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A shrunken head, and the lost ‘Z’ and ‘J’

If you don’t know where you are in Dalla, this sign probably won’t help.

Dear Action Line: The noble effort to create an urban park out of the old Dalla property seems to be suffering from lack of follow-up and maintenance. The signage throughout is certainly tragic! Whom can Action Line pester to make it right? – Col. Percy Fawcett

Dear Percy: Cartography is the theme of the day, starting with this question about Dalla Mountain Park, a 178-acre parcel that the city purchased from Jake Dalla in 2005 for $4.6 million.

Action Line recalls people doing a lot of whining about the supposedly high purchase price, but the guess here is that many of those whiners go hiking and climbing and dog-walking regularly in this beautiful piece of preserved land that gets more popular every minute. It’s a great place as long as the bears and mountain lions are in a good mood and you don’t get lost. (Not to scare anyone off, of course. That would be fiendish.)

But even Percy Fawcett wouldn’t stay lost for too long at Dalla. Just head downhill and you’ll hit a road pretty soon. Yes, first things first. Who is this Percy guy?

Well, before he turned up as the local sign curmudgeon, he was an English explorer who became lost in the Brazilian jungles of Mato Grosso in 1925 searching for the lost city he called “Z.” His shrunken head was found a few years later, or so they say. Now he lives in a house on East Third Avenue with Amelia Earhart, or so they say.

What were we talking about? Oh yes, the Dalla map.

The city of Durango has a lot of open space these days, which is nice, and a lot of trail signs to maintain, which makes for some work. So it may take a while to replace this sun-splotched map.

“Yes, the Parks and Recreation Department is updating wayfinding signage in several locations,” department Director Cathy Metz said. “The current effort is to fabricate and install wayfinding signage in Horse Gulch this year. We are also aware of sun fade on signage in other mountain parks, including Dalla, that will be replaced as soon as possible.”

Replacing signs often means updating maps to reflect new trails and realignments. Horse Gulch, for instance, has added the RidgeView (formerly SkyRaider) trail, and Cap’s Trail was re-routed.

The budget allows for some sign replacement or repair, but major projects such as what is planned for Horse Gulch have to be figured into the annual budget.

Dear Action Line: I was looking at the old maps of Durango and noticed the cross streets downtown used to be designated with letters. Third Street was A Street, Fourth, B Street, etc. For some reason J was skipped. The streets went from I to K, no J. Why do you think they skipped such an important letter? – John Jacob Jingleheimer Jr.

Where’d the “J” go? Nineteenth-century Durango used letters for downtown east-west streets.

Dear John: Hey, that’s my name too! Well, at least the John part.

So we couldn’t find “Z,” and now we can’t find “J.” The alphabet is disappearing. The city of Durango was platted around 1880, and John Jacob was looking at a map dated 1890. The east-west streets were changed from letters to numbers between 1893 and 1898, a search of Sanborn Fire Insurance maps shows.

Action Line had a hunch, did a random (what other kind is there?) Google search, and found evidence to support a theory that perhaps the “J” looked too much like an “I.” If you’ve spent much time in Washington, D.C. (Action Line hasn’t), you know there is no J Street there; it should be just north of the White House. So why does D.C. also have no “J”?

The legend goes that D.C. street designer Pierre L’Enfant left out “J” street in 1791 because he despised John Jay, the first Supreme Court chief justice and a Revolutionary War buddy of George Washington’s.

But real historians tell us that’s not true. I and J just look a lot alike, and supposedly in 18th century typography they were nearly interchangeable. Robert McDaniel, former director of the Animas Museum and a guy who knows a lot about Durango history, believes that is the correct explanation.

And that’s good enough for Action Line, who would have axed the “I” street and kept the “J” street, but regrettably was never asked.

Email questions and suggestions to actionline@durangoherald.com or mail them to Action Line, The Durango Herald, 1275 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81301. Yes, we know, it’s now legal here to buy a “J.” And others, like Stephen Curry, are good at shooting the “J.”

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