Join 3,367 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


What's a Cross Keys?
January 12, 2013 7:09 PM   Subscribe

When 2 roads cross, it's called a crossroads. But what's this called?

A right-angle crossing is simple. But sometimes when roads cross at a sharp angle, you’ll see a stretch in the middle that both roads traverse together for a short distance before diverging again.
I think I’ve seen this last configuration with the name Cross Keys attached. Has anybody else ever seen this? Or heard of such a meaning for Cross Keys?
posted by LonnieK to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've never heard of a "cross keys" intersection (I have some exposure to this through work, but I only know traffic/civil engineers in passing.)

Normally intersection types just say how many roads are coming together and/or splitting - "Y" intersections are a split/join from one road to two or two roads to one (depending on how you look at it,) "T" intersections have one road that doesn't keep going, etc. When it gets fancy, that just means you need to put up a ridiculous sign that says "dangerous intersection," or whatever. I've never heard of a list of special terms for "yet another wacky intersection with this specific and rare configuration." Traffic engineering is all supposed to be about consistency and uniform standards rather than creativity.

Can you draw what you're thinking of, or link to a Google map showing the location? You can often find engineering texts/sites that refer to a specific place and give the obscure title, if you know the city/state/whatever.
posted by SMPA at 8:28 PM on January 12, 2013

According to the state of Mass, the intersection you are talking about is called "oblique" and the portion of intersection is called just that (intersection). Per this Design Document. (page 6-14)
posted by kalessin at 8:34 PM on January 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

P.S. "Cross Keys" appears to be, via short Google searching, referring to a heraldric symbol.
posted by kalessin at 8:42 PM on January 12, 2013

There's a good Wikipedia article on interchanges, which describes many possible configurations with good diagrams. Doesn't seem to have yours listed but might be of interest.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:47 PM on January 12, 2013

Intercourse, PA, used to be named Cross Keys after the intersection there. There are some other mentions about cross keys areas in PA, enough that it may well be a regionalism. Here's one in South Carolina.

Try searching "cross keys" + intersection. There are many. Whether they always describe non-perpendicular intersections I can't say, but they certainly describe intersections.
posted by Miko at 8:54 PM on January 12, 2013

A diverging diamond interchange?
posted by scruss at 8:55 PM on January 12, 2013

One in Virginia
posted by Miko at 8:57 PM on January 12, 2013

There are a bunch of places named Cross Keys...The one in Virginia marks a battle that was named for the Cross Keys tavern it was near, I gather. Cross Keys as a symbol apparently represent St Peter holding the keys to heaven (?) and is apparently a common name for pubs in the UK.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:03 PM on January 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's interesting, in that a lot of places seem to say they are named after an intersection at which there was a tavern by that name. Most places named "cross keys" reference a tavern. It all makes sense: taverns used to be hostelries, and they were of course located where two roads crossed, because that doubled your clientele. And there are many of them because you found taverns basically a day's daylight travel distance from one another (in pre-industrial times).

I suspect it's not just the intersection, but the tavern location as well, that is often connoted in the name. I would doubt it means any specific configuration of intersection, just that there was an intersection, and likely a tavern along with it.
posted by Miko at 9:10 PM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just so everyone's clear, an interchange almost always involves grade separation and so typically implies the involvement of a freeway or divided highway. An intersection is where all the roads are at the same grade, which seems to be what the OP is implying here.

Easy way to remember: you "change" your freeway number at an "interchange." For me this works because it doesn't feel like a "change" to just turn: on- and off-ramps feel like a big enough deal to warrant the word "change."

Interchanges use ramps and big columns holding up roads and involve quite a bit of imagination, because they're using that handy additional dimension and don't have to worry nearly as much about collisions. Earthquakes and ice control in winter and the costs of maintenance and such, yes: collisions, not so much.

Intersections are, conversely, deaths waiting to happen because cars WILL collide in them sooner or later. Hence the vigorous "simpler is better" thinking behind them, and the occasional viral infection of roundabouting every intersection in town.
posted by SMPA at 9:14 PM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lebanon, OH
Woodbridge, NJ
posted by Miko at 9:15 PM on January 12, 2013

OK, two phenomena happening here.

The first is the pub name or Church reference - Cross Keys. According to the excellent wikipedia entry on pub names:
Cross Keys: The sign of St Peter, the gatekeeper of Heaven. Often found near a church dedicated to St Peter. When people walked to the Sunday service they often stayed afterwards, at a house near the church, to drink beer and to watch or participate in sporting events. These venues became known as "public houses" and would use the sign of the saint to which the church was dedicated - the Cross Keys for St Peter, an Eagle for St John, a Lion for St Mark. The sporting events might include the racing or fighting of dogs, bulls, cocks or pheasants, or the hunting of foxes, with or without hounds - thus giving rise to further pub signs.
The second are insane road intersections. In old New England and other colonial states, these happened organically, as farmers and merchants would simply strike off to where they needed to go from a known landmark... usually a church or pub... in the direction of their next stop. This resulted in five, six, sometimes seven (Hello, Lowell, MA!) way intersections. In the modern, paved and auto-friendly world, this means roundabouts or two roads sharing the same stretch of asphalt for bit.

There may well have been one at Cross Keys, but the road was named after the location, and the location was not named after the road. The civil engineering term for two roads meeting at right angles is a Cross. The term for two roads interacting in any other way is an Intersection. Your road is an intersection - a scary and complicated one, but an intersection all the same.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:34 PM on January 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I believe the usual term for what you're describing is a dogleg intersection. That is, two roads that don't cross obliquely so much as merge together for a short distance. The section where they run together is often known as a dogleg (due to the way that a dog's leg angles to and fro). When the deflection is minor it can also be known as a "jog" (but a jog does not have to involve an intersection).

The evolution of the crossed keys from religious heraldry to taverns seems obvious, as a symbol of Christian safety on the dangerous roads.

as farmers and merchants would simply strike off to where they needed to go from a known landmark

I think you reverse the order of things here. The farmers and merchants set up their fences, farms, and shops along the roads that were there before. Usually the oldest roads were Indian trails, and next after that military (colonial or territorial) roads. New England may have been a little more complex, but everything west of the Appalachians was essentially land platted and granted from far away offices in Washington and New York, well before any roads reached the property.
posted by dhartung at 12:09 AM on January 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Around-the-world edition: in the UK when there is an intersection where the minor roads are not perfectly aligned, it is called a 'staggered junction'. Never seen it associated with 'Cross Keys' though.
posted by fearnothing at 5:13 AM on January 13, 2013

Thanks all. Much fascinating info here.

Here's a map example. Johnson Ferry Rd comes in from the west, and Ashford Dunwoody from the northwest. They join, travel together a few blocks, diverge, and go their separate ways off to the southeast. The marker denotes the common stretch; there was an antebellum settlement and US Post Office here called Cross Keys.

Dhartung’s dogleg link is exactly the same thing (although dogleg also commonly means a sharp bend in a single road).

There's nothing crazy or strange about these configurations, which are widespread, and may or may not still use the old road names. The 'stretch in common' was usually simply the result of actual traffic patterns, predating any road-planning agencies. (An example of the other kind -- a fully-planned one -- is Atlanta’s Downtown Connector, which carries both I-75 and I-85 through the city center.)

I wouldn't expect to find 'Cross Keys' as an official designation, but more as vernacular. Seems to be good evidence that it was occasionally applied to crossroads of any kind, with the tavern/hotel angle sometimes also playing a part.
posted by LonnieK at 7:07 AM on January 13, 2013

dhartung is corrent. And in New England, if anything, was more influenced by existing roads than other parts of the country - or at least not less. The colonists certainly did not arrive in a trackless wilderness, and all the desire paths (to good fishing, fresh water, wooded and sheltered areas, large settlements, trade locations) were already really well present. The Old Connecticut Path, the Bay Path in MA and the northern sections of the old Boston Post Road (now usually known as Route 1) are examples of heavily travelled and often intersecting routes. Europeans settled on them as possible, and their taverns popped up roughly a day's travel distance from one another, with more clientele obviously arriving at crossroads taverns. What this means is that the oldest colonial villages in (mostly) coastal New England have a much less geometric layout than cities and towns which were planned later. Before the epidemics that nearly annihilated New England's natives, the Northeast coast east of the Appalachians was one of the most densely populated regions in North America, and it was pretty well covered by road networks already.

He contrasts this with "the grid-patterned range township" which could be laid out across land that had not been in use as a roadway for some time, if ever.

Interestingly, it seems as though the placename "crossroads" wasn't common in New England. I just found a really interesting discussion of town layouts and crossroads villages in the book Sightseeking: Clues to the Landscape History of New England. (Google Books link). The author talks about how most early villages, including Plymouth, were laid out in cross form:
Typical attributes of these crossroads is that they are right-angled, cardinally oriented, have directional street names (North, South, and so on), lie coaxial to the larger road-net, stand at the geographic center of a square or diamond township, and are distinguished by a common, a meetinghouse, and the main buildings of the town.
He calls a crossroads with roads that don't meet perpendicularly a "lazy X" intersection, a term I had never really encountered but which recurs in some other landscape history books and articles online.

He talks too about how New England "range" towns that were laid out with a perfect crossroads were often "spoiled" by "a fifth road, topographical diversions, or cockeyed intersections." He also talks about towns which exhibit "broken, or offset, crossroads in which the two cross-arms fail to meet at the main road by a factor of several hundred feet.

It seems like he's saying, in general, that even though the older, "organic" town layouts weren't regularized, people tried to organize them into an orderly village-center crossroads when they could - often taking a century or more to backform in such a way that they began to resemble a planned town layout, and not always being at all successful in orienting them to the cardinal directions and that sort of thing.

He asserts that even the word "crossroads" was absent from the New England landscape. In New England parlance a "cross road" referred to a shortcut that allowed you to cut from one road to another without going all the way to a major intersection. He says New Englanders tended to call their crossroads "corners" (I can attest that's common enough in place names) and that "crossroads" is a mid-Atlantic term.

After reading and considering all this, I suspect that the traditions of tavern naming, carried over from Europe, just made it really likely that there are more than a couple of taverns who adopted the name "Cross Keys," and the fact that they're also located at crossroads doesn't have much to do with the nature of the intersection, but just the fact that taverns are almost always located at crossroads by default - that's the place to put taverns (and other "main buildings").
posted by Miko at 10:29 AM on January 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some random search results for places where "Cross Keys" seems to be a placename associated with a tavern (Some are PDFs):

Harrsville, MD
Medford, NJ (I know this site, it's a big and old crossroads)
Shelby County KY (neat picture)
Chester County, PA
Concord, PA
Baltimore, MD
Calvert Village, MD
Wooster, OH
Williamstown, NJ
Philadelphia, PA
Jonesburg, MO
Glassboro, NJ
Doylestown, PA: I'll quote a little from this one because I think it's probably the basic model that explains the rest:
According to the book Place Names in Bucks County, it was customary in colonial America to give a town the same name as its tavern. Keeping with this tradition, Cross Keys was taken from the name of a watering hole (and later an inn) established about the time William Doyle obtained his license to keep a public house. However, the real history of the names goes back much further. Originally, “crossed keys” served as the arms of the Papal See, which were borrowed from the emblem of Saint Peter. By the seventeenth century, Cross Keys had been adopted for lay purposes as the name for taverns throughout England. British subjects who settled in the New World naturally gave familiar appellations to their favorite watering holes here in America. Thus, the Doylestown community known as Cross Keys was born.

Located at the corner of Dyers Road (old Route 611) and Newtown-Quakertown Road, Cross Keys was a popular stop during the early stagecoach days. Just a short distance from the County seat, it provided convenient and hospitable accommodations.
In Georgia and South Carolina, I found historical markers cited on Waymarking for "post offices" called "Cross Keys." Given that these markers look to date from the 30s if not before, I suspect that mail being what it was in the Colonial era, delivered by rider or stage and arriving along with other travellers, these "post offices" were also taverns, as was pretty usual, and that the good people of the historical society were doing a little scrubbing up.

Interesting stuff!

So my conclusions:

  • Cross Keys was a really really common tavern name, of British derivation
  • The name was most common in midAtlantic colonies, but appears in a more scattered way in the South and in OH and MO, probably carried there along with migration from the mid-Atlantic
  • I'm now totally convinced that if an intersection is called "cross keys" it's because there was a crossroads tavern by that name there, not because it's a colloquial name for an interseciton. So much evidence for the former, none really for the latter.

  • posted by Miko at 11:14 AM on January 13, 2013

    Not to mention the seemingly arbitrary jogging that many north/south rural (usually County) roads in California sometimes take (this may happen elsewhere, too). This is because they run along a N/S meridian, and real roads don't bend gradually as they approach the North Pole, they offest from time to time, to keep the coordinates in line with the map. Gotta keep them lines straight. Mapping offsets. We just call them doglegs.

    Mercater made idiots of us all.
    posted by mule98J at 12:12 PM on January 13, 2013

    More on the Land Ordinance of 1785 which established the grid system used, particularly beginning in the Northwest Territory^, settling competing claims by the 13 original colonies, which eventually became five (and change) Midwestern states. And the meridian problem.

    if an intersection is called "cross keys" it's because there was a crossroads tavern by that name there, not because it's a colloquial name for an interseciton

    This is my belief as well, inasmuch as evidence for the other hypothesis is absent. I'm not going to dismiss the possibility of a localized metonymy, though. Many of those old road houses have long since gone missing and without the origin of the name remaining in place, the idea could easily slip around and derive a folk etymology.
    posted by dhartung at 1:41 PM on January 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

    Oh, that's exactly what I think happened in a lot of these spots, dhartung. It's weird to occasionally discover something written in a placename that you had no idea referred to a real thing that was once present.
    posted by Miko at 2:25 PM on January 13, 2013

    « Older When we were honeymooning in M...   |  I am interested in taking a fe... Newer »
    This thread is closed to new comments.