Day 1,001: Welcome To Typo-Town, KS

In pecking about for a fresh topic to tickle the fingertips, it’s important to land one’s literary beak on a morsel of sufficient substance to fill a kilograph when such a task is needed. Today, as I wander once again into the murk of daily writing, I opt instead to snarf down the first pellet I chance upon, even if it should prove to be a salty pebble. With my first click of ‘Random Article’ I was directed swiftly to “Lerado, Kansas.” After nearly seven years of relative inactivity after the end of this project, I’m welcomed back by an entry with four sentences.

One sentence describes the town’s surrounding area as ‘Reno County’. Another tells us which school district would serve the local kiddos. A third sentence claims its post office – called ‘Netherland’ until 1884 – shut down in 1904. And the one snippet of potentially pen-worthy factoidery tells us that Lerado was intended to be named for Laredo, Texas, but someone screwed up and swapped the vowels. It’s a Typo-Town. Neat.

It’s also, as I’d learn after a bit of a deeper dive, a ghost town.

Yay! Ghosts!

There is, as one site explains it, a single occupied home in the town’s mostly-unmarked perimeter, and it boasts foul-language-heavy signage, warning passers-by to keep on moving. This is most likely because said tourists are seldom ghost-town hunters, eager to check out the still-standing schoolhouse or lodge hall / opera house. They mostly swing by to check out the charred remains where once the Peters family home stood. In 1993, its inhabitants – mom, dad and two little kids – were murdered by a random local, the house then set ablaze. They caught the guy and he wound up sentenced to 51 years in prison, but folks love a crime scene don’t they?

I read enough about this gruesome murder to know I have no desire to focus my exploration of this four-sentence town on that one tragic and senseless night. This is not a true-crime site, and besides – they caught the guy. Like, right away. He was, thankfully, a terrible criminal who stood no chance of getting away with it. Fuck that dude. No, I’m more interested in the town itself. What did this place, now the home of one grumpy-ass resident, hope to be when that postal clerk half-assed his job and screwed up the town’s name?

Fortunately, our researching skills here in the 1000Words word-pit have improved over the last seven years. This is how I found myself checking out the Lerado Weekly Ledger from November 4, 1886. The first item that grabbed my attention was the “Local Hash” column, right dead-center down the middle of the front page. This is where local-interest, hard-hitting events are found. For example: “The Ledger is under obligations to Mr. J.O. Coleman for a very fine squash. Mr. C. informed us that he had blackberries during September.”

You can do a lot with a fine squash.

I admire a newspaper bold enough to report the past fruit experiences of the townsfolk it serves. We’ve lost that connection to local media. I have no idea what my neighbors might have grown or purchased six months ago, and dammit I have a right to that information.

Snooping through their trash just ain’t cutting it.

But back to Lerado.

This same front page boasts a hearty prophecy: “THE FUTURE IS GREAT”. Yes, four – count ‘em, FOUR railroads are building toward Lerado. It will be the hub of the Midwest, or whatever Kansas was considered in 1886. The article admits that, sure, things have seemed bleak in Lerado over the last few years, but don’t worry! That’s all behind us! “Lerado is on the highway to prosperity!”

Except that it wasn’t. This little optimistic town, celebrating the grand opening of the Hammel House Hotel and the laying of the cornerstone of its opera house, never landed even one train. By 1888 the front page of their newspaper was mostly taken up by a chapter of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. There are no entries for that paper after January of that year. News items – again, detailing the mundane minutiae of residents’ lives – were now plopped at the back of The Saturday Bee out of Hutchinson. By the end of the 1920s, most mentions of the town were contained within obituaries.

The town was stocking up on ghosts.

There was a spike of interest in the area when oil was discovered in Lerado, but that tapered off in the mid-30s. So what the hell happened? Where were those four railroads? How did Lerado’s destiny go from opera-house-worthy to abandonment?

In the end, the death of the town came largely thanks to Dr. John A. Brady, a Louisville physician who scoped out where the railways were expanding then bet the bank on Lerado. The Missouri Pacific was reaching westward and the Rock Island line was heading southwest, and Lerado was right where they’d meet, creating a transportation hub that could only mean a future metropolis and competing frozen yogurt stands fighting it out in the shadows of skyscrapers and flying cars. The Rock Island folks approached Doc Brady and asked for some aid bonds from the town so that they could finance the railroad, and the Doc said no. Why would the town help? These two railroads were heading this way anyway, and the junction would be beneficial for everyone, right? Right?

History has proven: don’t trust a Brady.

Nope. The Rock Island execs paid for another survey, then swung their line toward Hutchinson instead. Local Hutchinsonians sweet-talked the Missouri Pacific folks to do the same, and that was that. Lerado, that plucky little typo-town with big dreams of prosperity and phallic squashes, was ten miles off the nearest railroad and its real estate market tanked. Doc Brady lost everything and sulked back to Louisville. By 1915, all that remained was the school house and a country store.

There’s undoubtedly a lesson cloaked beneath this little tale, something about blind hubris and one needing to nudge themselves toward a brighter destiny by helping others, but none of that made it into Wikipedia’s scant four sentences. The grizzly murder has mostly faded into a necessary oblivion and the descendants of the folks who had danced and toasted one another at the grand ball that opened that hotel in 1886 likely have no idea they share part of their lineage with Brady’s bogus blunder in a Typo-Town.

Today the population of Hutchinson is around 40,000, and it’s the county seat for Reno County. The population of Lerado is that one guy. Seriously, stay the hell off his lawn.

Day 995: Little Rivalry On The Prairie

originally published September 21, 2014

Newcomers to the city of Edmonton inevitably have questions regarding our perpetual rivals to the south, or what has come to be known as the Battle of Alberta. They don’t ask me – I purposely sport a fanny-pack and 20 pounds of camera gear when I wander about the city so that tourists don’t talk to me – but they’ll ask somebody. The answer they’ll probably get is “hockey”, which is blatantly misleading and 100% wrong.

Edmonton and Calgary have held a semi-snarly relationship for much longer than the history of professional hockey in either city. Far from a rivalry of mere convenience (we are the only two major cities in the province), the Battle of Alberta extends to fundamental belief systems, to political preferential treatment, to bigotry, inclusion, and of course… money.

Which is truly the greater city? As a lifelong resident of Edmonton, my honest answer is that I don’t care. Both cities are gorgeous: they have the Stampede, we have the continent’s most impressive Fringe Theatre Festival. They have proximity to the magnificent mountains, we have an exquisite river valley. They are the economic home-base of the province, we have a gigantic mall.

But enough of the niceness. Let’s see how this got ugly.

The Battle of Alberta extends for centuries before there was even an Alberta over which to battle. The Blackfoot Confederacy was the political union among the Blackfoot tribes who moseyed about southern Alberta and Montana, killing buffalo and living a northern version of the indigenous lifestyle of the American Indian. Up in the boreal forest that covered the northern half of the as-yet-undesignated province, the Cree and their allies (known as the Iron Confederacy, making the history of this region sound like a bad-ass Native version of Game of Thrones) lived a subarctic lifestyle, which involved trapping and fur-trading.

These two factions weren’t fond of one another. When the white folks wandered on to the scene – and here it’s important to remember that most of Canada was founded by the Hudson’s Bay Company, a popular department store chain – they wanted to spread the joys of fur trading to all areas. The Blackfoot wanted none of this, and so Edmonton House became the HBC’s home base in the area. Calgary was founded as an RCMP post, and until the 1880’s it was barely a blip on the map. Then the train came rollin’ in.

The Canadian Pacific Railway was scheduled to swipe the first cross-country railroad through Edmonton, but at the last minute they opted to stick closer to the US border and run through Calgary instead. Immediately Calgary became the bigger city; English and Scottish immigrants poured in, and so did American ranching and farming influence. Edmonton might have drifted into relative irrelevancy were it not for the switch in federal leadership that would inadvertently come to define the political landscape of Alberta (which, it should be noted, still didn’t technically exist yet).

In 1896, Sir Wilfred Laurier bumped the Conservatives out of office, becoming the second Liberal Prime Minister in the nation’s short history. Under Laurier’s reign, two more cross-country railroads were built, both of which picked Edmonton as their primary stop in the area. At the same time, the Liberals altered the immigration laws, which meant that hordes of foreigners landed in Edmonton as their new home. The British folks who dominated Calgary’s populace tended to look down on this fact, seeing Edmonton as an example of the ‘mongrelization’ of the Dominion.

The immigrants tended to support the Liberals, while the stodgy white folks leaned more toward the Conservatives, a tilt that somewhat reflects the political leanings of both cities today. But under Laurier’s watch, another blow was struck against the city in the south.

Edmonton was the bigger city, and it also boasted a massive immigrant population who loved the Liberals. So when it came time to plant the Alberta flag in 1905, Laurier’s Liberal folks naturally picked our city as the capital. That’s okay – Calgary would be redeemed much like Saskatoon had been when Regina was chosen as the capital of Saskatchewan: one city gets the provincial pilot’s seat while the other gets the province’s official university. Right?

Wrong. The University of Alberta was placed in a city south of Edmonton, but it was the city of Strathcona who landed the honor, not Calgary. To give you an idea of the geography, Calgary is about 300 kilometers away. Strathcona was about 100 feet away, just across the North Saskatchewan River. The University was founded in 1908, and by 1912 Strathcona officially merged with Edmonton. Calgary was pissed. Sufficiently pissed to throw the entire province into the trash heap and start their own gig.

And that might have actually happened.

Arthur Sifton (a provincial Liberal) was elected as Alberta’s Premier in 1913, after a campaign filled with snippy political fighting and a case of unfathomable gerrymandering which gave Calgary minimal representation in government. This kicked off a campaign to demand that the federal government – which was now back in Calgary-friendly Conservative hands – to split the province in two and allow southern Alberta to become its own province, with Calgary at the helm.

The British North America Act was still woven into our national constitution at the time, and this Act would have allowed such a provincial split with federal approval, even if Edmonton and the northern contingent were against it. Then World War I happened, and everyone was focused on more important matters. After the war, the political tension softened, and the province turned its attention more toward its rural vs. urban split.

Also, Calgary had something else to focus on by then.

One thing newcomers to this province never need to ask is why Alberta is the most economically stable province in the country. Our economy is built on oil, and it has been for a century. Calgary lucked into the oil game in 1914, when deposits were found in Turner Valley, just 60 km away. The interwar period in Calgary was defined by economic prosperity (though the Great Depression put a bit of a dent in that), as corporate headquarters moved in and the city thrived. Oil was discovered in Leduc, just outside of Edmonton in 1947, but while we quickly climbed the ladder into the heavenly blimp of oil-based economic bliss, we never quite caught up to our rivals down south.

Nowadays, our provincial rivalry is based around sports. As a lifelong fan of the NFL, this rivalry doesn’t mean that much to me, though I have seen its furious teeth gnash at conversations with many of my friends and family. The Calgary Flames have beaten the Oilers 107 times to 98, but then they have never had quite the dynasty as we had in the 1980’s. Also, the Edmonton Eskimos have beaten the Calgary Stampeders 123 games to 93, so we have the edge on the football front.

But in the end, who cares? This province, which could have become the Nebraska of Canada, built on farming and agriculture, boasts two impressive cities with vibrant cultures, young, hip (and very liberal-leaning) mayors and the heart of our country’s negotiable income. Can we put away the antiquated swords and just all get along?

Day 983: Pistols At Dawn On Bloody Island

originally published September 9, 2014

Allow us a moment to reflect upon our broken culture and praise the glorious days of yore – the days of righteous morality, of a productive and contributory collective ethos, and of… duelling. Stupid friggin’ duelling.

Of all the ridiculous traditions that we hauled on our societal backs from the grubby landscape of the Middle Ages, duelling has to be among the most laughable. Honor and respect marked the blinding colors of the duelling flag, and men chose to end one another’s lives rather than take the more accepted modern approach of simply living in a perpetual state of passive-aggressive loathing.

When gloves would slap faces in 19th century St. Louis, the moment of stone-chinned confrontation would usually take place on a small divot of land in the middle of the Mississippi River called Bloody Island. This sandbar had crept above the water’s surface in 1798, and throughout that renegade century, Bloody Island was a lawless haven for antiquated honor defense.

Authorities agreed to look the other way when duels were to be fought on this crunchy piece of turf midway between Missouri and Illinois. Firing at pistols at one another in either state was illegal, but on Bloody Island nobody cared. It was all about nobility, about virtue, about manhood… and whatever.

Thomas Hart Benton (also called “Old Bullion”, probably because he was a big fan of chicken soup cubes) was a Missouri Senator who pushed strongly for western expansion of the United States. He also pushed a little too hard upon the feelings of one Charles Lucas while they were battling over a land deal in court, back when Benton was an attorney. The two exchanged rather public words, which culminated when Benton had the audacity to call Lucas a “puppy.”

A puppy. More vile words were never spoken.

Lucas demanded satisfaction. The two met on Bloody Island one morning in 1817, pistols at the ready. Both men hit their marks; Lucas was shot in the throat, Benton just below the knee. They survived, but eventual-Senator Benton became displeased at hearing the story as Lucas was telling it to his friends, painting Benton as the moron. Benton demanded a re-duel. Lucas agreed, and Old Bullion shot him dead.

Joshua Barton was the first Secretary of State for the great state of Missouri. He also happened to be Charles Lucas’s second in his duels with Thomas Hart Benton; the ‘second’ is usually a friend of the dueler, who acts as the last-ditch intermediary to see if a bloodless resolution could be achieved before shots were fired. Clearly ‘bloodless’ was not Joshua’s forte.

Joshua’s brother, Senator David Barton, had opposed the appointment of a guy named William Rector to the position of Surveyor General for the state. Joshua published some trash-talking letters about Rector in the St. Louis Republican, and found himself challenged to a duel by Rector’s brother, Thomas. The two met on Bloody Island in 1823, and Thomas won the duel, blasting a fatal hole in the Secretary of State. Thomas would end up dead in a knife fight two years later, and his brother William still never received the cushy government appointment.

In what might be the most dastardly awesome duel in the history of Bloody Island, a war hero named Thomas Biddle was called out by Congressman Spencer Darwin Pettis, as the two had been engaged for some time in a very public feud. The “Code Duello” (fancy-speak for the customs surrounding this barbaric form of projectile-enhanced debate) states that the person who is challenged to the duel may select the weapons and distance parameters for the fight.

Thomas Biddle selected pistols. At five feet.

Five feet meant that each party would take one or two steps before turning, and that the barrels of their guns would probably be side by side as they fired. Biddle figured there was no way Pettis would go through with such a ridiculous set-up, and that he’d back out of the duel gracefully.

He did not.

Crowds gathered on both sides of the Mississippi and watched as the two men quite literally shot one another at point-blank range. The story goes that both men forgave one another as they were being carted off the island, but that might simply be the swooping brush of doctored history. What remains as fact is that both men were dead within hours.

James Shields, who would serve as an Illinois State Senator in 1849, challenged Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln to a duel some seven years earlier, over a series of letters Lincoln had allegedly written and published in the Sangamon Journal. Abe had written the first letter (which poked fun at Shields, whose political views were quite in opposition to Abe’s), but the remainder had been written by a friend of Abe’s future wife. Nevertheless, Shields called out Lincoln for all of them.

Abe selected the cavalry broadsword for their duel. Then, before it was underway, he reached above Shields and sliced down a branch, demonstrating that his massive frame (and reach) would put him at a significant advantage. The two men’s seconds stepped in, and Shields was spared the indignity of being cleaved by a future president; the duel was called off.

Then the editor of the St. Louis Dispatch, Benjamin Gratz Brown believed the slaves should be emancipated. District attorney Thomas C. Reynolds felt they should remain slaves. Rather than engage in a moderated debate on the issue, Reynolds challenged Brown to a duel on Bloody Island in 1856. Brown took a bullet in the leg that gave him a life-long limp, while his shot failed to hit his target. Neither party was dead, but the duel was over. Nobody wanted to take another run at it.

This duel – one of the last infamous duels of Bloody Island – came to be known as the Duel of the Governors, as Reynolds became Missouri’s Confederate Governor during the war, and Brown would be elected the state’s governor once Missouri had rejoined the Union. I wonder if the two of them ever got together and laughed about this. I’m guessing no.

Bloody Island’s reputation began to fade as dueling became a more properly outlawed activity. Eventually the strategic placement of dams and dikes changed the water level in the river, and Bloody Island became joined with the coastline on the Illinois side. Now it’s just an empty strip of dirt alongside North Front Street, more likely to host a pair of passed-out drunks than a duo eager to take one another’s life in a ridiculous out-dated ritual. That’s a big step up, if you ask me.

Day 957: All About Fucking

originally published August 14, 2014

When I rolled this project over and booted it out of bed more than two and a half years ago, I had to decide where to place that bar of ethics beneath which my words would never limbo. I have never sold out to become a corporate shill (yes, my bubbly praise over Big Rock Brewery did set into motion a timeline that would have me trading prose for pay, though given how much I love the product I don’t consider that selling out).

I have never cheated in my writing duties, despite having a stash of practice articles tucked into a corner of my hard drive. I have never scribbled my daily kilograph after midnight because “it’s technically tomorrow.” Screw that – I have lived my life by the scrolls of TV Guide, which begins each new day promptly at 5:00am.

Also, apart from a few dalliances into more blue subject matter (the kids love that stuff), I have maintained a relatively smooth PG-13 flow (my article about ‘Fuck’ notwithstanding). Today will be no exception, despite the fact that my topic of choice today is Fucking.

With a population of 104 at last count, the village of Fucking, Austria probably sees more tourists per capita than any other place in Europe. The town was named after a 6th-century Bavarian nobleman named Focko. As the language of the region evolved, the spelling of the town varied: it was Vucchingen in 1070, Fukching in 1303, Fugkhing in 1532, and by the 1700’s it acquired its current spelling. The –ing suffix is an old Germanic denotation, meaning “belonging to” the root-word. So Fucking is “the place of Focko’s people.”

Okay, so the village has a goofy name to English-speakers (of which there are none among the populace). What’s the big deal? We all know about Intercourse, Pennsylvania, Twatt, Scotland, and Dildo, Newfoundland. There are numerous places sprinkled around this globe, custom-made for a Buzzfeed collection of chuckle-inducing photos. But this little village has existed for nearly 1500 years, completely unaware that both its name and the global culture would simultaneously evolve, culminating in an explosion of international wit like this:

It’s pronounced “fooking”, by the way; it would rhyme with “booking”. But that hasn’t stopped English-speaking tourists from swarming the town and snapping clever photos like the one above beside one of the four road signs that boast the village’s name. The phenomenon began during World War II, when British and American forces stationed in Salzburg began making day-trips to take photos next to the signs to amuse their friends back home. The locals found it amusing – they’d had no idea their home’s name was so risqué in another tongue.

Tourism increased after the war, all with the same purpose: livening up otherwise dull vacation slide shows. A tourist bus started rolling in from time to time. Despite this attention, the town opted not to capitalize on their name. They regularly have to inform tourists that no, there are no Fucking postcards and no Fucking snowglobes to buy. When one resident named Josef Winkler launched a website to pitch T-shirts depicting a local road sign (with the catchy slogan, “I like Fucking in Austria”), he was forced to shut it down. His neighbors were yelling at him in the streets. They’re a conservative bunch in rural Austria; not a lot of sense of humor rolling over those hills.

The above sign features a traffic request: it says “Please – Not So Fast!”, using a sketch of children to represent that kids play near those streets. For tourists, this is icing upon the pun-cake, and when snapping a selfie beside the sign isn’t enough, they steal it. This happens often. One night, all four town signs were swiped by chuckling chuckleheads, each one costing 300 Euros to replace. The village has considered changing its name, but that would be messing with a centuries-old tradition just to deter a few idiot tourists. The people of Fucking (known as Fuckingers, not Fuckers – I checked) are too proud for that.

Not that such a move would be unprecedented. Another town, also named in honor of good ol’ Focko, switched its name to Fugging in 1836, though the reason was never fully explained. One theory is that this town was closer to Vienna, and therefore suffered from more English tourists popping in just to giggle at the name. Whatever the reason, Fugging is Fugging, and if Fucking decides they want to switch up their name someday, they’ll have to come up with something else. Perhaps they could consider Frigging.

The current Fucking street signs are welded, rather than bolted, and mounted upon a cement base to deter theft. Stealing the local signs is literally the only crime this village ever reports. The locals pay taxes to defer the costs, though it seems to me that maybe yanking the signs in exchange for giant carved rocks might help keep the thefts down. Instead, residents sprung for closed-circuit TV cameras.

To be clear, the cameras are not there to catch the sign thieves as much as they’re there to deter the other crime that occurs in Fucking (though it never gets officially reported, since apprehending the perpetrators would be nearly impossible and highly unpleasant): the crime of Fucking-fucking. Apparently physically copulating beside a sign that indicates that one is in the process of doing so really gets the juices flowing in the crusty nether-bits of English-speaking tourists. Again, this is something for which the locals spend nary a giggle.

As with many of the weird stories I’ve culled from the Repository of Online Strangeness, it all comes back to beer. A German brewery was inspired by the town to create a microbrew called Fucking Hell – “Fucking” for the town and “Hell”, which is a German term for a pale lager. It took a year for the European Union’s OHIM trademarks agency to allow them to use the name.

I’m all for tradition and decorum and such, but come on. If your village’s name is Fucking, why not cash in on it? Open up the Fucking Bar, the Fucking Bed & Breakfast (or the Bed & Fucking Breakfast if you want to get cute), the General Fucking Store, the International House of Fucking Pancakes, and let tourists go crazy taking pictures. There is a legitimately unending stream of people who will make the trip just so they can pop the photos up on their Facebook pages to amuse their friends. Why be so proper about it? They have plenty of insane place names right across the border in Germany, and you don’t even have to translate those into another language to get the joke. Drop by Faulebutter (Putrid Butter), Fickmühlen (Fuck Mill), Katzenhirn (Cat Brain) or Warzen (Warts). The Germans don’t care – they invite their own hilarity.

Come on, Fucking. Either lighten up or change your name to something no one will laugh at.

Day 929: Shirking All Logic And Moving To Diomede

originally published July 17, 2014

If I was asked, “Where in the world would you least like to live?”, I might reply with an active war zone, or one of those places along the infamous Axis of Evil (Iran, North Korea, and Foxboro, Massachusetts). But let’s narrow it down – where in the United States of America would I least like to hang my frayed douchey hipster fedora?

The crumbling ruins of Detroit? Nah, I’m one of those insipidly optimistic types who believes that Motor City will crawl from the wreckage and rise like a Phoenix (note – not like Phoenix, which has never had to demonstrate such resilience). Somewhere in the remote backwoods of the deep south? While my pinko-commie-homo-lovin’-Jesusless ways would make it uncomfortable, I’m such a fan of warm weather and delicious barbecue that I could still make that work.

But what about Diomede, Alaska? You will never find a more wretched hive of cold and tedium. Located so close to Russian turf even I’d be willing to make the walk (were the terrain not so watery), this is a village that by all logic shouldn’t exist. And while I’d never plant my permanent return address upon its infertile soil, the place still fascinates me.

On the left is Big Diomede, an island that was not included in the 1867 sale of Alaska from Russia to the United States. On the right, only 2.4 miles across the frigid Bering Sea, is Little Diomede. This miniscule slab of rock appears to have been specifically designed to deter humans from bothering it, surrounded on all sides by steep, unmanageable cliffs. All sides except for the one corner that houses the incomprehensible village of Diomede, population: about 110.

There is almost no vegetation on the island. No wild animals to trap and devour, and even the fishing (which can only occur in the summer) doesn’t provide much panache to the local cuisine. When Scottish-American naturalist John Muir visited the island in 1881, he found a village jam-packed with Inuit carvers looking to trade everything they had for some exotic Western conveniences. Perhaps they should have traded for passage off that desolate rock.

Why am I being so hard on poor little Diomede? Look at this place:

Summer – what little there is of summer – consists of cloudy skies and a perpetual frump of burlap fog overhead. You can count on 60-80mph winds swatting you from the north, as though the planet herself is urging you onward and southward. Blizzards and -40 temperatures are commonplace in the winter, and the joyous crackle of spring won’t be heard until the rest of the hemisphere has already stocked up on summer sun screen and mosquito repellant.

Oh, and no mosquitos in Diomede. So there’s a small plus.

A helicopter makes a weekly trip from Nome, which nudges the eastern side of the Bering Strait, bringing mail, supplies and looks of bewildered pity during the summer. In the winter, a ski-plane can usually land on the ice, though the jagged rocks, choppy waters and random chunks of floating ice make boating and seaplanes both unreasonable travel options. But despite its horrendous climate, Diomede’s geography has given it quite the backstory.

The residents on Big Diomede and Little Diomede were extremely friendly and in many cases related to one another. For a good chunk of the year, the sea is sufficiently frozen between the two islands to allow for safe transport, and people visited one another regularly. Then the Cold War happened, and the Soviet Union swooped over to Big Diomede, evacuating its residents to the mainland and slapping a big ol’ military base onto its turf.

When Little Diomedeans wandered too close to the Soviet island, they would be captured and detained, interrogated for weeks at a stretch. For the next 45 years, visitation between the two islands was forbidden. When relatives would dare to make the trip it would have to be under the cover of the cream-soup fog within the lengthy northern night-time. It was a long-standing culture, divided by the politics of the moment.

In 1994, residents geared up with gifts and well-rehearsed dances in anticipation of being reunited with their lost relatives from Big Diomede. The turn-out was virtually nil, however – most of those who were separated from their families by the prevailing conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. never saw their loved ones again. Seriously – these people had one thing to look forward to, and it never happened. And you think Detroit is depressing?

It took until the mid-30s for the first wooden building to pop up on the island. The shiny new church stood in contrast to the stone-and-animal-skin huts that had speckled the frigid rock. Electricity didn’t show up until the 70’s, and running water is still only available in the school and at the “Washateria”, a communal laundry/shower facility. Fresh drinking water is hauled in from a mountain spring and stored in a 434,000-gallon vat for the winter. Usually this runs dry by March, and locals have to use snow for their beverages.

So who would visit this remote village?

Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens dropped by in 2002 – the only time an American elected official has ever set foot in Diomede. His comment: “I did not realize you were this remote.” Welcome to the real Alaskan frontier, Ted. Where whale blubber and walrus meat are always on the menu, and time travel is genuinely possible, in that you’re only 0.6 miles from the International Date Line, which can instantly propel you 23 hours into the future.

There are businesses in Diomede now, including a small store that gets its stock from the Walmart in Nome. Walrus hunting and its subsequent ivory carvings are the highlight of the local economy though, and the IRS has even permitted the Inuit people of Diomede (which is pretty much everyone) to pay their taxes in ivory, making them the only Americans who can pay Uncle Sam in something other than currency.

So there you have it. Sure, there’s a satellite dish and you can play around on your computer to pass the time (though I wouldn’t count on a solid internet connection), but at what cost? You’ll have to dispose of your own bodily waste, and with the sea around you frozen for most of the year, that’s your stinky burden to bear. Oh, and no alcohol is permitted on the island either, so you can’t even count on that joyous mental escape.

Nope, give me Detroit or Spittoon-Juice, Mississippi any day over the gelid icebox of Diomede. These residents are beyond tough, beyond plucky… they’re downright crazy.

Day 903: O Transatlantica, Our Home And Native Land

originally published June 21, 2014

What’s in a name? That which we call a prairie

By any other name would smell as grainy;

So Saskatchewan would, were it not Saskatchewan call’d,

Retain that weird insect surplus which it owes

Without that title.

So begins an unimpressively cutesy introduction to today’s discussion about the hallowed names that reach across my nation’s map. I’m aware, of course, that my American readers far outnumber my Canadian loyal, but in all fairness, covering the name origins to fifty states, a district, a country, and untold outlying territories would occupy much more real estate than my thousand words could afford.

And so I patriotically shmush my fingerprints against my keys and delve into the origin stories of my own origin story: Canada. Not her history itself – again, a thousand words only stretches so far across the table – but merely the names of the ten provinces and two territories I had to learn as a kid. There are three territories now, but I’ll happily include my Nunavutian brethren and sistren in today’s little missive.

That said, adhering to the proper essay format I spent the last eight years of my schooling attempting to shatter, we’ll open up big-picture-style: Why the fuck are we called Canada?

We have been known as ‘Canada’ since right around when the first European boot-heels clomped into the east coast mud in the 16th century and began to establish communities. It originates from Kanata, the Saint-Lawrence Iroquois’ word for ‘village’. Or possibly ‘settlement’. Or maybe it was ‘land’. I’m guessing some Iroquois folks made a sweeping gesture as they said the word and the settlers made their own call regarding the translation. That’s the official legend – however there are other theories out there.

The Iroquois word Kannata (which is pronounced ‘Cannada’) means ‘collection of huts’. Still pretty close to the original tale. But a much more intriguing notion was put forth that Portuguese and/or Spanish explorers explored the land first and jotted down acà nada or cà nada, meaning “nothing here” because they couldn’t find any gold or silver deposits worth exploiting. I like that – the land of Nothing Here. It lends a bit of mystery to our history.

The colony was split into Upper Canada and Lower Canada in 1791, but when it came time to fuse together and form an actual country in 1867, there was a smidgen of discussion over what to name the thing. Not much – we had been known to England as the Province of Canada for 25 years by then, so adding a couple more provinces (New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were our only other charter members) wasn’t going to shuffle the deck too much and require a new name. But other monikers were on the table, if only for a moment.

Laurentia was one – we now use that name to refer to the geological core of North America. A pretty name, and it gives some props to the Saint Lawrence River, which was the foundation of our early economy. Vesperia was also considered. I like that too – it sounds like it could be a region on Game of Thrones. Ursalia translates to “place of bears”, which is a somewhat pessimistic name. Going by that logic, Australia should have been named after whatever the Latin term for “place where every living creature wants to kill you” might be.

The proposed names get weirder. Hochelaga was a village in the area that eventually grew up to become Montreal, and it was also a proposed name for our country. It translates to “beaver dam”. I’m glad we don’t have to live down that cliché.

Mesopelagia means “land between the seas”, which would be accurate. It also could mean we have a “mess o’ Pelagias” – Pelagia being an uncommon Greek girl’s name. Transatlantica was another proposed name for our country, though it sounds like it’d make a better name for an airline. Some schmuck without imagination suggested we honor (sorry – honour) the queen by calling ourselves Victorialand.

Then we have the acronym set. Tuponia was suggested, a rough acronym of The United Provinces Of North America. If that isn’t weird enough, we could have adopted the name Efisga, which stands for English, French, Irish, Scottish, German, Aboriginal. What a beautifully inclusive (yet at the same time xenophobic toward everyone else) way to start up a nation.

The naming of our provinces and territories appears to have been a much less creative process. Nova Scotia is Latin for “New Scotland”; Charles I sent his crew there first so they got naming rights. New Brunswick got that name because of King George III’s ancestral home, Brunswick-Lüneberg. Newfoundland got its name from (maybe) João Vaz Corte-Real, the Portuguese explorer who popped over in 1472, though its Latin name – Terra Nova – is way cooler. Labrador is derived from another Portuguese adventurer, João Fernandes Lavrador. Prince Edward Island was named after the son of King George III and the lieutenant-general of the British Army in Canada: Prince Edward Island.

The Míkmaq word for ‘strait, narrows’ is kepék, which was Frenchified into Québec for our francophone province. Ontario is derived from a First Nations word (we’re not 100% sure which one), but the name was first ascribed to the Great Lake. When Upper Canada (the English-speaking one) was looking for a new name, they borrowed it from Lake Ontario.

Manitoba comes from the Cree word for ‘strait of the spirit’, probably because of the straits in Lake Manitoba. The word is manitowapow, which really makes me sad that they dropped the ‘pow’ from the end. I’d live anywhere that ends in ‘pow’. It would be fun to say.

The name Saskatchewan was also given first to a body of water, in this case the Saskatchewan River. This comes from the Cree word kisiskaciwani-sipiy, meaning ‘swift flowing river’. I’m glad they changed it. Alberta – my home and native slice of the country – was named for Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta. The Princess (who also had the beautiful resort town of Lake Louise named in her honor – sorry, honour) spent a number of years in our little country, though from what I’ve read she was mostly unhappy here. I guess our name is… a consolation prize?

Our westernmost province was named British Columbia to distinguish it both from the nation of Colombia and from the US state Columbia, which was almost the name of what we now call Washington. That Columbia River had a lot of influence back in the day.

Lastly, a quick trip up north. The Yukon Territory is named after the Yukon River, a name which comes to us from the Gwich’in language, meaning ‘great river’. Nunavut, our newest territory, means ‘our land’ in Inuktitut, an Inuit language. I don’t think anyone’s going to fight them over that one.

Northwest Territories seems like an obvious name (though somewhat misleading since the Yukon is actually in the northwest corner of the country), but it used to refer to every scrap of land to the northwest of Lake Superior. That name plopped into our geographic lexicon long before all these upstart provinces started showing up.

There you go – today’s lesson in where we come from and where we are. It won’t rock your world, but if nothing else I’ve armed you with more than a dozen bits of trivia with which you can head out and bore the other patrons in line at Tim Hortons this morning. You’re welcome.

Day 864: Mu-vin’ On Up From The Lost Continent

originally published May 13, 2014

“The antediluvian kings colonized the world; all the gods who play in the mythological dramas in all legends from all lands were in Atlantis.”

This is an excerpt from the legend of Atlantis – or more accurately from the 1968 Donovan song “Atlantis”, but it makes my point. Since the days of Ancient Greece when Plato wove the notion into his dialogues Timaeus and Critias, humans have postulated on the possible existence of a great civilization that sunk into the sea. Once the European jet-set (or large-boat-set, I guess) discovered the New World, the concept of Atlantis was used to explain some of the wonders of the tribes they encountered. The sunken island has a glorious history.

All of it completely fiction, of course. Atlantis is not one of our planet’s uncovered mysteries like the Bermuda Triangle or the physical content of a McRib. Europeans tried to use it as justification for the existence of the Mayan culture because there was no way those indigenous doofuses could have concocted such an elaborate civilization on their own, right?

If you have to invent an entire continent to justify your inherent racism, maybe it’s time to give it up.

Atlantis is not the only slab of land that Mother Earth has misplaced. We should also look to that other massive ocean and the lost island of Mu.

We can blame the so-called Mu mystery on Augustus Le Plongeon, a 19th-century writer who had investigated the Mayan ruins in Yucatàn and allegedly translated some of the ancient writings. Actually he was working off a mistranslation of a piece of Mayan literature then called the Troano Codex, and he interpreted the name ‘Mu’ to mean a land that had sunk after a catastrophe. It was a tiny leap of connection for Le Plongeon to decide that Mu was Atlantis, or something just like it. He claimed that the magnificence of Ancient Egypt was founded by Queen Moo (probably not a cow), a refugee of Mu.

If only Le Plongeon’s contemporaries had had some sort of Snopes-like debunking source for stories like this. I’m not entirely certain that even educated folks back then were aware that Plato’s Atlantis was conceived as a piece of fiction. Mu was simply another attempt by our species to explain our origin via a story with a bit more panache and zing than plain ol’ science and adaptability.

Then along came James Churchward.

Long before James became an established and renowned writer, he encountered a priest in India who taught him to read an ancient language, dead to all but three people in India. James was told of these old tablets which told of Mu and its peoples – fortunately, it only took a little bit of badgering for the priest to give in and show them to James. Suddenly, it all made sense.

Mu was home to the Naacal people, the ancient tribe who Augustus Le Plongeon claimed were the emissaries of the Mayan religion, and who James Churchward insisted were the bringers of everything we call civilization. Not just the Mayans but the Indians, the Babylonians, the Persians and Egyptians were all descended from the Naacal folks. There’s no evidence of their existence if we’re speaking in a scientific context, but throw in some quotation marks and you’ll find there’s plenty of “evidence” that the Naacal roamed the earth.

James Churchward insists the Nacaal encountered their demise on Mu about 12,000 years ago (I guess that’d be about 12,080 years ago now). He figured at its peak Mu contained roughly 64 million inhabitants, about as many as you’d find in Thailand. Hawaii might be a remnant of the sunken continent, same with Easter Island. He believed the big stone hats atop the giant Moai statues on Easter Island are tributes to the Egyptian sun god Ra, who also happened to be the king of Mu.

Ra plays a big part in James’ justification for Mu’s existence. He points out the evidence (sorry, the “evidence”) of similar symbols around the globe from societies that would never have met one another: bird symbols, sky symbols and representations of the sun. Forget that every one of these civilizations would have encountered birds, the sky and the sun, and that they’d all probably elect to record their surroundings in a similar fashion. James was reaching for clues.

Unfortunately, as fun as speculation and creative ancient fiction may be, real science always shows up to kill the buzz with a quick bullet of truth. First of all there’s the theory of plate tectonics (“But that’s only a theory!” cried the schmucks who don’t understand what ‘theory’ means in the scientific sense). Our continents are made up of lighter sial rocks floating upon heavier sima rocks. Along the ocean floor you’ll find virtually no sial rocks – they make up the continental crust and they tend to remain under our feet. Had there been some sort of massive catastrophe that had destroyed a continent the size of Mu, there would be a heap of sial rock rubble somewhere along the ocean floor. It ain’t there.

A continent can’t simply ‘sink’. Continents can split apart, and they can shift and boogie from one place to another, but that didn’t happen around the onset of human civilization. 12,080 years ago the continents were all pretty much where they are now, give or take a sliver of coastline. It takes hundreds of millions of years for continental drift to pull off anything noticeable.

The Yonaguni monument, an unusual underwater structure off the coast of Yonaguni Island, Japan, has been suggested as a possible relic of Mu, its lone surviving edifice (maybe it was a rec center – who knows?), clinging to a spot close enough to the surface for scuba enthusiasts to visit. Maybe?

No, this is a fairly closable case. Le Plongeon’s investigations reached full debunkery when other researchers tried to replicate his translations and came up with gibberish. James Churchward’s ideas were interesting, but nothing in the realm of documented fact can back them up. In fact, all archeological and genetic research runs counter to Mu’s existence. Just like Atlantis, Mu is a land reserved for comic books, fantasy games and other fanciful meanderings of the imagination.

And maybe a folk song. Someone should get on that.

Day 855: Globe-Surfin’ – The Life Of A Perpetual Traveler

originally published May 4, 2014

It only took 14,465 days for me to figure it out, but I think I finally know what I want to do when I grow up. No, it’s not writing; that’s my fall-back option if the real dream doesn’t pan out. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy plucking fancifully at my keyboard like a squid with a brand new marimba. But all that arrhythmic finger-tapping can be exhausting. Also, it gets in the way of my finger-drumming along with Rush’s “YYZ”.

No, the answer wafted sensuously into my think-holes this morning on a breeze of sweet euphoria and buttery revelation. I want a vocation that simultaneously provides no measurable improvement to the world around me while enabling me to try the best regional food and liquor around the globe. Something with only the vaguest of schedules, yet with a built-in excuse to disentangle myself from unwanted invitations whenever necessary. I’m craving a career that would inspire envy and drive in my younger self – a true calling steeped in long, lazy stretches within the regal realm of unending liberation.

I want to become a perpetual traveler. Is that too much to ask?

There are two variants on the perpetual traveler philosophy. The first is rooted in the freedom of not being a resident of any nation. It’s an expression of pure anarchy, or as pure as one can muster on the friendly side of local laws. One must still adhere to regional rulebooks, but without having to pledge fidelity to any bureaucratic system. The bastions of authority may still dictate the impenetrable limits of your actions, but they don’t own you. To put it existentially, you are adrift – truly disconnected from the rigors of permanent residency. You never vote, and you are tethered to the ramifications of politics by nothing more than the sponge-cake strand  of your whim. Sounds pretty, doesn’t it?

The other philosophical impetus that can scoot a soul into the perpetual travelers’ lounge is purely financial. There are certain obligations that come with citizenship and numerous elbows nudging at the soft flesh of your bank account wherever you are considered a resident. Those can all be eliminated – or at the very least tempered – by the perpetual traveler who cautiously plots his or her affairs.

It should go without saying that the first step in becoming a perpetual traveler – in particular if you want to do it right – is procuring a sizeable fortune.

If you have a lot of money, the most ethical thing to do is to pay a lot of taxes. An effective society will distribute a portion of the wealth from its most affluent citizens to ensure a functional system that provides for all its citizenry. The perpetual traveler will cram their ethics into the overhead bin, pop in their earbuds and enjoy the in-flight movie – to hell with their “effective society” because really, they don’t belong to one. A person can live in many nations for a number of months without becoming a resident, and therefore without having to pay taxes to actually help out those places.

You don’t want to leave home? No problem. You can renounce your Canadian citizenship and still live in Canada for up to 182 days a year without being a resident. If your home base is in the US, you can only be there for up to 122 days before Uncle Sam shows up with his hand in your pocket. Most countries in Europe will allow you plant your tuchus for three or six months every year without any tax obligations. The perpetual traveler isn’t spending the bulk of their days in an a departure gate, popping from third-world cesspool to fourth-world slum; they can pull this off in the cradle of modern civilization.

You’ll still need to pick someplace to call “home”, meaning your legal permanent residence. This is going to take a bit of work; most countries won’t offer you a passport simply because you asked. You’ll want to focus your energies on finding a tax haven, a place that will impose the fewest taxes and reveal next to nothing about your financial affairs to any curious international party. These are small but wealthy nations who don’t really care what you earn or where you earn it. Someplace with at least one foot in the modern, connected world, but without the threat of revolution or political instability.

Luckily, a number of those places have palm trees and plenty of sun. You’ll be laying the pseudo-foundations of owning property there, but don’t let that suppress your sense of adventurous roaming. This domicile is little more than a technicality. It’s the Residence Flag in the Five-Flags Theory of perpetual traveling.

Oh yes, there is a theory at work here.

The first flag is your citizenship. If you aren’t ready to say so-long to your home nation, grab a dual-citizenship somewhere where non-residents don’t get taxed. Africa is chock-full of nations like this. Some of them aren’t particularly stable, which could muck up your plans down the line, but you might be able to score a passport from one of these places without even having to visit. Given the relative lack of five-star hotels and the bevy of life-snuffing diseases in Africa, you might prefer this.

Flag #2 is the place where you’ll make your money. You’ll want to set up your business in a nation separate from your citizenship and your legal residence. Again, pay close attention to how much dough the government will siphon from your earnings. Or, take the easier route and be ludicrously wealthy. I recommend this as the best course of action.

Your third flag is your residence (which we’ve already covered), and the fourth is the place where you keep your assets. This may seem excessively complicated, but think about it – you’re from one place, you live in another, earn your money in another and store your goodies in yet another. No tax collector on this planet is going to bother figuring out your obligations, and if you’ve scouted out the right locations to begin with, they won’t even try. That leaves us with the fifth flag: your playgrounds. These are the nations where you’ll spend your time – your six months in Canada, your four in America, or if you’re looking to expand your worldliness, just throw a dart at a spinning globe and check the local limitations for visiting without being a resident.

It sounds like a magical lifestyle. Unfortunately, it isn’t a simple flip-switch for a poor working schlub like myself. But it’s something to strive for, an end-game truly worth the effort it will take to arrange all the details. It’s certainly an idea to look forward to, on that fateful day when I finally grow up.

If that ever happens.

Day 853: Flipping The Bird At Your Neighbors And Calling It Home

originally published May 2, 2014

There are many reasons why one would construct a house. You might be tearing down an old dilapidated monstrosity, or maybe you’re breaking fresh ground that was once farmland – doing your part to fly the banner of urban sprawl. Perhaps you’re on estate land that has been re-zoned and you’re claiming their little chunk of suburban paradise. Then again, sometimes a home can be built purely on spite.

Yes, spite. That frazzle-haired, conch-kneed crone, wagging her accusatory walking stick with a crotchety shimmy at her mortal foes. This wicked spinster has inspired dozens of domiciles over the past 300 years – fully inhabitable and architecturally-sound testaments to the power of passive-aggression. A spite house might block a view or access to sunlight. It could barricade a quick passage or spoil an idyllic street. One thing it always does is send a message.

A spite house is more effective than a sign and more enduring than a malicious prank. It delivers far more essence of fuck-you than a punch to the jawline, and without the threat of incarceration. Have a beef with your neighbor? Check your local building codes and see if you can get away with something like this.

No one knows why Thomas Wood built this strange house configuration on Orne Street in Marblehead, Massachusetts. It could be that he hated the plot of land he had been allotted, nudged right against a fork in the road. Some say he hated his brother and the two lived side by side without speaking to one another. This strange residence – now 298 years old – still stands and is still occupied, presumably by people who don’t possess such a loathing of their neighbors. It’s now a tourist attraction known as the Marblehead Spite House.

When Thomas McCobb returned home from overseas in 1806, he was upset to learn that his mother and stepbrother had conspired to inherit his father’s Phippsburg, Maine mansion while he’d been gone. In a luxurious act of revenge, Thomas scooted across the street and up a knoll to build this opulent manor, which overlooked (and overshadowed) the family mansion he’d been denied. Whether or not Thomas rigged up the outhouses to run their mess down the hill through his family’s neighboring property, I have no idea. I hope so.

The McCobb Spite House is still standing as well, though now it’s sending its boastful glares over the water at Penobscot Bay, about 85 miles south. Its new owner has relocated, renovated and expanded the house, and still proudly calls it the McCobb Spite House. Even in the wake of extreme bitterness, the historical record must be preserved.

Dr. John Tyler thought he had a pretty good life. He was the first person to pull off a successful cataract operation, he had the respect of his peers and community, and he had a sweet piece of real estate in the heart of Frederick, Maryland. Then one day in 1814, the city decided it wanted to extend Record Street right through his property to meet up with West Patrick Street. Doc Tyler wasn’t thrilled about this; it was his land. Maybe  he had plans to build a swimming pool, a jai alai pitch, an emu sanctuary – it shouldn’t have mattered. But the city had the right to make this call.

Except for one little clause in the city charter. Road work could not proceed on a property if construction was in progress. Doc Tyler quickly hopped on his horse and commissioned a team of workers to lay an immediate foundation, stopping the road crew in their tracks the next morning. His house still stands – a reminder to the town that no plucky notion of potential infrastructure was going to stop Doc Tyler from stretching out on his own turf.

The legend behind Boston’s ‘Skinny House’ is another tale of brotherly bitchiness. While the names are lost to the ages, the story goes that one brother left for some far-away military service, while the other stayed behind on the land they’d inherited from their father. For whatever reason, the home-bound brother built a nice sprawling house, leaving only a sliver of land undeveloped. I guess he’d hoped his brother would either perish in the line of duty, or would return home and decide to build elsewhere. His brother did neither.

The four-story narrow house was built on that tiny strip of soil, towering high enough to block the sun on his brother’s house. It’s only 10.4 feet wide at the front, tapering to 9.25 feet at the back. It may seem uninhabitable, but it remains a legitimately used residence. And why not? As long as the people inside don’t mind stairs.

The Sam Kee Company was one of Vancouver’s most successful Chinese merchant firms around the turn of the 20th century. In 1903 they purchased the above building, which was mostly expropriated by the city nine years later in order to widen Pender Street. The logical thing would have been to cut their losses and hack the building to the ground. Instead, local architects Brown and Gillam came up with this design, which at less than five feet deep on the main floor makes the Sam Kee Building the skinniest building on the planet.

The basement – which used to house public baths – stretches out below the sidewalk, and the overhanging second story allows for a comfortable six feet of depth for its tenants. The Guinness Book of Records has slapped the stamp on the Sam Gee Building, though proponents of Pittsburgh’s Skinny Building (which is 5’2” wide on all floors) claim the skinniest-building honor should go to them. This is a battle I have no desire to step into.

Without question the most impressive spite house belongs to a man named Aaron Jackson in Topeka, Kansas. Aaron had no beef with his brother, nor was he opening fire on a land-hungry city. No, Aaron is the founder of Planting Peace, a non-profit organization that touches on environmental concerns, anti-bullying and humanitarian efforts. CNN called him a hero for deworming millions of children in post-quake Haiti (though he probably didn’t do it all personally). I call him a hero for setting up Equality House, a resource center for their anti-bullying campaigns. Painted proudly in the rainbow colors of gay pride and LGBT solidarity, Equality House is located directly across the street from that fecal sediment of humankind known as the Westboro Baptist Church.

If you aren’t familiar with this church, look ‘em up. And take some Gravol first because it’s going to get ugly. Jackson has arranged for a gay wedding to be held on the front lawn, and even when a 5-year-old girl had profanities yelled at her by the so-called ‘devout’ church-goers for selling “Pink Lemonade for Peace” one afternoon, Jackson and his crew refused to back down.

Most spite houses are born of petty feuds and passive-aggressive self-righteousness. Jackson’s stands for clarity of thought and a well-intentioned heart.

Not to mention a hearty pair of cajones.

Day 847: Tales From Liberty Island

originally published April 26, 2014

If I were to brainstorm everything I know about the Statue of Liberty it would look like this:

  • The French donated it as a gift to mark the United States’ centennial (and probably as a thank-you for having whomped their perpetual enemy, the British, in the Revolutionary War).
  • It blows up in every disaster movie.

Not much history there. I almost visited Liberty Island once, but I opted to stay on the ferry back to New Jersey. I’d left my phone at the station, probably when I put it down to clap along with the chorus of John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” (a temptation I can never resist), which was playing on the speakers at the station. Our time was tight that day, and we’d have only had enough time to walk around the island and try to look up Lady Liberty’s dress until the next ferry, but I still consider it a lost opportunity.

That significant little slab of land has a history to it – one that stretches long beyond the 1886 unveiling of the grand statue. One that also features a phenomenal explosion. Like any amateur historian, I’ll pull at any thread that might result in an exciting kaboom.

That appetizing slab of muck is actually an oyster bed. The tidal flats in Upper New York Bay used to be filled with these tasty little creatures, and they washed up en masse on the shores of the three islands that would later be known as Ellis, Black Tom and Liberty Islands. The trio were known as the Oyster Islands by the settlers of New Amsterdam, and they’d continue to supply non-Kosher goodness to folks in the region for centuries before landfilling expanded the islands’ footprints and messed with the natural coastlines.

Once the British moved in, taking over from the Dutch in 1664, Captain Robert Needham was allowed to set up his home on the island that would one day prop up Lady Liberty. He sold it to Isaac Bedlow a few years later and the island earned its first proper name: Bedloe’s Island. Spelling consistency wasn’t a big thing in the 17th century.

After a brief tenure as a smallpox quarantine station, Bedloe’s Island was put up for rental. An ad in 1753 indicated that Bedloe’s Island, “alias Love Island” (which is totally hot), was set up with a dwelling house, a lighthouse, and a heap of oysters and English bunnies frolicking about for slaughter and export. Three years later the place was used as a smallpox outpost again, and the city of New York bought the island outright in 1758 to house people with grotesque diseases that they didn’t want spreading to the general population.

The British took over during the Revolutionary War, but before they could get comfortable their buildings were burned to the ground by the rebels. Once the Americans had the site back they decided to take steps to ensure New York’s safety. A massive land battery in the shape of an 11-point star was constructed on the island and named Fort Hood after army officer Eleazer Derby Wood, who was killed in the War of 1812. This gorgeous building inspired Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who would eventually sculpt the Statue of Liberty, and it still forms the base of the landmark.

There still remained some friction over who actually owned the island though. When the Province of New Jersey had split from New York in 1674 they wanted it. They also wanted Staten Island. Historic tradition dictates that two regions separated by a river would have their boundaries drawn down the middle of the water, and splitting the Hudson in half would plunk every island in the harbor (except for Governor’s Island) in Jersey. But Jersey City was New York’s pouty little brother, and big brother makes the rules.

Governor Edmund Andros (or maybe it was the Duke of York) decreed that any island in the bay that could be circumnavigated within twenty-four hours would belong to the city of New York. That made for an easy score of the little islands, but Captain Christopher Billopp had to get a little funky and fill his ship with empty barrels to harness some extra wind in order to swoop around Staten Island in just over 23 hours.

Congress made the split-the-river policy official in 1834, leading to more claims by New Jersey that those islands belong to them. US Representative Frank J. Guarini and Gerald McCann (Jersey City’s mayor) actually filed suit to reclaim those islands in 1987, insisting that the Congressional decision rightfully plopped them into New Jersey. The court, perhaps deciding they had better things to do, refused to hear the case. As such, the actual land parts of the islands belong to New York, but the water around them belong to New Jersey.

In 1956 Congress officially rechristened Bedloe’s Island as Liberty Island. Along with Ellis Island, Staten Island and Black Tom Island, the entire fleet of land-chunks off the New Jersey coast belonged to New York.

Wait… what’s Black Tom Island, you ask? Here’s where the explosion comes in.

Just to the west of Liberty Island was a smaller heap of dirt known as Black Tom Island, named literally after a black guy named Tom. The Lehigh Valley Railroad expanded the causeway that had been built to the island and with landfill the place had become infused with Jersey City. A massive munitions depot was built on the land, and in 1916 most of those munitions were being sold to England and her allies for that pesky war they were fighting. The Germans, eager to disrupt this particular business arrangement, sabotaged the depot late one night.

In what remains one of the most astounding acts of terrorism ever committed on American soil, the munitions depot on Black Tom Island – which contained 100,000 pounds of TNT and roughly a kiloton of ammo – blew up. It was the equivalent of a 5.5 earthquake on the Richter scale. It was felt as far away as Philadelphia and Connecticut, shattered thousands of windows in lower Manhattan, rocked the Brooklyn Bridge and sent fragments flying over a mile in every direction. It’s a miracle only seven people were killed.

What does this have to do with the subject at hand?

The $100,000 damage (that’s about $2.2 million in today’s money) to the Statue of Liberty took a while to repair. It also necessitated the shutdown of public access to her torch, access which has not been re-opened to the unwashed masses in the 98 years since.

Lady Liberty’s island has grown over the last century, doing its best to accommodate the scores of tourists who long to enter her (ouch – sorry, that was dirty). Of course because New Jersey is notoriously picky about claiming as much land as possible the acts of landfill that have expanded the island’s real estate technically belong to New Jersey, while only the original footprint of Liberty Island rests in New York.

So unless you’re actually inside the walls of Fort Wood, you really don’t know which state you’re standing in. Confusing as shit, isn’t it? All I know is that next time I get the chance, I’ll get off the boat and soak in the history.