Westward ho!

Editorial Notebook

October 23, 2004|By Robert Benjamin

BREAK FREE of the Baltimore Beltway, slide onto the very beginning of westbound Interstate 70, and in a mile or so there it is on the left, on the median strip, that new highway sign, big and bright and proclaiming an American continent of possibilities.

The 10-foot-by-22-foot sign, installed by the state last July, flatly announces:

"Columbus 420 miles

St. Louis 845 miles

Denver 1700 miles

Cove Fort 2200 miles"

That's Cove Fort, Utah.

It's hardly a metropolis -- and not even a town. But it is just about two miles from the western end of Interstate 70, the fifth-longest interstate in America, which essentially connects a Baltimore County park-and-ride to Interstate 15 running to Los Angeles. The total distance, according to various sources, is actually shy of 2,200 miles by about 50 miles, but either way you could (theoretically) drive it in about 34 hours straight.

And what you'd find there is a 100-foot-square compound bounded by 4-foot-thick, 18-foot-high walls of black volcanic rock, the Cove Fort, a former Mormon way station for pioneer travelers heading south from Salt Lake City toward southern Utah and beyond. The 137-year-old fort, built by the grandfather of the current president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is now an immaculately restored church historic site drawing more than 80,000 visitors a year.

The nearest city is Beaver, Utah, with only 2,500 residents but renown as the birthplace of the outlaw Butch Cassidy and Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of TV. Apart from that, it's ski resorts, alpine vistas, big cattle ranches, "and absolutely nothing but beautifully gorgeous countryside," says Carl Madsen, the church elder who oversees Cove Fort. Mr. Madsen, 68, has never been to Baltimore. Compared with southern Utah, he figures, "it must be pretty congested." He heard about the I-70 sign a while back, from a California friend driving around the East Coast. "I think it's a hoot," he says. "We need one here that says, `Baltimore.'"

Brent Wilhite thinks so, too, sort of. "We should definitely fix that," laughs the Utah Department of Transportation spokesman. Er, on second thought, he says, his agency has no plans to add a "Baltimore" sign at the start of eastbound I-70. Drivers coming off I-15 will encounter the same old sign, announcing it's 23 miles to Joseph, 34 to Richfield, and 507 to Denver. "We could put Baltimore up there if we wanted," he says. "It's kind of fun but not really of value, more of a curiosity. Maybe it would be a good kind of thing to put up where people fall asleep at the wheel, and they need stimulation. We could use that on our rural roads."

Safety -- and a touch of geographic whimsy -- are the real reasons behind the ambitious road sign at I-70's Baltimore end. Maryland highway engineers erected it to test a new type style on road signs; it's called Clearview, and leaving aside a lot of technicalities, it's supposed to be a lot more legible at night, particularly for elderly motorists. Given that the sign was a test, engineers didn't want it to provide "critical information, like the next exit," says Valerie Edgar of the State Highway Administration. So Columbus, St. Louis, Denver ...

But Cove Fort? Credit Paul Farragut of Ellicott City, former head of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the regional transportation agency. He was inspired by a sign at the end of U.S. 50 in Ocean City that says it's 3,073 miles to Sacramento, Calif., which politely reciprocated with its own Ocean City sign. In any case, Cove Fort's inclusion on the Maryland sign already paid off for state engineers by prompting all sorts of calls, giving them openings to grill the curious about the sign's visibility. That's no longer needed; the sign passed muster. The state may even add a Maryland locale to it. But, we're assured, Cove Fort will remain.

-- Robert Benjamin

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