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.
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.
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.
What were the odds of seeing Twelve Mile Circle visitors from George, South Africa and George, Washington, USA on the same day? I found the coincidence fascinating. The city of George in Washington was, of course, named for George Washington. That other George in South Africa’s Western Cape Province, I suspected, must have been named for one of the several King Georges who ruled Great Britain. Which one though? There were six such kings over a span of more than two centuries. That led me to wonder if I could find a geographic place named for each one of them. I uncovered more than I expected so I had to split the topic into two articles. This post will cover George I, II and III. The next one will discuss George IV, V and VI.
George didn’t become King until he was well into his 50’s upon the death of Queen Anne. He’d been born in Hanover and spent his time as Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg growing up. There were numerous members of the extended royal family more closely related to Anne that George, however they were all Catholic so they didn’t qualify to succeed her. Being of Protestant faith, the throne came to George, the first king of the House of Hanover. His age pretty much guaranteed that he wouldn’t reign long and it limited the opportunity for places to be named in his honor.
A section of Richmond County in Virginia (referenced in Not the City) became King George County (map) in 1720. The county website confirmed that it was named for George I. That would make sense because its founding happened right in the middle of his reign.
Not much happened in King George County although a future President of the United States, James Madison was born there in 1751. That was impressive although I discovered another person born in the county that interested me even more, a man with the unusual nickname William "Extra Billy" Smith. He had quite a distinguished career, serving in the United States Congress, the Confederate State Congress, the Governor of Virginia both for the United States and for the Confederacy, and as a Major General in the Confederate Army. He tried his luck in California during the Gold Rush and he operated a postal service that ran from Virginia to Georgia. The postal operation earned him his unusual nickname. It seemed that he created a bunch of unnecessary side routes to collect additional fees. Friends and foes alike began to call him "Extra Billy" after authorities discovered his scheme, a name that followed him for life.
Next came George II, son of George I, who ruled for a much longer period. A longer reign equaled more opportunities for places named for him, and that’s exactly what I found. The state of Georgia (map) in the United States may have been the most significant. James Oglethorpe founded the Georgia colony in 1733 under a royal charter issued by George II, and it was always a good idea to flatter one’s patron. A beautiful lake in the Adirondacks of New York, sometimes called the Queen of American Lakes, also took his name: Lake George (map). The lake got its name during the era of the French and Indian War when Sir William Johnson occupied the territory and won the Battle of Lake George. The Georgetown neighborhood (map) of Washington, DC, however, may or may may not have been named for George II. It’s founding certainly dated to his reign. Nonetheless the founders and primary land owners were George Beall and George Gordon so those could have inspired the named too.
George II also had a war named for him: King George’s War, (1744–48), the North American campaign of the War of the Austrian Succession.
George II’s son Frederick died before him so the succession went to his grandson, George III who was only 22 years old. George III also lived a very long time. He reigned for nearly sixty years so his name got affixed to lots of places although few of them existed in the United States. He was viewed as an oppressor when the nation fought for its independence so his name may have been expunged. I couldn’t find a single instance although I’m sure some must have survived somewhere.
Elsewhere, however, his named flourished in places across the British Empire. George, the South African city referenced previously was a shining example. George became quite a lovely tourist destination in the Garden Route, wedged between the Outeniqua Mountains and the Indian Ocean. More unlikely was George Town (map), the capital city of the state of Penang in Malaysia. The naming traced to Captain Francis Light who founded a settlement there in 1786 on behalf of the British East India Company.
Other places named for George III included: George Town, Tasmania, Australia; South Georgia Island; Prince George, British Columbia, Canada; Georgetown, Guyana, and undoubtedly many other places too numerous to mention.
I knew I needed to create my own fun when I chose to drive through an area that didn’t cater much to outsiders. The people of Appalachia were friendly and always seemed welcoming, so that wasn’t the issue. Tourism wasn’t a major preoccupation. It didn’t help that my adventure happened at a quiet time of year. Activities focused on the mountains, and I came at mid-March; too late for skiing and too early for hiking, rafting or fishing. I found a backup plan, though. Twelve Mile Circle featured thousands of individual oddities over the years so I turned to my Complete Index for some ideas. I knew I’d enjoy visiting spots that I’d only written about before. This was a golden opportunity. I noticed my path would take me directly past several of them.
The whole concept of Big Ugly delighted me as I described these places recently. It created a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario as I prepared my plans. I knew nothing of Big Ugly until I started investigating my Appalachian trip, which led to the article and the marker on my map, which then led me to an in-person visit. Thus, the mark on the map created an incentive for my visit although it never would have appeared on the map if I hadn’t started planning the route. What a Big Ugly situation!
In that earlier article I’d noted, "Big Ugly had been around for a long time. Internet book searches found results going back to the 1840’s, when West Virginia was still part of Virginia. This wasn’t simply a big ugly creek, it was an old ugly." I’d encountered and failed to penetrate its shrouded history, concluding that "We will probably never know exactly what might have been considered big or ugly to early Nineteenth Century settlers."
It was an amusing situation although not enough for me to adjust my path. I didn’t get to see the Big Ugly Wildlife Management Area or the Big Ugly Community Center at the former site of the Big Ugly Elementary School. Stopping at the sign for Big Ugly Creek Road on U.S. Route 119 (map) was good enough for me. The kids got a good laugh and I got a photo.
Crazy Border Road
Route 119 served as the optimal path between Charleston, West Virginia and Pikeville, Kentucky. A section near Williamson, West Virginia had been high on my list of places to visit ever since I wrote Bridge in a Haystack several years ago. A random search query suggested an anomaly and I uncovered it after many hours of squinting at maps, for more hours than I’d care to admit. The truth was even more interesting than the original query. It began simply as, "only ky bridge that leaves one state, crosses a river, comes back into the same state." In reality — and in a distance of only three miles (five kilometres) — heading south from West Virginia, the road crossed into Kentucky, then into West Virginia, then into Kentucky, back into West Virginia and finally into Kentucky. That was an astounding FIVE border crossings on a single short stretch of road (with four of them occurring in the first two miles).
It was the path of least resistance and it made perfect sense. The Tug Fork, constricted on both sides by mountains, followed a wildly crooked riverbed. The highway, designed for high-speed traffic, needed to follow a straighter route. That forced it to cross the river at various points. The river marked the boundary between the two states, creating multiple border crossings.
Photographs wouldn’t illustrate the point adequately so I reverted to video, a medium I hadn’t tried on 12MC in quite awhile. My videography skills hadn’t improved in the meantime either. I owned a dashboard camera mount and of course I forgot it, leaving it safely at home. I cruised down the highway with a steering wheel in my left hand, a camera in my right, viewing the GPS from the corner of my eye so I could see when I crossed a border, announcing each state as I proceeded, all while driving as safely as possible. I noticed that the video sometimes showed the GPS. It said I was speeding. Just a little bit. Nothing egregious. I knew I’d better confess before someone mentioned it in the comments.
I’ve now visited nearly every geo-oddity listed in that article.
Woodrow Wilson Birthplace
It might have been a stretch to place the Presidential Birthplaces article on the same list as the others because every single presidential birthplace appeared in it. That created forty-three distinct possibilities, with several of them in Virginia alone. Nonetheless, one of those happened to fall along our direct route, the house in Staunton where Woodrow Wilson was born in 1856 (map). His father served as a Presbyterian minister and the family moved whenever he accepted a new position every few years. In actuality Woodrow Wilson lived in Staunton for a single year before the family moved to Augusta, Georgia. Still, that was enough for Virginia to claim Wilson as a native son deserving a Presidential Library and a Museum. Actually I’ve made his connection to Virginia sound overly tenuous. He did retain longtime connections to the commonwealth even as the family moved, attending Law School at the University of Virginia, and visited Staunton regularly over the years. This was as good a town as any for his library and museum.
I’ve seen other presidential libraries. This one was smaller than the those for more resent presidents although it was well done and certainly worth a visit.
Bath County appeared in Taking a Bath. I didn’t have anything more to say about it because we didn’t stop until we hit the border as we left. The path involved a long day of driving and I wanted to keep moving. We drove past The Homestead mentioned in that earlier article (map), waved, and pressed onward.
Mount Jackson Water Tower
I’d driven past the water tower rising next to Interstate 81 at Mount Jackson many times. I’d always been fascinated by its larger-than-life basket of apples hoisted high above the highway (map). It appeared in my article devoted entirely to Eric Henn Murals.
Some artists preferred oil on canvas as their medium. Not Eric Henn. He specialized in marine paint on outdoor structures, creating lifelike designs on water towers, petroleum storage tanks, the sides of brick buildings and anything with a flat vertical surface. Mount Jackson’s apple basked was an Eric Henn creation, painted by hand and replacing a weather-worn vinyl sticker someone else had affixed years earlier. This water tower, Meems Bottom Bridge, and Shenandoah Caverns all fell within a few miles of each other, making it easy to experience all three sites with minimal effort.
I already mentioned that reader Andy recommended several places for me to visit during the Appalachian Loop, and I made it to two of them: the Pikeville Overlook and Breaks Interstate Park. I hadn’t known about either one of them ahead of time and likely wouldn’t have discovered them on my own, so the suggestions were greatly appreciated. I brought that up to encourage readers to continue posting ideas for my 2016 Travel Plans. I still have trips coming up in the New England states in May and Michigan in July. There’s a good chance that some of your great ideas will make it onto the pages of Twelve Mile Circle!