Arizona Strip

On November 1, 2012 · 2 Comments

Arizona’s observance of time demonstrates considerable weirdness. This article isn’t about time, however, although it’s about Arizona. I think of Arizona at least twice a year, in Spring and in Autumn when the United States toggles between standard and daylight saving time. A disconnected memory triggered by the upcoming time change floated back into to my mind.

I recalled a comment left on 12MC several months ago by "Page" that referenced the curious "Arizona Strip." The contributor left only one other comment ever, on that same day, so I don’t know if this was a random fly-by or a regular reader who mostly lurks. Either way, I found the topic fascinating and I tucked it away for further examination later.

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The Arizona Strip isn’t a high desert variation of a burlesque show. Rather it refers to the northwestern corner of the state above the Colorado River. It is almost completely cut off from the remainder of Arizona by the Grand Canyon. It’s not quite a practical exclave because two roads on the far eastern end connect the Strip to the larger portion of Arizona — Route 89 at Glen Canyon and Route 89a at Marble Canyon (map) — although it has similar characteristics in a general sense because one has to swing around the Grand Canyon regardless.

For instance:

  • A drive from Grand Canyon Lodge on the north rim to Bright Angel Lodge on the south rim will take 213 miles (343 km) over nearly five hours (map). The air distance between those points is probably about a dozen miles.
  • A resident of Colorado City who wishes to visit the Mohave County seat in Kingman will need to drive more than 250 miles (400 km). That person would likely have to drive into Utah and Nevada first to do that, and swing all the way out to Las Vegas using the most logical route (map).
  • People living in the towns of Littlefield or Scenic where Interstate 15 clips the corner of the state are effectively cleaved from the rest of Arizona unless they wish to leave the state first or traverse dangerous and hellish 4-wheel drive tracks instead.

I’ve been to the the Arizona Strip twice although I didn’t recognize it as such at the time. One involved the aforementioned stretch of Interstate 15 between St. George, Utah and Mesquite, Nevada. I remember those two points clearly. I can’t seem to recall anything about my 30-mile crossing of the Arizona Strip except that I know I must have been there because I took I-15.

The other one involved a visit to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Most visitors go to the south rim which by itself is an itself an excellent reason to consider heading into the Arizona Strip to see the north rim instead. It’s much less crowded and considerably more relaxed. It was here that I infamously (embarrassingly) found an hour so obviously I have very conscious memories of the Arizona Strip from that time. Plus it was the Grand Canyon! Who could ever forget about that?

One might wonder why a state would be created with such an obvious anomaly. Geography implies that it would make much more sense to include the Strip as a southern extension of Utah.

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The early Latter Day Saints pioneers thought likewise. They expanded southward into the Arizona Strip starting in the 1850’s and founded several settlements including Littlefield and Fredonia. The Strip was included in the Mormon’s ambitious 1849 State of Deseret proposal that was rejected by the U.S. Congress. Lawmakers were wrestling with a larger issue at the time. A delicate balance of places that allowed slavery and those that did not was beginning to unravel with the absorption of new territory in the wake of the 1848 Mexican-American War victory.

The Compromise of 1850 reset the balance, albeit temporarily. One provision created territorial boundaries for Utah and New Mexico (with Arizona later cleaved from New Mexico) and established Utah’s southern border. Thus an argument over slavery, not the logic of geography, created the Arizona Strip. It became somewhat of a "no-man’s land," not a part of Utah and far removed from Arizona’s civic reach.

The United States would not accept Utah as as state until the Latter Day Saints disavowed polygamy. This happened in the Manifesto of 1890. This same prohibition also had to be written into the Utah constitution as a condition of statehood. With those hurdles cleared, Congress accepted Utah’s application and it became a state in 1896.

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The polygamy disavowal was not acceptable to certain Mormons who formed breakaway sects in response. Some of them moved to the Arizona Strip where Utah’s lawns did not apply to them and where they were left largely alone by Arizona authorities located too far away to bother. Even today Colorado City, AZ and the adjoining town of Hildale on the Utah side of the border are essentially controlled by a polygamist sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS):

The FLDS Church set up shop in Short Creek [e.d., now Colorado City], largely due to its isolation. Buffered by the Grand Canyon and with a hundred miles of barren desert between them and the nearest law enforcement in Kingman, Arizona, they felt comfortable there. These polygamists also knew they were near a Stateline, which could easily be strategically crossed if there was trouble.

Colorado City is the largest town in the Arizona Strip with 5,000 of the Strip’s 8,000 residents. The situation has devolved in recent years and it’s attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice. Steps have also been taken by the State of Arizona to wrestle control of the town away from the FLDS. A geographic anomaly created in an attempt to deal with issues of slavery reverberates more than a century and a half later.

On November 1, 2012 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Arizona Strip”

  1. Scott Surgent says:

    The I-15 section that nicks Arizona does have one memorable segment: the few miles where it winds through the Virgin River Canyon, arguably one of the most scenic stretches of interstate in the USA.

    Having lived in Arizona for over 20 years, I have been to the strip (as opposed to passing through) about 5 times, which puts me probably close to the top of the list for Arizona citizens. It is very far, and once there, very rustic in the good sense. Driving the dirt roads, it feels like traveling back 100 or 200 years. But I underscore what other sites have said: come prepared, have extra gas and an extra spare, and steer clear if it’s the least bit wet.

    The sense of isolation up there is astounding. You really do feel like a molecule surrounded by thousands of square miles of high desert, and maybe 5 people within a day’s drive of you.

  2. Pfly says:

    The Compromise of 1850 created two “no man’s lands”, in a sense. Due to the Missouri Compromise limiting slavery to south of 36°30′ Texas was required to make that line its northern border when it gave up its larger claims to the west and north, yet at the same time the boundary between the newly created New Mexico and Utah Territories was set at 37° (and 38°, east of the Rockies, at first). When Kansas was split off from Indian Territory in 1854 that boundary was set at 37°, resulting in the no man’s land of today’s Oklahoma panhandle.

    At first I assumed 37° was chosen for the boundary between New Mexico and Utah Territories because it was used for the Kansas-Oklahoma boundary and simply extended into the west. But apparently the NM-UT line was set in 1850 and the KS-OK line in 1854.

    It’s not clear to me why 37° was used for NM-UT but Texas was required to use 36°30′, both as parts of the Compromise of 1850. Why wasn’t 36°30′ used for NM-UT? Was it simply because the question of slavery in the territories was put off and 37 was a nice round number? Apparently in the negotiations for the Compromise of 1850 there were proposals to extend 36°30′ to the Pacific. Was the eventually use of 37° a way of yielding in a small way to the slavery side? And/or perhaps a way to reduce the Utah/Mormon territory?

    Furthermore, why wasn’t 36°30′ used in 1854 for the southern boundary of Kansas? I assume slavery was legal in Indian Territory until after the Civil War, so if Texas had been required to limit itself to 36°30′, why wasn’t Indian Territory as well? The only clue I can find on that is that 37° happened to be the boundary between the Cherokee and Osage reservations, while 36°30′ would have cut right through the Cherokee Reservation. Perhaps 37° was chosen in part so that the slave-owning Cherokee would not be divided up? Still, it seems odd the Cherokee would be accommodated in this way while the state of Texas was not.

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