Good Fortuna

Fortuna was the Roman goddess of prosperity and luck. That would be an excellent name for any location hoping for some of that mojo to rub off. I was aware of a Fortuna in California (map), probably the largest Fortuna in the United States. It was settled in the heart of redwood country.

Along the Avenue of the Giants
Along the Avenue of the Giants by Images by John 'K', on Flickr (cc)

I’m sure it’s very nice and I’d love to go there someday and take a drive down the Avenue of the Giants. However this Twelve Mile Circle wasn’t about that particular Fortuna. Maybe I’ll circle back to that eventually. Not today.

Another Fortuna

Rather, I became fixated on the Fortuna I’d uncovered as I investigated the intricacies of what divided Divide County in North Dakota. There sat tiny Fortuna, population 22, all alone on the Great Plains (map). Let’s ride along on a little driving tour given by some random guy on YouTube, shall we?

Hmmm… there wasn’t much there, was there? A church, a gun club, a curling club, a few houses and a senior center.

Don’t be deceived. Look below the surface and every place is a geo-oddity. I myself live in the smallest self-governing county in the United States. I’m sure your little corner of the world has its own unusual geographic distinction too. Fortuna (pronounced For-Toona) was fortunate enough to have two unusual features, one created by nature and one caused by the arbitrary placements of lines by man.

We already discussed the first condition in County Divided: the Brush Lake Closed Basin. Fortuna fell barely within the eastern edge of this endorheic basin. Sandwiched between Arctic and Atlantic watersheds, water falling in Fortuna wouldn’t flow to either ocean. Instead it drained to nearby Brush Lake just over the border in Montana where its overland journey ended, trapped in a gouge carved by ancient glaciers during the last Ice Age.

US Time Zones via Wikimedia Commons, in the Public Domain

The second feature was somewhat more esoteric. According to North Dakota State University, Fortuna had the distinction of having the latest sunset on the summer solstice for any town in the Lower 48 United States, at 10:03 p.m. That occurred because of a confluence of a couple of different situations. Fortuna happened to be located at the far western edge of the Central Time Zone. The zone had a nub in northwestern North Dakota that made Fortuna considerably farther west than almost any other place along the time zone edge.

The exception was a corner of west Texas east of El Paso, say, somewhere like Van Horne (map). It was just a little farther west than Fortuna. However there was a different factor that more than made up the difference: latitude. I put the points into a great circle mapper and found that Fortuna was about 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometres) farther north than Van Horne. Thus, with that large of a difference I think it would be safe to speculate that sunset happened later on the summer solstice in Fortuna’s corner of North Dakota than anywhere else in the Central Time Zone. I suppose I could also check the other three U.S. time zones in the Lower 48 for their westernmost extremes although I’m simply not that motivated. The Intertubes said it was true and I left it at that.

But Wait, You Also Get This

Fortuna had history. I hardly would have expected anything of historical significance in such a remote area. Yet, ironically its remoteness actually created its importance. Out-of-sight places made ideal locations for a variety of Cold War artifacts.

Fortuna Air Force Station
Fortuna Air Force Station via Wikimedia Commons, in the Public Domain

The U.S. government constructed Fortuna Air Force Station just outside of town, a radar base operating from 1952 to 1984. It was designed to track enemy aircraft and coordinate their interception should Soviets bombers have attacked the United States. The site was completely abandoned once the Cold War faded and fell away. Ghosts of North Dakota visited the old station recently and noted,

We got word that this base was to be demolished in 2013, so we set out to photograph it before it was too late… The radar dishes and domes were removed long ago, and the site has since been heavily vandalized and scavenged. The salvage rights were sold some years back and the team that did the salvage knocked holes in the walls of most of the buildings to remove boilers and scrap metal.

The station may soon become just another patch on the plains before too long, however Veterans of the 780th AC&W Radar Squadron still keep in touch.

What does the future hold for the town of Fortuna? Perhaps something fortunate. This quadrant of North Dakota has boomed in recent years because of oil discoveries in the Bakken formation. The population of Divide County increased by more than 10% between 2010 and 2013 (the latest figures available) after decades of decline.

The Pinetree Line

I’m not sure how I stumbled upon the Pinetree Line. I suppose I thought it was an unusually descriptive term so I tucked it away for my list of "things to ponder later." It was a Cold War manifestation, an effort by Canada and the United States to provide an early warning system should the Soviet Union send bombers over the North Pole to shower North American cities with nuclear explosions. Cheery thought, eh? The Pinetree Line ran basically along the low-50’s parallels north, which also happen to be roughly where deciduous trees give way to conifers of the boreal forests.

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For once I get to use someone else’s map: this one comes from based on data listed in Wikipedia’s article on the Pinetree Line. There are other good sources including a comprehensive list on and a map on – The Air Defenses Radar Veterans Association.

The "duck and cover" era of the early 1950’s was a fearsome time. The world could end at any moment. Everyone understood the terrible effects of nuclear weapons, and worse, the technology diffused and proliferate amongst adversaries. Defenses needed to be developed. One such countermeasure consisted of a line of radar stations strung between the Pacific to Atlantic coasts, and then heading north towards Baffin Island, the so-called Pinetree Line.

They were obsolete almost as soon as they were constructed. It was always supposed to be a final line of defense, providing only a last-ditch warning should the USSR send bombers over Canada. Soon the Soviets switched to jet-powered aircraft and the potential warning time dropped even further. Plus, the radar technology used on the line had trouble detecting airplanes flying close to the ground. That wasn’t a good combination. Radar stations were added further north with new technology to address the deficiencies. Stations along the Pinetree Line started being decommissioned by the end of the decade. A few managed to hang on stubbornly even into the 1980’s.

The locations selected for individual radar sites varied widely. Some logically were collocated with Royal Canadian Air Force Bases; some were placed in developed areas near international airports, some were found on remote mountaintops, and some were perched atop rocky islands in the barren north. The experiences of the servicemen must have varied considerably as well. I imagine someone stationed on an outcrop in what is now Nunavut must have felt a kinship with 19th Century lighthouse keepers while those at RCAF Station Comox near a town of 12,000 residents might have enjoyed considerably greater amenities. Veterans groups remain active and sometimes share messages related to their experiences protecting North America along the Pinetree Line.

One can still see remnants of the old Pinetree Line although time has begun to take its toll. I recommend looking at the Google Map that I borrowed, above. Put it into satellite mode and drill-down. Here are a few that I enjoyed:

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Cold Lake C-36 in Alberta is now part of the Cold Lake Air Force Museum. This may be one of the few places where one can easily and legally access a former site on the Pinetree Line. Additionally one can view several aircraft on display including a CF-5 Freedom Fighter, CT-133 Silver Star and CT-134 Musketeer, plus three other collocated museums. This would be at the top of my list if I ever visited the area.

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Resolution Island N-30 in Nunavut makes my list because it’s hard to imagine any place more desolate and remote. There isn’t so much as a tree or any other plant life within view. It’s no more than barren rock with a few huts and the winters must have been brutal. It must have taken a special person to work here.

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I like Falconbridge C-9 outside of Sudbury, Ontario simply for truth in advertising. They weren’t making any attempt to hide its function. The site is located right along Radar Road.

Totally Unrelated

I developed a map of all United States counties with fewer than one person per square mile a couple of weeks ago in More Land than People. The blog "Data Pointed" has taken this to an entirely different level, a map of every Census Block with fewer than one person per square mile. Wow! This one shouldn’t be missed. It puts my pitiful attempt to shame.