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?
US Route 422. Photo by Montgomery County Planning Commission on Flickr (cc)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I don’t feature the most obvious geo-oddities of the United States anymore unless I plan to actually visit them in person. Perhaps a few longtime Twelve Mile Circle readers noticed the foreshadowing when I discussed the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia a few days ago. Maybe others saw photos I began to post on the 12MC Twitter account. Clearly, I intended to focus some personal love and attention on that northernmost pinnacle of the Mountain State.
The Columbus Day weekend offered an ideal opportunity to fill-in some nearby blanks on my county counting map. I finished Virginia a few months ago so maybe West Virginia would be the next logical target. I wouldn’t be able to complete it in a single long weekend although I could certainly take a chunk out of it. Originally I intended to head out onto the highways on my own. However, my older son also had a 3-day weekend and he decided to tag along. I warned him that the trip would long drives, random geo-oddities and obscure historical sites. He seemed fine with it so I started pulling together my plans and the route.
We would head first up to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to get some miles behind us. From there we would head to the northern tip of West Virginia and turn south, zigzagging across the Ohio River valley, capturing counties on both sides. We would then proceed east across West Virginia filling a couple of doughnut holes, and head home. I could capture 10 new counties if all went according to plan. That happened for the most part.
The Trip Began
The only difficulty took place on the first leg of our road trip. We couldn’t leave until afternoon. Traffic near Washington, DC rarely goes well under the best of circumstances. Friday afternoon on a 3-day weekend, well, that was practically a guaranteed disaster. We suffered through stop-and-go traffic on the Beltway, then on Interstate 270, and all the way west out to Hagerstown, a distance of 70 miles (115 kilometers). The road opened up as we moved deeper into Maryland and north towards the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Clouds started moving it. We ran into the very outermost bands of Hurricane Matthew, many hundreds of miles from the worst parts of the storm. It rained the remainder of the drive to Pittsburgh and indeed throughout the night. Driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike through the western part of the state is never easy, with its twisting lanes and narrow shoulders over the mountains. Throw in heavy rain, road spray and lots of trucks and it became quite the nail-biting experience.
First Leg Done
A four hour drive took five and a half hours. I needed a beer after that.
We headed straight to Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh. We didn’t even bother to stop at the hotel to check in first. Nope. I definitely needed that beer. I’d been wanting to go to Church Brew Works for awhile so it was nice to finally check it out in person. The place drew quite a crowd on a Friday evening and we arrived just in time to get what appeared to be the last table available. Our luck changed from that moment forward. We found only smooth sailing for the rest of our expedition.
My West Virginia county map showed only six counties remaining once I completed the trip. They aligned in a nice belt through the middle of the state. Maybe I could finish West Virginia with one final push? It certainly seems doable. If anyone comes back to this page in the distant future (I’m posting this in October 2016) and notices the blanks filled, it means I’ve succeeded.