I came across an interesting naming string as I researched Noble Layers. It didn’t quite fit the definition of that earlier article. Even so I found it fascinating in its own right, and it deserved to be highlighted.
Richemont mairie [town hall]. Photo by Gjv76 on Wikimedia Commons (cc)
It began, maybe, in a remote corner of Normandy a millennia ago. There stood the village of Richemont (map), now a commune in the present-day Seine-Maritime department of France. Richemont in the old Norman language translated to something like Strong Hill. It never grew into much. Fewer than 500 people lived there even in the modern era.
Richmond, North Yorkshire
Richmond, North Yorkshire. Photo by Ian Britton on Flickr (cc)
Sources diverged on whether the Norman Richemont inspired the name of Richmond in North Yorkshire, England (map). Maybe it did, or maybe North Yorkshire’s Richmond truly served as the "Mother of All Richmonds." A long line of Earls and other nobles of Richmond hailed from Yorkshire’s Richmond starting in 1071. William the Conqueror bestowed the initial title of 1st Lord of Richmond upon Alan Rufus (Alan the Red) of Brittany who lived in Richmond after the Norman conquest of England.
Richmond Palace, London
GOC Richmond 010: Gate House. Photo by Peter O’Connor aka anemoneprojectors on Flickr (cc)
Earls of Richmond existed through several creations, held by more than twenty men over the next four centuries. Henry Tudor claimed the title indisputably in 1485. He went on to win the Battle of Bosworth Field to effectively end the War of the Roses, becoming King Henry VII of England. Henry VII moved to the royal palace of Sheen outside of London. It burned down in 1498 so he replaced Sheen with a new palace on the same spot. He called it Richmond Palace (map) after his Earldom. Very little of Richmond Palace survived besides its original Gate House. The rest was demolished soon after Charles I died in 1649.
A town formed around Richmond Palace and remained there after the demolition of the castle. It carried the same name, Richmond.
Richmond on the James. Photo by Mobilus In Mobili on Flickr (cc)
Across the Atlantic Ocean, adventurers streamed into the Virginia Colony. They focused their settlements along the James River. They brought familiar place names with them too.
As early as 1608, the English settlers eyed a community near the seven-mile-long series of rapids that divided the head of navigation at the river’s downstream end and the calm stretch of water upriver from it. The area provided a series of strategic advantages: as a port, as a location for mills, and as a transitional territory between the Tidewater-based Powhatan Indians and the Monacan Indians of the Piedmont.
It took more than a century for a town of significance to form along the James River’s fall line. A prominent colonial plantation owner, William Byrd II, provided the necessary land in 1737. He named it Richmond (map). The view of the James River supposedly reminded him of the view of the Thames from the Richmond near London.
Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Photo by Don McCullough on Flickr (cc)
Richmond, Virginia existed before most of the places in the new United States. It also served as the capital city of the Confederate States. Its longevity and significance inspired people to name newer communities in its honor. Thus, Richmonds sprouted successfully in Kentucky, Missouri, Oregon, California and many other states. The one in California arose soon after California gained statehood.
[Edmund] Randolph, originally from Richmond, Virginia, represented the city of San Francisco when California’s first legislature met in San Jose in December 1849, and he became state assemblyman from San Francisco. His loyalty to the town of his birth caused him to persuade a federal surveying party mapping the San Francisco Bay to place the names "Point Richmond" and "Richmond" on an 1854 geodetic coast map.
California’s Richmond later included several neighborhoods incorporating the Richmond name. These included Central Richmond, East Richmond, Richmond Annex, Richmond Heights, and Southwest Richmond Annex. I wondered if people living in any of those places realized the unlikely string that connected their communities back in time a thousand years.
Several other Richmond strings existed to lesser degrees. I also found Richemont, Seine-Maritime, France –> Richmond, North Yorkshire –> Duke of Richmond –> Richmond Co., New York (Staten Island) –> Richmond, Alabama. In addition there was Richemont, Seine-Maritime, France –> Richmond, North Yorkshire –> Duke of Richmond –> Fort Richmond –> Richmond, Maine.
So many Richmonds existed that the possibilities seemed endless.
In Latin, the word canna meant reed, the root of canalis meaning "water pipe, groove, [or] channel." The French language retained this term as it evolved from Latin, and the English language adopted it to describe a pipe for transporting liquid. This transformed to its modern English usage by the Seventeenth Century to represent an artificial waterway, as noted by the Online Etymology Dictionary.
I always thought that a canal resulted from someone digging a path through the ground to let a steady stream of water flow through it. That wasn’t necessarily the case according to technical jargon I stumbled upon. A canal connected two or more watersheds. Something called a navigation performed similar functions within a single watershed. Thus the Erie Canal connecting Lake Erie to the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson River counted as a canal. In contrast, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington, DC wouldn’t be considered a canal by that definition because it ran solely along the Potomac River. It didn’t matter that it stretched 180 miles (290 kilometres). The C&O counted as a navigation, which I’m sure would have surprised the people who designed, constructed and dubbed it a canal in the 1830’s.
The distinction didn’t make much difference to me. I decided to call them all canals.
Dismal Swamp Canal. Photo by Ryan Somma on Flickr (cc)
Nobody knows exactly when or where people built the very first canal. They traced back to the earliest times of agricultural settlement. Canals served an important purpose in ancient Mesopotamia both to control flooding and to irrigate crops. Egyptian pharaohs turned canal construction into an art form in later centuries, using them for additional purposes including transportation.
Since I couldn’t find the first canal ever built, I decided to feature the oldest canal in the United States in continuous usage. Work began on the Dismal Swamp Canal in 1793 and it soon connected North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia (map). It provided convenient access to the lumbermen who harvested large cypress trees that grew in abundance in the swamp. No less than George Washington owned a 1/12 share in the venture. This resulted in George Washington Ditch, probably the least memorable features honoring him. A national capital memorialized his name. An entire state honored him. Then there was this ditch in a swamp. I’m sure his wife wouldn’t think too highly of nearby South Martha Washington Ditch either.
Today the canal provides a link in the Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway, giving safe passage to small vessels moving up and down the Atlantic coast.
The Grand Canal. Photo by Lawrence Siu on Flickr (cc)
China’s Grand Canal (map) garnered two superlatives. No other canal extended farther and no other canal operated longer. This ancient canal stretched 1,115 miles (1,794 kilometres) and has been used continuously since the Sixth Century. UNESCO recognized the Grand Canal as a World Heritage Site, noting,
It formed the backbone of the Empire’s inland communication system, transporting grain and strategic raw materials, and supplying rice to feed the population… linking five of the most important river basins in China, including the Yellow River and the Yangtze.
The Grand Canal continues to serve a vital purpose in the Chinese economy today more than 1,500 years after its construction.
Panama Canal. Photo by MT_bulli on Flickr (cc)
Scientists used Global Positioning Satellite data to track more than 16,000 ships a few years ago. They hoped to determine the busiest ports in the world empirically, and their results pointed to the Panama Canal (map) first and the Suez Canal next. I supposed gross tonnage served as a nice proxy for busiest canal too. That distinction will only increase with the Panama Canal Expansion project that "will double the Canal’s capacity."
Millenium Ribble Link. Photo by Chris Hills on Flickr (cc)
While the canal building era seemed to reach its peak in the Nineteenth Century, new canals continue to be built even now. I couldn’t be sure which one might be the newest worldwide although I found an answer for the United Kingdom. The Millennium Ribble Link canal located outside of Preston, England opened in 2002 (map). That was almost a century after the next younger UK canal opened. It stretched only five miles (8 km), connecting the Lancaster Canal to the River Ribble. However, the canal served no economic purpose other than tourism. It provided a few miles of pleasurable passage and, more importantly, added the formerly-isolated Lancaster Canal to the hundreds of miles in the larger English canal network.
Someday the newest canal might open in Nicaragua if its prospective builders ever get their act together.
I came across the escape route used by John Wilkes Booth in the immediate aftermath of the Abraham Lincoln assassination while I researched By George. Every student in the United States likely learned all about the assassination multiple times starting from elementary school and every year thereafter. Fewer probably knew much about the attempted escape. I confess to understanding no more than a few basic details of Booth’s brief flight from justice. Then I started to wonder if I could find the exact spot where Booth died, a rather macabre subject for sure, although certainly a legitimate topic for a geo-oddity blog.
John Wilkes Booth’s Foiled Escape
Garrett Farm on Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain
For example, I knew all about Ford’s Theater where Booth shot Lincoln. It’s still there, an active home to the performing arts, and I’ve been to it a bunch of times. I’d never heard of Richard H. Garrett’s farm, though. That’s where Booth died.
John Wilkes Booth fled south from the city into Maryland after he committed his horrendous crime. He stopped at Surratt’s Tavern for guns and supplies he’d stashed there earlier. Then he traveled to to the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd who set his broken leg. Mudd later went to prison for four years at remote Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas for doing that (I saw his jail cell!).
Booth then stayed with various Confederate sympathizers, hid in the woods, and crossed the Potomac River into Virginia. Eventually he found his way to Garrett’s farm. Garrett apparently had no idea who he was dealing with and in fact hadn’t even heard about Lincoln’s assassination. Lines of communication had been decimated in Virginia during those final months of the war and word hadn’t spread that far yet.
Union soldiers tracked Booth down to the farm and trapped him in a tobacco barn on Garrett’s property. Booth refused to surrender so they set the barn on fire. One of the soldiers shot Booth — some say in cold blood — and Booth was carried to Garrett’s front porch where he died several hours later. That would seem to be a rather historic spot yet it no longer exists. The house fell into disrepair in spite of its notoriety, eventually collapsing upon itself.
The place where Booth died is as unsung as modernity can make it, a forgotten median, sandwiched between the north and southbound lanes of a divided, four-lane highway. Commuters and truckers speed by, wholly unaware that they’ve passed the location where the most famous manhunt in United States history came to a violent end.
The road that passed by Garrett’s home eventually became U.S. Route 301, later expanded to four lanes (map), obliterating what little was left of the farm.
Fort A.P. Hill
Va. Guard aviators support Marines at Fort A.P. Hill by Virginia Guard Public Affairs on Flickr (cc)
That wasn’t the only indignity. The United States Army began to expand rapidly in the years leading up to World War II. It searched around the country for out-of-the-way spaces suitable for stashing military functions away from prying eyes. Eastern Virginia looked particularly good, a quite rural hideaway just steps from the nation’s capital, with sixty thousand acres available for the government to seize.
Fort A.P. Hill was established as an Army training facility on June 11, 1941, pursuant to War Department General Order No. 5. In its 1st year, the installation was used as a maneuver area for the II Army Corps and for three activated National Guard divisions from Mid-Atlantic states. In the autumn of 1942, Fort A.P. Hill was the staging area for the headquarters and corps troops of Major General Patton’s Task Force A, which invaded French Morocco in North Africa.
The old Garrett farm fell within the original northern boundary of Fort A.P. Hill. Who exactly was A.P. Hill? He was a Confederate general who fought the Union armies of Abraham Lincoln and died in combat during the Third Battle of Petersburg. It seemed a little ironic that the US Army named a fort for someone who fought against it. Similarly, it seemed strange that the place where Lincoln’s assassin died happened on land that would later be named for a Confederate officer. Yet there it was, and largely forgotten.