Fall Line Cities: Boomtowns With Class

Covered Wagon

It could be a Pecos Bill tall tale, but according to folklore, Weston, Texas was established at the location “where the wagon wheel broke.” This yarn is rich in cowboy serendipity, and even if it isn’t true, my inner buckaroo loves the story.

But unlike Weston, for most cities there’s a logical explanation for their location. They were the:

  • camp town closest to the mine
  • port with a protected bay
  • crossroads of old trading routes.

On a long, rambling road trip we explored the cities of the “Fall Line” – America’s prehistoric shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean – near the east and gulf coasts.

Fall Line Cities

With a map of the Eastern US and a pen, draw a line starting in Philadelphia, and continuing through Baltimore, Washington, DC, Richmond, Raleigh, Columbia, Augusta, Macon, Columbus, and Montgomery. All these river cities are on the Fall Line, and in their heyday, they were all successful 19th Century towns.

Yellow Victorian

The Fall Line is a natural geological feature that roughly parallels the US East Coast, then makes a lazy “J” turn to the west along the Gulf of Mexico. Along this rock formation boundary the soft coastal plain rocks meet the harder, denser rocks of the piedmont (soft sand vs. hard rock).

Fall Line Map

When a river crosses this boundary, the change in elevation creates a series of waterfalls or rock-strewn rapids.

James River

In 1607 John Smith described it … thusly:

“…we were intercepted with great craggy stones that [stand] in midst of the river, where the water falleth so rudely and with such a violence as not any boat could possibly pass…”

In the 18th and 19th centuries these rocky, rudely falling rapids were important because they prevented boats from traveling any farther upriver. And where the boats stopped, river ports were established – all because of the change in geology.

Grand House

If you’ve traveled to any of these Fall Line cities you’ve seen their beautiful historic districts crowded with stately mansions. And you may have wondered why these fortunate folks could afford such fine houses? The answer lies in the river and the Fall Line.

Enterprise Mill, Augusta GA
Enterprise Mill, Augusta GA

With so many goods moving up and down the river – interstate highways of the day – there was lots of money to be made. In addition, the falls made natural sites for lumber, textile, and grist mills. Over the decades these cities became more and more prosperous, and when the railroads arrived, they truly became transportation hubs for both people and products. Clever business people made fortunes, and in those days the best way to flash the bling was to build a big, fancy house … “bragging in bricks.”

Commerce, architecture, society, and geology are all woven together in these Fall Line cities. Cause and effect tumbling together over the falls and washing up somewhere along the Fall Line.

We’d love to hear your tall tale about why your favorite city is where it is.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

P.S. For the three or so people out there interested in more juicy geologic details, check out this post at Virginiaplaces.org

Victorian House

Photo Credits:
1. Gary Halvorson via Wikimedia Commons
4. Courtesy of Uptown Columbus
7. Stacie Wells via Wikimedia Commons

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

44 thoughts

  1. ‘Juicy geologic details’? Well as tempting as that sounds I shall leave that for the more rock inspired readers. 🙂 Lovely photos of the houses . They remind me of the Painted Ladies of San Francisco.

    1. Ahh, give that geology a try Sue. Who knows? With a bit of rock ID training, when you’re hanging from you climbing rope, instead of worrying about falling to your death, you could be identifying the rock from which you’re hanging. 😉 ~James

      1. Actually when we were doing a lot of climbing It was interesting for sure. My Father in law was a geologist so when he was alive I got my fair share of details. 🙂

      2. You get extra points for that Sue. As I’m sure your father-in-law told you, the Canadian Rockies are some of the most scenic and geologically complex mountains on the planet. ~James

  2. The architecture is quite stunning. They were indeed braggers. I might have a look and see if I qualify as a geological details person.

    1. I’ve always been a sucker for Victorian architecture Yvonne. The word “Victorian” really describes a time rather than style of architecture, and it includes lots of different styles, but I really enjoy them all. As to geologic details, here at Gallivance readers get extra points for an interest in geology. 🙂 ~James

  3. Since we’re both lover of old house architecture, this was right up our alley! Bert even drives me on side roads in small towns so I can periodically get my old house “fix.” Also love the new term, for me that is: “bragging in bricks.” Another sterling post.

    1. Thanks Rusha. Terri and I are also lovers of old house architecture. In fact, we’ve owned a few historic properties. And even though I still love to see old buildings, in these days of simplicity and downsizing, when I see these grand old ladies I pretty much see maintenance and upkeep hassles. So we’ll keep it simple and let someone else provide entertainment for us. ~James

    1. Thanks Tess. Terri and I are dangerously close to being architecture nerds. We have a couple of architecture books that we carry with us on roadtrips, and when we see a really beautiful old house we pull over, pull out the books and try to identify the style. Geeky and scary, huh? ~James

  4. “Bragging in bricks” I love it! I bet each town on the Fall Line has quite a story to tell of fortunes won and lost too. Imagine the story as told by the brick. I don’t really have a favorite city. To be honest, I’m much more of a rural gal.Wonderful post. How are things going on your new home front?

    1. Thanks Laura. Unfortunately, the Fall Line goes offshore at NYC, and never makes it to New Hampshire. But visiting some of these Fall Line cities would be an interesting itinerary when you get on the road. And Basecamp Gallivance is undergoing a total kitchen renovation, so our lives are in total chaos. But watch this space, you’ll hear all about it in a post. ~James

      1. Good memory Laura. Our petite kitchen here will work out fine, but it was in need of a total updating: all new appliances, sink, countertop, paint and hardware on cabinets. The only thing we didn’t have to replace is the floor. ~

  5. The bling in bricks and bric-brac! Not only are these wonderful examples of early architecture but those who have lovingly maintained them deserve huge kudos!

    1. Martha, as I said to someone else, we’ve owned a few historic properties and know from personal experience what a labor of love they are. With old properties, there aren’t any small problems, and you’re exactly right about kudos for maintaining them. ~James

  6. Hi James & Terri!
    What an interesting post today about the Fall Line Cities…I learned a lot from it especially about the “bragging in bricks”! I must admit that I’ve only visited Washington DC on the list! Your post makes me want to get in the car and start driving!
    Thank you for always sharing the world with us!
    Happy Monday,

    1. Thanks Lia. I checked the Fall Line map, and it goes through NYC, but I’m not sure where. I know that it goes through Trenton, NJ, and I’ve seen photos of the boulders in the Delaware River. It might be cool to check it out. The Fall Line is best seen in DC in the river just south of Georgetown. As to bragging in bricks, there’s lots of that going around today as well. ~James

      1. Oh thanks James for doing the research! I’m glad there is a spot nearby my place…Trenton isn’t far away — about 2 hours by train…I love the Georgetown area of DC too so I hope to go back and visit that area of the country soon.
        It’s amazing how much history and culture lies right within the US! Thanks again for sharing your experiences and information with your readers like me 🙂
        Oh, and the bragging in bricks indeed continues…just maybe now in different building materials!
        All the best to you and Terri,

  7. Your ‘inner buckaroo’ must have enjoyed that little jaunt along the east coast. I love looking at big old houses. It makes me truly appreciate our tiny bungalow when I count the windows to wash and the drapes to clean in those palaces. And the intricate paint jobs. Thanks for great post.

    1. We’ve had a few big ol’ historic houses Susan, but those days are behind us. As I said to someone else, when I see these grand old ladies now I pretty much see maintenance and upkeep hassles. We live in 1000 sq. ft. and love it. Less to clean, maintain, pay taxes on, heat and cool … and the list goes on and on. ~James

  8. That was a fascinating read! So interesting the way towns come into being. There are some places I’ve been to that have had me really wondering – why on earth is there a town here, and why would anyone want to live here?
    There certainly are some very beautiful houses along that Fall Line if your photos are any indication.

    1. Thanks Alison. Many of the original town locations here in the US go back to the colonials on the east coast, and the settlers’ days out west. I suspect that many of the original locations were probably picked out as a safe and comfortable place to camp (out of the wind, high up for protection and defense, etc). And rivers were always a big deal because of ease of access to the inland areas. It’s pretty interesting to think about. ~James

    1. Thanks Joanne. We love old houses – from Queen Anne to Richardsonian Romanesque – they all are beautiful. Our love affair with old houses started in New Orleans, and for some years after living there, we were hard pressed to live in anything modern. ~James

  9. Wow, I’m happy to learn about this! You know, I’ve lived along the Fall Line in Virginia without even knowing it, from Richmond, VA to Washington, DC. It’s nice to learn something new. As for old stately mansions, both Richmond and Washington have their share, but I love Richmond’s the most. 🙂

    1. I had forgotten that you had lived in Richmond Cathy. We lived there as well and owned one of those great old row houses in the Fan. The house was from the late 1800s, and was a wonderful place to live. The James River in downtown Richmond is a classic example of the Fall Line. ~James

      1. James, lucky you to have owned one of the row houses in the Fan. I love the Fan. My daughter lives there now and my son will be moving there soon, so it seems I’ll be spending more time there. Richmond is one of my favorite cities in the USA! I should have remembered that the James River is on the Fall Line. 😊

    1. I’ve heard of Ipswich Carol, and honestly, like lots of village names in the UK, I wonder where they came from. I read one of my favorites in one of Bill Bryson’s books. One of the funniest, and most interesting village names he talked about was Thornton Le Beans. I can hardly say it without laughing, and I could never live there. Were do you reckon that came from?~James

      1. Thornton is a farm with thorn bushes and the farm grew beans. Simple!
        My friend lives in Piddletrenthide on the River Piddle. I’d love to live there!

What do you think? We'd love to know!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s