17 June 2016

Alert New London!: The Lost Names of the Backroads of Rural Ohio

I recently had cause to be driving around the backroads of Butler and Hamilton Counties, Ohio, right on the Indiana border, in this area:

It's a pretty undeveloped area, lots of farmland and tiny little towns that consist of one stop light and three stores. It was a nice, sunny day, so it was a good drive, made especially so because I got to drive past one of my favorite roads, Alert New London Road. It's not important enough for Google Maps to label at the zoom level I was using when I took this screenshot, but you can see it there. It's the road that connects the towns of Alert and Shandon. I like it because it sounds like an order: "Alert New London! The Indians are coming!"

I must not be the only person who thinks it's a good name, as there's apparently a Columbus, Ohio, dream-pop band called Alert New London.

The road's name's origins are pretty mundane, however. A lot of roads in this region (and I can't imagine this is an uncommon thing nationwide) are simply named for the two places they connect: Alert New London Rd., Cincinnati Brookville Rd., Okeana Drewersburg Rd., Hamilton Scipio Rd., Peoria Reily Rd., Reily Millville Rd., and so on.

This may seem like a boring naming scheme, but I will tell you as someone whose belief in his own sense of geography sometimes outstrips his actual abilities, these naming schemes sure could help you in the pre-smartphone era when you were driving around lost in the backroads of Butler County. I remember coming upon Oxford Middletown Road in the middle of the night and arbitrarily picking which way to turn on it, figuring that a 50% chance of ending up where I wanted to be (Oxford) was better than the minuscule chance I'd had up until that point.

A lot of these roads are the only remaining signs of the existence of the places they once connected. Scipio is a sort of nonplace on the Ohio-Indiana border, for example, one of those places Wikipedia calls an unincorporated community, and there's nothing to indicate any real town-ness other than that houses cluster there. As far as I can tell (admittedly just from an evening's electronic research), according to the book Thunder in the Heartland: A Chronicle of Outstanding Weather Events in Ohio, Scipio was destroyed in 1884 by a tornado:
Now all that remains of Scipio is its name on roads and cemeteries, little bits of history that have escaped overwriting but lost their context.

Like I said above, Alert New London Road connects Alert to the town of Shandon, but as you might guess if you've been following me so far, Shandon used to be called New London. In fact, Shandon is ostensibly the Butler Community to have had the most names, having also been known as Paddy's Run, Vaughan's Crossing, Glendower, Cambria, and Bagdad. The locals, who were Welsh, wanted the post office to be called New London, but the postmaster general called it Paddy's Run after a local stream, but the locals found being called "Paddies" offensive. Hence all the fluctuations as they tried to settle on something everyone could accept. (At one point the citizens boycotted the post office to get their way.) Things were apparently finally stabilized in 1906, when the U.S. Board on Geographic Names issued the following ruling:
It seems they had a lot of options to rule out.

Now, I've known of New London, Ohio, for at least twelve years, but looking at the map today, the first time doing so after eight years of being a Connecticut resident, what immediately jumped out at me was the juxtaposition of New London and New Haven, which are of course both major cities in Connecticut. Northern Ohio was originally the "Western Reserve" of Connecticut: could my adoptive state have also influenced the southwest corner of my birth state?

The answer is mixed. New Haven, Ohio, an unincorporated community now surrounded by the Miami Whitewater Forest, a county park, was definitely named in honor of Connecticut. It was founded in 1815 by Joab Comstock, a native of New Haven, Connecticut, and the first frame house was built in 1826. By 1894, it had a population of 200; now its population is almost 600. Comstock apparently liked founding villages, because he had also founded nearby Crosby in 1801, which was named after his wife's maiden name. New Haven's location was picked because it was at the intersection of the Cincinnati-New Baltimore highway and the Hammond-Lawrenceburg road. I guess those last three places were much more important in 1815 than they are in 2016, because I don't think there's much to be got out of being at their intersection today.

The appearance of a New London, Ohio, in 1803, twelve years prior to the founding of New Haven, Ohio, seems to be a complete coincidence. Even though the two Ohio towns, some four miles apart, both share names with prominent Connecticut cities, some fifty miles apart, I can find no indication that the naming of New London, Ohio, has anything to do with New London, Connecticut. The settlers of New London, Ohio, were predominantly from Wales (hence one of its many names, Glendower), and though I don't know why the Welsh might have wanted to name a city after London, England, I feel they had even less reason to name one after New London, Connecticut.

The influence of Connecticut on the parts of Ohio outside of the old Western Reserve seems to have been pretty limited after all. So the very supposition that launched me on this investigation turns out to have no basis in reality, though I have learned a lot about the area of Ohio I once called home. Seriously, now I want to drive back up to Shandon and look at its Old Welsh Cemetery!

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