Hunt for the Rising Sun

Japan is known as the Land of the Rising Sun. But America is indisputably the Land of the Rising Suns.

I discovered this geographical curiosity when my beloved traveling companion invited me to join her on an upcoming business trip to, of all places, Rising Sun, Indiana.

How could I pass that up? A place whose name conjures the defining mythic, mystic and perilous qualities of New Orleans, by virtue of a song about a “house” by the same name.

Naturally, I was curious about the origin of the name of this place, a quaint hamlet accessible by public ferry from Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, directly across the Ohio River.

Rabbit Hash is a speck of a town named after a once-popular local delicacy (try to get that image out of your head) and the only known municipality in the United States whose legitimate, democratically elected mayor is a dog.

I’m not making this up.

And while researching this story, I suppose you could say I fell down a rabbit hole of Rising Suns.

They’re everywhere, it turns out. And many offer their own histories every bit as intriguing as the song that put them on the map. Except that it didn’t. Turns out, not one of them was named after the song.

Rising Sun, Indiana, was so named because of an enchanting sunrise witnessed by its first settlers upon their arrival by flatboat to the banks of the river. A once-bustling hub of 19th century commerce – boat yards, logging, sawmills – Rising Sun was the setting for a 1917 silent movie called “Blue Jeans.” It featured the first known cinematic portrayal of what would become a staple of the suspense genre – a victim, bound by rope on a conveyor belt, slowly inching towards the grinding terror of a buzz saw.

One state over, Rising Sun, Ohio, was originally established in the early 19th century as the township of St. Elms. Historical documents reveal that local residents eventually rebelled against the name, deeming it “too genteel for a place in the wilderness.” The name Rising Sun was settled upon. In 1894, for reasons unclear, it was changed to Risingsun.

The town of Rising Sun, Illinois (provenance unknown), is a popular destination for archaeology buffs, home to the Wilson Mounds, distinctive, pre-Columbian burial sites near the banks of the Wabash River.

Rising Sun, Montana, is best known for its rugged hiking trails and breathtaking views of nearby Glacier National Park.
Rising Sun, Maryland, was named after a local tavern of the same name, a busy Colonial meeting house on the route between Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Originally located in Pennsylvania, it was later ceded to Maryland when astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon (yup, those guys) were commissioned to settle a boundary dispute between the two states, the results of which re-established the border – and Rising Sun’s eventual zip code.

Apparently stung by this geographical ignominy, the Quaker State later incorporated the municipality of Rising Sun, PA, on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Delaware, parts of which were also reassigned to Maryland in the Mason-Dixon survey, subsequently established its own Rising Sun near its capital city of Dover.

It seems like the sun never sets on a proper land dispute. On that note, Kentucky is home to the towns of both Hatfield and McCoy.

I was unable to unearth any compelling details about Rising Sun, New Jersey nor Rising Sun, Iowa nor Rising Sun, Mississippi. The now defunct Rosy Acres Winery named its effervescent rosé after the nearby town of Rising Sun, California.

And then there’s Rising Sun, Kansas. Now a vacant prairie ghost town founded in 1857, it was so lousy with saloons, gamblers and gunfighters that it was officially decommissioned – and deconstructed – in 1865, and the buildings that weren’t torn down were moved to the city of Medina when the Kansas Pacific Railroad built a depot there.

Haunted by a nagging, personal obsession, Eric Burdon, the lead singer for the Animals, whose haunting rendition of “House of the Rising Sun” imprinted the song on the world’s consciousness in 1964, spent nearly 25 years searching for the original brothel for which the song was named.

I spent nearly 25 hours on the Internet searching for every American municipality named Rising Sun.

At the end of every vision quest, you’ve got to ask yourself: Was it worth it?

I’ll be honest with you: I’m more excited to visit Rabbit Hash than Rising Sun. The mayor is a pit bull named Brynneth Pawltro.


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