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