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.

United States of Colors

I began to think about counties with colors in their names as I investigated the etymology and history of Blue Earth County, Minnesota in further detail. My mind began to wander down this completely unrelated tangent. Soon enough I found myself hunting through a list of US counties for examples and plotting them on a map.

US Counties With Colors in Their Names

Feel free to open this image within another tab or window if you’d like to take a closer look. I’ve shrunk the map down to match size limitations of the blog template even though the underlying graphics file is considerably larger. I’ve also provided a public spreadsheet of my selections if you’re wondering what I discovered or if you’d like to check what I might have overlooked and offer any suggestions.

I made arbitrary decisions in some instances. Obviously something like Frederick County didn’t quality as red even if the letters r-e-d appeared sequentially within its name. How about Greenwood and Greenlee qualifying as Green? I decided to count Greenwood because green wood exists, while Greenlee, well some sources said it may have meant green field or green meadow once long ago. Nonetheless it didn’t resonate with me so I dropped it. I know! Completely unjustified. The arbitrator is a capricious jerk.

I bent protocols in the other direction, too. How about Cherry? That’s red. Vermilion? Also red. At that point I enjoyed my reacquaintance with the two counties bordering each other in adjacent states, one in Illinois (Vermilion with one "l") and one in Indiana (Vermillion with double "ll").

Finally, a big tip of the keyboard had to go to American patriot Nathanael Greene. He began the American Revolutionary War as a private and worked his way up to Major General, responsible for all Continental Army troops in the southern campaign. Historians credited him with wearing down British general Cornwallis in the Carolinas, driving the fight into Virginia where Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

What does that have to do with anything? A grateful new nation named an astounding number of places for the famous patriot. Every one of the 14 Greene Counties in the United States honored Nathanael Greene, as did the Green Counties (inexplicably dropping the final "e") established in Kentucky and Wisconsin. The collective Green/e counties greened the map rather nicely, don’t you think?


Colorful Sequence

View Colorful Roadtrip in Minnesota in a larger map

It still seemed I couldn’t dodge the specialness of Blue Earth County. I noticed that Blue Earth formed a solid anchor for an amazing sequence of colorful counties. Extending along the southern bank of the Minnesota River, physically attached like a string of precious jewels pulled upriver: Blue Earth, Brown, Redwood and Yellow Medicine. I thought that would be a fantastic premise for any prospective county counter, traveling from blue to brown to red to yellow. I’ve not captured any of them yet. I see a trip to southern Minnesota in my future.

I had to know the etymology of this colorful coincidental progression:

  • Blue Earth: Named for the Blue Earth river, discussed previously.
  • Brown: Named for Joseph Renshaw Brown, and early Minnesota legislator.
  • Redwood: Named for a variety of juniper found locally, Juniperus virginiana, also known as Red Cedar.
  • Yellow Medicine: Named for a plant, reputedly Menispermum canadense (Common Moonseed or Yellow Parilla), used by the Dakota tribe for medicinal purposes

There is one additional colorful county in Minnesota worth mentioning although it’s located in a completely different part of the state than the magnificent contiguous four: it’s called Red Lake. That county was featured in one of the very first 12MC articles (article #7! November 2007!). As far as I can tell, it’s the only landlocked county with only two neighboring counties, cradled by Polk County on three sides and Pennington County on the remaining side.