Europeans began to subdivide the Lower Mississippi watershed into various colonial claims, and the nascent United States carved it further into states, counties and even smaller units. They used the rivers as boundaries in some instances, and straight lines laid arbitrarily in others. Both interacted to form an awesome string of geo-oddities throughout the region. I visited as many as feasible along our path. Kentucky seemed to have an overabundance of them and that’s where I began as I worked my way downstream.
Missouri and Kentucky border each other, and yet, no bridge spans directly between the two states. In fact there’s a complete lack of any bridges over the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois to the Interstate 155 bridge west of Dyersburg, Tennessee, a minimum road distance of nearly 85 miles (140 kilometers) (map).
There is one additional option however, the Dorena-Hickman Ferry (map), running from Dorena, Missouri to Hickman, Kentucky. Not only does it span the gap between those widely-spaced Mississippi River bridges in a very rural area, it offers a rare, direct crossing between two states with a tiny shared border. Few people complete this feat. The ferry holds only a handful of vehicles at a time.
To be honest, I’d forgotten about this little oddity until new reader Aaron sent an email message a few days before the trip completely by coincidence and happened to mention it. I figured I’d already planned to drive within a few miles of Wolf Island so I might as well check it out along the way. I would have been kicking myself if the message had arrived a week later and I’d missed my chance.
Wolf Island, Virtually
Consider that there were couple of Kentucky exclaves on the "wrong" side of the Mississippi River appended to Missouri due to changes in the path of the river over time. This made it possible to drive between Kentucky and Missouri on dry land in a few out-of-the-way places. I examined maps closely and determined that the best spot to accomplish such a crossing would involve Kentucky’s Wolf Island via Missouri’s Route 80.
Wolf Island figured into a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1870, Missouri v. Kentucky. Missouri claimed that Wolf Island belonged to it because it had been connected physically to the Missouri from its origin. Kentucky argued the opposite point and offered witness testimony to demonstrate that Wolf Island had once been connected to the eastern shore until the river shifted. The Court found Kentucky’s argument more persuasive and affirmed the legitimacy of the Kentucky exclave.
Route 80 offered a paved surface as it headed towards the river. From there, it was a simple matter of turning onto the gravel of Wolf Island Road for just a few feet until crossing the Kentucky border. The road had an iron rail that could be closed to block access to Kentucky, however it was open when we arrived and I drove over the border just long enough to take the photograph, above. I didn’t bother to ask for permission and there wasn’t anybody nearby to ask anyway. This was actually very easy.
I’ve now crossed between Kentucky and Missouri on water (Dorena-Hickman Ferry) and on dry land (from Missouri to Kentucky’s Wolf Island exclave). I imagine there aren’t very many people who can say the same.
I’ve received numerous inquires from the 12MC audience over the years asking why I’ve never mentioned Kentucky Bend, a place sometimes called Bubbleland for its unusual shape. For the longest time my wife misunderstood what I’d been calling it and thought the name was "Bubba Land." In a sense Bubba Land felt more appropriate, actually.
Kentucky Bend, Virtually
Kentucky Bend formed on a sharp curve in the Mississippi River, physically separated from the rest of the state. It existed where an artificial line intersected the river. The only overland driving route goes through Tennessee.
Kentucky’s southern border with Tennessee was defined along a specific line of latitude dating back to colonial times before Kentucky and Tennessee even existed. Kentucky’s border with Missouri, however, followed the Mississippi River. Surely an accommodation would have been made had this intersection been explored and better understood when designated, although it was deep in the wilderness at the time and nobody really thought about it. Imagine the surprise of surveyors establishing a border between Kentucky and Tennessee when they finally arrived at the end of their journey and discovered that their line cut through a loop of the river.
The reason I’d never written about Kentucky Bend previously was because I wanted to visit it in person instead of simply writing about it in an abstract manner. That visit has now been completed. There’s not much out there although that’s hardly the point. I noticed the usual eye-rolls from my wife while I photographed each sign in succession. Then I photographed the road itself to record the changes in pavement that took place at the state border. Fun times.
As an aside, anytime 12MC ignores a famous US geo-oddity that truly deserves mention, it means that I’m waiting to visit it in person.
Welcome to Arkansas
I crossed state borders repeatedly as I jogged back-and-forth across the Mississippi River during our journey. Every river crossing marked a boundary between two different states. For me, those included Illinois-Missouri; Missouri-Kentucky; Tennessee-Arkansas; Arkansas-Mississippi and Mississippi-Louisiana (and Kentucky-Illinois if one counts my Ohio River crossing). The image of the "Welcome to Arkansas" sign reproduced above appeared on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge on Interstate 40, spanning between Memphis, Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas.
Those were wonderful opportunities from the perspective of experiencing a number of awesome bridges plus a leisurely ferry. However there wouldn’t be any state tripoint adventures this time unlike my Dustbowl trip. The tripoints, like the borders, were all located within the river.
Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park
I drove to perhaps the most obscure state park in Arkansas (map). A boardwalk led deep into a headland swamp, to a simple marker noting:
This stone marks the base established Nov. 10, 1815 from which the lands of the Louisiana Purchase were surveyed by United States engineers, the first survey from this point was made to satisfy the claims of the soldiers of the War of 1812 with land bounties.
More specifically, this marked the intersection of the Fifth Principal Meridian (north-south) and its Baseline (east-west). Why did they locate such an important surveying reference in the middle of a swamp? Again it related back to the artificial nature of straight lines interacting with rivers. The meridian began at the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. The base began at the confluence of the St. Francis and Mississippi Rivers. Their intersection by simple happenstance occurred in a swamp. This marshy spot served as a survey point for the current states of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota along with portions of South Dakota and Minnesota.
The marker also served as the tripoint for Arkansas’ Lee, Monroe and Phillips Counties. I may not have captured any state tripoints so counties would have suffice as a substitute.
The Riverboat Adventure articles:
I began to consider confluences while pondering the Confluence Brewing Company during my recent Geo-BREWities exercise. Maybe I should credit Google Map’s auto-completion function for the suggestion after I typed the brewery name into an address bar. It noted that at least one town of Confluence existed. A quick check of the Geographic Names Information System uncovered two more although the occurrences in Kentucky (map) and Alabama (map) barely registered as pinpricks.
By comparison, Pennsylvania’s Confluence was a veritable metropolis, and home to several hundred residents nestled in the hills of the southwestern corner. Confluence was even large enough to justify its own Tourism Association.
The Confluences of Confluence, Pennsylvania, USA
Confluence, the town, recognized a couple of distinct riverine confluences. First, Laurel Hill Creek flowed into the Casselman River. A few hundred feet later a slightly-enlarged Casselman River flowed into the Youghiogheny River. Truly this Confluence represented the facts on the ground. Abundant water descended from neighboring hillsides and joined near a common spot where a settlement sprouted.
(A) Fallingwater (B) Kentucky Knob (C) Town of Confluence (D) MDPAWV Tripoint (E) PA Highpoint
The situation went beyond those literal confluences as I considered the surrounding landscape. Confluence, the village, offered a gateway to a confluence of interesting historic and geographic features within remarkably close proximity.
Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob
Fallingwater, photographed by Chun-Hung Eric Cheng on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license
Fallingwater (aka the Kaufmann Residence) — Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1935 architectural masterpiece — perched on a hillside nearby. This was arguably one of the most visually recognizable homes ever built, an iconic symbol certainly within the United States and perhaps beyond. The unusual cantilever design constructed over a natural waterfall has been hailed as a masterpiece.
Lesser known, Wright designed another home only seven miles (11 km) away, Kentuck Knob (aka the Hagan House). This property remains a private home, owned by Lord and Lady Palumbo of the United Kingdom who reside there part of the year. It has become available for limited tours only recently.
Great Allegheny Passage
Great Allegheny Passage Trail Outside of Confluence
The Great Allegheny Passage bicycle and walking trail blazed directly through Confluence. This Rails-to-Trails project followed the path of several lines abandoned by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, Union Railroad and Western Maryland Railway. Someone could bike 150 miles (240 km) from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Cumberland, Maryland on the Great Allegheny Passage, and from there pick-up the C&O Canal Towpath all the way to Washington, DC, stretching the ride to more than 330 miles (530 km).
Maryland-Pennsylvania-West Virginia Tripoint
Confluence and the MDPAWV Tripoint
Government officials drew artificial lines all over the eastern side of the continent during Colonial times and tweaked those boundaries in the early years of the newly-independent United States. That resulted in a tripoint for the current states of Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia very near where Confluence later grew. The MDPAWV Tripoint should be a readily-approachable waypoint for those fascinated by borders and boundaries. It maintained additional historic significance as a marker along the famed Mason-Dixon Line.
Mount Davis Observation deck by David Fulmer on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license
As an added bonus, nearby Mount Davis marked the highest point of elevation for Pennsylvania at 3213 feet (979 m). Summit Post said,
Views from the top are nice, especially with the very tall observation tower, that allows for expansive views in all directions. You are surrounded by mountains, and you can also see modern wind turbines on a nearby ridge.
For a lazy highpointer such as myself, I noticed that a visitor could drive almost all the way to the very top and reach the summit with a short, easy hike.
Now that I’ve considered it more, I think I’ll have to put Confluence on my list for a long weekend. This should be a feasible itinerary for anyone living in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Someday maybe I’ll take this trip and report back to the 12MC audience.
I was reminded recently, as I updated an old page, that not every U.S. state highpoint can be found on the summit of its parent landform. Boundaries don’t always follow geographic contours like rivers or ridges. Oftentimes segments are composed of straight lines determined by agreement or treaty or negotiation regardless of the underlying terrain. Sometimes, by random chance a state line crosses the shoulder of a mountain, and not its summit. Much more rarely, the line crossing at that spot will be the highest point of elevation in the state, while the higher-elevated mountain summit will be found in a neighboring state.
Connecticut Highpoint Marker by howderfamily.com
The most well-known example appears along the border between Connecticut and Massachusetts. Connecticut’s highpoint can be found at the far northwestern corner of the state (map), just a short walk from the CTMANY tripoint. As Summit Post described it,
Mt. Frissell’s southwest shoulder is the highest point in Connecticut at 2,380 feet [725 metres] above sea level. It is one of only three US state highpoints that are the highest point in a state but not technically the summit of the hill or mountain.
The highpoint is sometimes described as located on Mt. Frissell’s southwest shoulder, other times its southwest slope, and it’s an otherwise unremarkable outcrop. The nearby summit in Massachusetts rises a bit higher, to 2,454 feet (748 metres). I was fortunate enough to visit the state highpoint during the Connecticut Extremes trip in 2012. The diminutive green rod was marginally more exciting than the District of Columbia highpoint disc, and fell considerably short of New Jersey’s impressive highpoint tower. The scenery was nice, though.
What caught my eye was the reference to "three US state highpoints that are the highest point in a state but not technically the summit…" I thought I knew the second one. I had no idea about the third, and I’m still not convinced I confirmed it.
Black Mesa Trailhead by howderfamily.com
I was pretty sure about the status of Black Mesa (map), or at least I seemed to recall something about it when I researched the feature during my Dust Bowl trip. I never actually made it up to the Oklahoma highpoint though. That would have entailed effort. I got as close as the iron fence at the trailhead and opted for the nearby CONMOK tripoint and the fossilized dinosaur tracks instead.
Sure enough, Wikipedia mentioned Black Mesa’s unusual situation:
Its highest elevation is 5,712 feet (1,741 m) in Colorado. The highest point of Black Mesa within New Mexico is 5,266 feet (1,605 m). In northwestern Cimarron County, Oklahoma, Black Mesa reaches 4,973 feet (1,516 m), the highest point in the state of Oklahoma.
I don’t know if it makes sense to say that a mesa has a "summit" although whatever one calls its highest point, Black Mesa would have one located in Colorado. Even spots in New Mexico’s portion are higher than the Oklahoma highpoint. Thus, Oklahoma earned the dubious honor of having a highpoint located on a geographic feature with higher elevations in two neighboring states.
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Was Nevada the third state referenced by the claim? Maybe. Undoubtedly, its highest elevation is Boundary Peak. The controversy centers on whether Boundary Peak counts as a distinct summit or whether it’s merely a bump on the way to Montgomery Peak on the California side of the border. They’re twin peaks, with Boundary at 13,140 feet (4,005 m) and Montgomery at 13,441 feet (4097 m). I figure it has its own name — Boundary Peak — so I’m not sure it belongs on the same list as Mt. Frissell and Black Mesa.
Could some other state contain the remaining elusive highpoint that wasn’t a summit? I examined every state highpoint that fell near a border and couldn’t find another one. Perhaps I’m overlooking something obvious, in which case I’m sure the 12MC community will let me know.
I thought about repeating this exercise at the international level, and maybe someday I will. I started getting little frustrated with the U.S. state search and stopped for now.