Go West, Young Man

Like Horace Greeley's famed advice, curious sign on I-70 beckons yonder

June 04, 2007|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,sun reporter

The couple flew to Vegas, as couples do. Afterward, they rented a car to begin a road trip to the Grand Tetons. Then Tom Hicks of Baltimore found himself at a way station built in the 1800s for pioneers trekking to settlements along the "Mormon Corridor" - the same place anyone going the distance on Interstate 70 would find. The Hicks were not in Las Vegas anymore.

They were in Cove Fort, Utah.

"We saw one car in town. Never did see anybody," says Hicks. "But the place stuck in my mind."

Little did he know then he was officially 2,200 miles from home. But how could he know? There was no road sign back here or there.

Some six years later, Hicks, a state highway administrator in Maryland, decided to immortalize Cove Fort in the minds of Marylanders heading west out of Baltimore toward Frederick, Hagerstown and across nine other states connected by I-70. He and another highway man, Paul Farragut of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, got to thinking about a different kind of mileage sign, one with a bit of geographical whimsy and one that, for more practical reasons, would test a new type style. It's not often an act of traffic engineering captures the imagination of, well, anyone.

"I was just excited that we have an interstate that ends and begins in our region," says Farragut. He had never been to Cove Fort but was always amused by a sign on U.S. 50 on the Harry W. Kelly Memorial Bridge leading west out of Ocean City that reads: "Sacramento Ca. 3073." Back on the Western Shore, mileage-sign envy apparently reared its head. "Why don't we give people some sense of geography?" Farragut wondered.

So, in July 2004, a highway sign was erected in a median of I-70 a mile outside Baltimore's Beltway and near a way station of its own, a Park and Ride lot. The green sign - with a larger font to help elderly people see better - does not mention the nearest McDonald's or Exxon station. It provides no crucial highway information. Rather, like Horace Greeley, a 19th-century newspaper editor, it beckons to the west:

Columbus 420 miles

St. Louis 845 miles

Denver 1700 miles

Cove Fort 2200 miles

Was this some of kind of twisted, transportation joke? What were these highway types smoking? An atlas? They might as well have posted: Mars 34.6 Million Miles. But Cove Fort, Utah, is simply the western terminus of Interstate 70. The end of the road.

"If the sign just said Frederick, Cumberland or whatever, it would not have generated near the interest," says David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration. Calls began to pour in about the quirky sign. "Oh, did that story have legs."

Newspaper articles, editorials, TV coverage galore, press coverage from Mormon newspapers circled the Baltimore story. Read all about it: East meets West. Baltimore meets Cove Fort. "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 Sun reported in 2004. Visitors would find a restored church historic site, still owned by the Mormons, and still one mile north of Exit 1 off I-70.

Three years later, the sign still gets good mileage.

A Baltimore trip

"I think about going to Baltimore one day," says Kent Jones, a 72-year-old Mormon missionary serving as Cove Fort's caretaker along with other volunteers from the church. More than a few of their 80,000 yearly visitors have traveled from Baltimore because of the sign. The missionaries, who work in two-year shifts at the fort, have been amused, tickled even, by the continental connection.

"It's been fun to meet people who have come to Cove Fort because of your sign," says Edith Brown, the fort's secretary.

But does Baltimore have a sister sign city in Utah? After all, the state of California in 2002 posted a sign in West Sacramento that reads, Ocean City, MD 3073. It initially read 3037 miles because the last two numbers were transposed. The sign was stolen twice in reported fraternity pranks. A larger and less-swipeable sign was finally erected that gave the correct mileage to Ocean City.

In Cove Fort at the start of eastbound I-70, drivers face a highway sign that says, Joseph 23 miles. Richfield 34 Miles. Denver 507. But that's where the sign ends. Utah's Department of Transportation says it has no plans to post a mileage sign to Baltimore.

"I guess we're a little more conservative in Utah," says department spokesman Nile Easton. He notes a projected $16.5 billion deficit in the department's budget over the next 20 years. "To spend $3,000 for a sign probably would not go over well here. Now, if Maryland wants to contribute, we might re-examine the issue."

He also notes the state's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices - "a big, thick book engineers really like." Including end points on highway signs is not mentioned. But what about doing it just for fun?

"Fun is not in the manual," Easton says.

Missed opportunity

Back at the fort, Kent Jones appears to be less conservative.

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