaid of Twelve Mile Circle travels. That was a shame because it offered a lot. Nonetheless, I began to nibble around its edges on three separate visits in the last two years. Let’s take a closer look.


Great Allegheny Passage


Hot Metal Bridge

It shouldn’t take much effort for someone living in the Washington, DC area like I do to visit Pittsburgh. I could get there in about four hours if traffic cooperated. Sure, I’ve connected to flights through its airport and clipped past it many times before on the Pennsylvania Turnpike although those didn’t count. Oddly, I’d never actually set foot within its city limits until April 2015. I didn’t stay there very long, either.

Pittsburgh’s historic Point State Park (map), a tip of land where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers joined together to form the Ohio River, marked the starting point of the Great Allegheny Passage. I hopped from of a shuttle with my bicycle and followed its path for the next 150 miles (240 kilometres) to Cumberland, Maryland. Leaving the park, we took surface streets through the city for about a mile, merged onto a dedicated trail, crossed the Hot Metal Bridge and pedaled past abandoned industrial sites too numerous to count, in a steady rain. Thus ended my first trip to Pittsburgh. It lasted as long as it took to bike beyond its city limits.


Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium


Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium

I returned to Pittsburgh about a year-and-a-half later. This time I stayed a bit longer, my first overnight trip to the city. My real purpose centered on capturing previously unvisited counties in West Virginia’s northern panhandle. Pittsburgh put me close enough to my target to serve as a good staging ground. Plus I had my son with me and I needed to bribe him. He loved zoos so we spent a full morning at the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium (map).

When my son visits a zoo he does it thoroughly. We saw every single animal and exhibit in excruciating detail. That seemed fair enough. I made him go to a brewery inside of a former church in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. Then I dragged him around to increasingly obscure geo-oddities for the next couple of days.


Rivers and Hills

That brought me to the latest adventure. I wanted to capture a bunch of rural counties in Ohio so Pittsburgh, once again, served as a great launching point. I noted in that earlier Zoo article that I really wanted to visit the city’s famous inclines. It became my singular fixation this time around. I had to ride the inclines. Nothing else mattered.

That, geographically, placed me on the South Shore of Pittsburgh across the Monongahela River from downtown. Station Square provided the best access to the inclines. It had a little bit of history too, with roots as a terminal for the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad and as a freight yard well into the 20th Century. Unfortunately it declined over time along with many of the rust belt industries.

Developers turned Station Square into an entertainment district in the late 1970’s, focusing on the tourist market with plenty of chain restaurants and sightseer kitsch. The Pittsburgh skyline added some colorful scenery as a backdrop. However, Station Square still presented all the ambiance of a generic mall, a place where busloads of middle school kids on their first overnight field trip might enjoy. It certainly didn’t represent the essence of Pittsburgh although I’d made that decision knowingly so I could get closer to the inclines. We all make our choices.

Ducks


Point State Park

I didn’t intend to ride the Ducks. Nonetheless, as we walked towards one of the inclines, I spotted a Duck filling-up and saw that the next tour started in only ten minutes. I guess I felt a little guilty for completely ignoring an entire city to climb a hill on a glorified escalator so it hit me at a vulnerable moment. Ducks, for those unfamiliar with them (photo), were used by the United States Army during the Second World War as amphibious landing vehicles. They could function either as trucks or as boats with the pull of a few levers. Various sightseeing companies purchased surplus Ducks and converted them for land/water tours. Pittsburgh had them too.

It was every bit as touristy as I imagined. Even so, it offered a decent orientation of the downtown area and I certainly enjoyed floating along the river for a unique perspective on the city. The inclines would still be waiting for us.

Inclines


Monongahela Incline

Only so many people could fit within a valley carved by the three rivers. Pittsburgh expanded greatly during the Industrial Revolution and pushed people onto the hills. Its mills and factories needed labor so many of the workers lived atop a ridge directly across from downtown called Coal Hill. Workers descended rickety stairways several hundred feet down to their jobs in the morning, and trudged back uphill again in the evenings. Many of them had immigrated from Germany and they remembered “steilbahns” (inclined railroads) from their homeland. Those would work great in Pittsburgh too. Nearly a score opened in the city during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Only two survived, the Monongahela Incline and the Duquesne Incline, opened in 1870 and 1877 respectively.

We took the Monongahela Incline on a slow, relaxing ride up the steep embankment. A man who rode the incline as part of his daily commute gave us a tip: a tourist could save a few bucks by purchasing a single ticket with a transfer rather than two individual tickets. Transfers lasted a couple of hours; more than enough time to ride up, look around and ride back down. Now you know too.

Mt. Washington Neighborhood


Pittsburgh Skyline

Coal Hill later got a more attractive name, Mount Washington, and a reputation for spectacular views of downtown Pittsburgh. We lucked out. It rained intermittently all day and then the clouds parted as we rode up the Monongahela Incline (map). From there we walked along the appropriately named Grandview Avenue. The path took us from the upper Monongahela station to the upper Duquesne station. I would recommend the same route for anyone visiting. It offered a nice scenic stroll of about eight-tenths of a mile (1.3 km).

The city placed frequent viewing platforms along the ridge too. We even stumbled upon a wedding taking place on one of the platforms. The best views of the city — the most iconic images — occurred at the upper Duquesne station. That station also offered a unusual opportunity, a chance to see the inner workings of the incline. Visitors could pop a couple of quarters into a turnstile and take a self-guided tour of the machinery beneath the station (photo). We watched ancient gears turn and cables roll as cars climbed and descended Mt. Washington.


Wrap Up

So far my incomplete city guide to Pittsburgh includes:

  • Point State Park
  • Great Allegheny Passage Bicycle Trail
  • Church Brew Works
  • Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium
  • Station Square
  • Just Ducky Tours
  • Monongahela Incline
  • Duquesne Incline
  • Mt. Washington Neighborhood

Someday I would like to return and see the city properly, not as an afterthought. Twelve Mile Circle readers should feel free to suggest attractions I should visit when I come back in a few months or years from now. You know what I like.


Articles in the Heartland Series:

  1. Why, oh Why?
  2. How Not to See a City
  3. Foiled by Memorial Day
  4. Beyond Covered
  5. Not Just Farmland
  6. Americana

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Directional Surname Frequency

On April 20, 2017 · 9 Comments

I spotted South Street in Manly, Iowa as I wrote Even More Manly Places. Ordinarily that wouldn’t generate much attention. For some reason I found it entertaining to see a South with an east and a west. One could go to East South or West South, although apparently nowhere southeast or southwest. Ditto for North Street, and a similar situation for East Street. Oddly, Manly didn’t seem to have a West Street. I’ve run into similar situations like this in plenty of other places and I always smile. I don’t know why I fixated on it more than usual this time.



I’m sure the street names all came from their geographic alignment throughout town. However, each of those could be surnames too, theoretically although not likely. I went completely down a tangent and started thinking about that possibility anyway, way too much.


Frequency

Fortunately the United States Census Bureau published a file that offered hours, well minutes, of entertainment. Doesn’t everybody love leafing through a table of Frequently Occurring Surnames from the 2010 Census? Then I checked the etymology of directional surnames. They all seemed to relate to ancestors who lived in a particular direction away from a larger town or region. People named West lived to the west. You get the picture.

Frequency variations definitely existed.

  • West seemed particularly popular. It ranked as the 125th most frequent surname in the U.S., with nearly two hundred thousand instances. Variations trailed from there. Westerman ranked 6,620, Westman ranked 11,257 and Western ranked 11,395.
  • Next in popularity, and much farther down the list came North. It ranked 1,766th, with about twenty thousand people. Northern ranked 8,981.
  • East followed in 2,843rd place with about twelve thousand people. However the variation Eastman actually scored higher, ranking 2,162. Easterly trailed with a rank of 12,593
  • South fell at the back of the pack at 3,231, and eleven thousand people. Southern ranked 4,587 and Southward ranked at 23,120. Southward presented a bit of an anomaly. Every other directional surname aligned almost exactly with people who identified as white. By contrast, about a third of the people named Southward identified as African-American.

Then I hoped to find a place for each direction, named for an actual person with that surname rather than its geographic position. I already discussed the wonderful North, South Carolina in North AND South so I set north aside. I didn’t find a South anywhere, although that didn’t surprise me given the frequency of the surname. That left West and East.


More West


Czech Stop, West, TX
Czech Stop, West, TX. Photo by Angie Six on Flickr (cc)

I created a little game around the West surname a few years ago. That reflected its overall popularity. This time I searched for an actual West and I found it in Texas. The name could be confusing. West, Texas (the city) was not the same at West Texas (the region). In fact West, along Interstate 35 between Dallas/Ft. Worth and Waco, probably fell a little bit to the east of the West Texas region by most interpretations. Everyone seemed to have a different definition of West Texas. That didn’t help.

According to the City of West,

The Katy Railroad was laid between Hillsboro and Waco in the fall of 1881. The path of the railroad cut through land owned by Thomas West. Czech immigrants came to the area purchasing the rich lands to farm and start a fresh life in the new world. They also opened businesses sharing their European culture. By the 1890’s the Czech businesses flourished in West.

That legacy of Czech immigration still existed in West. Businesses such as the Czech Stop and Little Czech Bakery (map) combined both cultures and offered kolaches and barbecue. Kolaches, I learned, were a type of fruit pastry brought to the area by those immigrants. Residents also emphasized their cultural heritage each Labor Day with a Czech polka festival called Westfest.


Easton


Easton Neston east side 21 July 1985
Easton Neston east side on Wikimedia Commons (cc)

I couldn’t find a town of East, however I remembered a town on Maryland’s eastern shore called Easton. Unfortunately the name derived from its position east of St. Michaels. Oh well.

Other Eastons existed. Maybe that offered hope. I pulled a few threads on the history of Easton, Pennsylvania (map) and I found an intriguing if convoluted story. Thomas Penn, son of William Penn who founded Pennsylvania, married Juliana Fermor in 1751. The next year a growing town in Pennsylvania needed a name so Penn suggested Easton. Fermor grew up on an estate owned by her father, the 1st Earl of Pomfret, called Easton Neston in Northampton, England (map). The newly established town in Pennsylvania became Easton, in the newly established county of Northampton. That worked out nicely. Problem solved.

However it created another mystery in my mind. Easton Neston seemed to be a rather unusual name for an estate. Actually, it simply borrowed the name from a local church parish, which in turn borrowed the name from a town that existed there for more than a millennium. The town faded away over time although the parish remained, as did the estate. The only reference to its etymology seemed unreliable although I’ll still provide it: "Easton Neston in Northamptonshire gets its name from Old English Eadstanestun ‘settlement of Eadstan’, a personal name composed of the elements ead ‘prosperity’, ‘riches’ + stan ‘stone’."

It sounded good enough to me.

King of Prussia

On November 10, 2016 · 1 Comments

I’ve been fixated on the origins of unusual town names the last few days. First I unraveled the mystery of Snowflake; now I took aim at King of Prussia. A bunch of questions came to mind. Why would someone name a place King of Prussia? Did it refer to a specific king? Why not just name it after the guy instead of referring to him so generally?

The Town


US Route 422
US Route 422. Photo by Montgomery County Planning Commission on Flickr (cc)

I found King of Prussia in Pennsylvania, in an exurb of Philadelphia (map). The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia described a dynamic place,

Twenty miles northwest of downtown Philadelphia, where the Pennsylvania Turnpike converges with the Schuylkill Expressway, a sleepy rural town clustered around a colonial-era tavern expanded massively in the twentieth century to become the region’s largest employment hub outside of Center City Philadelphia.

That could have described perhaps a thousand other places in the United States too, although only one had the strange name. King of Prussia began as an inconsequential village only to be engulfed by the sprawl of a larger city, then transformed into an economic power in its own right. That still didn’t explain its name.


The King


Friedrich Zweite Alt
Friedrich Zweite on Wikimedia Commons. In the public domain.

It didn’t take long to track down the King of Prussia in question. It did refer to a specific Prussian king, Frederick II, often called Frederick the Great. Nobody seemed to know why he got the nod in Pennsylvania and various theories floated about the Intertubes. The area went by Reeseville when the original Quaker settlers moved there in the early 18th Century. The name flipped to King of Prussia sometime during or right after the Revolutionary War. Many Americans thought highly of Frederick II because he supported the Revolution from its earliest days. Also, it may have been a gesture of thanks to General von Steuben of Prussia who trained the Continental Army at nearby Valley Forge. Either way, the name probably arose from patriotic sentiments of local residents as the United States fought for and gained its independence.


The Inn



However, the town did not really get its name from the Frederick the Great. Not directly, anyway. In an odd twist, the name actually came from a local establishment, the King of Prussia Inn.

The original Inn was constructed as a cottage in 1719… The cottage was converted to an inn in 1769 and was important in colonial times as it was approximately a day’s travel by horse from Philadelphia… General George Washington first visited the tavern on Thanksgiving Day in 1777 while the Continental Army was encamped at Whitemarsh…

The Inn (map) remained a local fixture and lent its name to the surrounding area, which also came to be known as King of Prussia. Despite its historical significance, the King of Prussia Inn sat abandoned for much of the last half of the 20th Century, trapped on a traffic island on US Highway 202. The state of Pennsylvania moved it to its present location in 2000. After an extensive restoration, it became the home of the King of Prussia Chamber of Commerce.


The Mall


A cathedral to Consumerism aka King of Prussia Mall
A cathedral to Consumerism aka King of Prussia Mall.
Photo by Thomas Mathie on Flickr (cc)

Most people today, if they knew anything about King of Prussia, probably associated it with its oversized mall. This behemoth housed more than 450 stores in a footprint stretching nearly 3 million square feet. That put it in second place in the United States behind only the Mall of America in Minnesota. From humble inn, to village, to suburb and mega-mall, King of Prussia underwent crazy changes during its history.


The Prince


The View from Craig
The View from Craig. Photo by Joseph on Flickr (cc)

I didn’t discover any other "King of [wherever]" locations in the United States. However I did find a prince, the Prince of Wales in Alaska. Sure, I expected Prince of Wales to appear in the Commonwealth of Nations — and indeed the name appeared all over — although I didn’t expect it in the U.S. Nonetheless, Alaska offered the Prince of Wales–Hyder Census Area, which also included Prince of Wales Island. The island’s largest settlement at Craig (map) included 1,200 residents.

A king ranked above a prince, I supposed.

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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