At the far northwestern corner of North Dakota, right up next to Canada and Montana sits a county with a curious name, Divide. It looked somewhat rectangular like many other counties on the sparsely-populated Great Plains where few natural features could take the place of arbitrary straight lines.
Canadian-US Boundary by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr (cc)
I’d encountered Divide County vicariously one time before without even realizing it as I researched infrequent border crossings between the United States and Canada a couple of years ago. The Noonan border station in Divide County was so lonely and isolated that it had only a single pedestrian crossing during 2011 (the most current data available at the time), although it also had motor vehicle crossings of course. This photo was actually another nearby crossing in Divide — I couldn’t fine one of Noonan — although notice the obelisk marker placed by the International Boundary Commission. I don’t know where I’m going with that. I simply liked the image and it probably looked a lot like the one at Noonan so feel free to use your imagination.
The international border probably wasn’t the divide that inspired a county’s name however, in spite of modern theories like that described by Dakota Datebook in 2007:
This time a name for the new county would be determined through a contest. The winning entry came from George Gilmore, a Williston attorney. Gilmore proposed the name Divide County. The Northern Continental Divide runs through the region. The county divides the United States from Canada. It divides North Dakota from Montana. And most importantly, the new county was a product of its division.
Divide County Courthouse by jeremiah.andrick, on Flickr (cc)
The part about the contest was true enough. Both Divide County and the Town of Crosby (the seat of county government) confirmed the story. It happened in 1910. Homesteaders were just then migrating into the area. There were just enough people to warrant a new county, thus dividing Divide from larger Williams County. The contest commenced, Gilmore won $5 for his efforts, and the name stuck. The preponderance of sources I consulted mentioned two divisions as the basis for the name, the divide from Williams County, and the continental divide. The notion of state and international borders inspiring a name were apparently modern contrivances.
Divide County North Dakota
Created Using USGS’s National Map Viewer
The continental divide fascinated me more in this instance so I went into the National Map Viewer and selected the watershed layer. Notice the dark purple line that marked the continental divide. Many people see "continental divide" and think reflexively of the Great Divide that separated west from east, the Pacific drainage area from the Gulf of Mexico. This wasn’t that divide. Rather this was the Laurentian Divide or the Northern Divide that separated water bound for Hudson Bay from that heading down towards the Gulf of Mexico.
Divide County’s northeastern quadrant and its county seat at Crosby fell within the Souris River watershed, which flowed into the Assiniboine River River then to the Red River of the North into Lake Winnipeg, then to the Nelson River and finally into Hudson Bay. Divide’s southeastern quadrant flowed a long distance too albeit with a more familiar set of names, from local tributaries to the Missouri River to the Mississippi River, and then to the Gulf of Mexico.
What about that curious notation on the map? The Brush Lake Closed Basin? Indeed, the western part of Divide County flowed just a few miles farther west and barely crossed the border into Montana before stopping at Brush Lake where it remained. A good 20% of Divide wasn’t part of either side of the continental divide, it fell within an endorheic basin created at the tail-end of the last Ice Age as glaciers gouged the plains.
The buried outwash gravels and the deeper river terrace gravels are very porous and support a controlled groundwater irrigation area, as well as supplying Brush Lake with a continuous flow of water through large springs in the lake. Being in a closed basin, summer evaporation serves as a pump to keep groundwater flowing into the lake. And since evaporation only takes pure water out, the minerals leached from the glacial gravels remain dissolved in the lake and accumulate, giving the lake its distinct color.
Brush Lake, Montana
Maybe we should track down Gilmore’s heirs and ask for the $5 back?
I talked about the longest postal route in the United States recently, the saga of Jim Ed Bull and his 187.6 mi (302 km) daily slog from Mangum, Oklahoma extending through the rural countryside. I also discovered an interesting bit of trivia during my research. This little corner of southwestern Oklahoma used to be part of Texas until almost the 20th Century.
I’d stumbled across this historical marker.
Old Greer County Marker by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr (cc)
OLD GREER COUNTY. S. and W. of North Fork of Red R. Greer Co. was named and governed as a part of Texas from 1860 until 1896 when U. S. Supreme Crt. decision made it part of Oklahoma Ter. This county area was claimed by 14 different governments from 1669 to Oklahoma statehood in 1907; since then it has been divided into 3 counties and the southern part of Beckham County.
I’ll maybe leave that "14 different governments" claim for another day. Right now I’ll focus on the first sentence, the one about being part of Texas from 1860 to 1896. That seemed easily verifiable and there were a number of sources available. I consulted the Handbook of Texas from the Texas State Historical Association, the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture from the Oklahoma Historical Society, and of course I went to a primary source, the actual U.S. Supreme Court decision, United States v Texas (1896).
I also took a shot at creating a map showing the approximate footprint of old Greer County, Texas, now divided into Greer, Jackson, Harmon and part of Beckham Counties, Oklahoma. This was the first time I’ve drawn something using Google’s Map Engine Lite now that the former Google Maps "My Maps" capability has been completely deprecated. I guess it turned out acceptably well.
The root of the issue extended all the way back to the Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819, that — among several things such as making Florida a part of the U.S. — formalized the boundary between the U.S. and Spain’s colonial territories in North America. The treaty relied upon the best map available at the time and referenced it by name, "Melishe’s Map of the United States, published at Philadelphia, improved to the first of January 1818."
The Melish Map had been drafted by John Melish, a Scottish immigrant with a penchant for detail and accuracy. He published his "Map of the United States with the contiguous British and Spanish Possessions" originally in 1816. It was the first map to depict the United States as extending to the Pacific Ocean. It also contained a couple of key problems that later created the situation in Greer County: the 100th Meridian was drawn about a degree too far east and the Red River was shown as having only a single branch.
Texas State Line-100th Meridian by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr (cc)
Texas inherited the former Spanish boundary (later Mexican boundary) when it became an independent Republic and adhered to it when it became part of the United States. Texas also relied upon the most favorable interpretation of the Treaty. It used the Melish Map and its errors literally when it drew Greer County in 1860 and named it for the state’s former lieutenant governor John Alexander Greer who served 1847-1851. The Federal government disputed Texas’ interpretation. However the Civil War soon broke out and there were more pressing issues to address.
Greer County’s population grew tremendously in the post-war years. Only ten families lived in Greer in 1884 on expansive cattle ranches. Two years later, settlers established a county seat in Mangum. According to the Handbook of Texas, "A school system was set up, and by 1892 sixty-six school districts had been formed with an enrollment of 2,250 pupils." The population jumped from almost zero to several thousand in a decade. That amount of growth could no longer be ignored by the Federal government. President Harrison signed an act organizing the Oklahoma Territory and it contained a provision that required a solution. Otherwise the dispute would complicate eventual Oklahoma statehood. A Commission failed to reach an agreement and the case went to the Supreme Court.
The United States favored the true 100th Meridian and the Prairie Dog Town Fork (i.e., the southern fork; the main fork) of the Red River as the boundary between Texas and the Oklahoma Territory. Texas favored the 100th Meridian of the Melish map and the North Fork of the Red River, relying upon the explicit language of the Adams–Onís Treaty. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the United States and the disputed land became part of Oklahoma.
EPILOGUE: While Texas lost the case and was compelled to recognize the "true" 100th Meridian as its border with that part of Oklahoma, the two states continued to bicker about the accuracy of the survey that established the meridian. They didn’t agree on its permanent placement until 1930.
The full story has been preserved by the Old Greer County Museum in Mangum.
I alluded to postal ZIP codes in the recent Zip Lines and I’ll carry that theme through the next couple of articles. I’d stumbled upon the United States Postal Service’s Fun Facts. Someday maybe I’ll explore what exactly makes a fact "fun" although for now I think I’ll simply steal liberally from that page and ponder some of its claims in greater detail. Today I’ll focus on post offices and in the next article I’ll shift to methods of delivery. Spoiler alert: don’t visit that USPS page unless you want to ruin the surprises.
Alma Colorado 2010 by Gord McKenna, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
There was a surprising amount debate about the town with the highest elevation in the United States. I explored that previously in something I wrote a couple of years ago. Was it Leadville, Colorado, was it Alma, Colorado or was it some poseur town that annexed an adjoining ski resort? There was no doubt, however, about the post office building with the highest elevation. Clearly, that was the one in Alma (map) at 10,578 feet above sea level, serving ZIP Code 80420.
Rocky Mountain High, indeed. I’ll refrain from making any jokes about the highest post office being located in Colorado where a certain herbal substance has been legalized. We’re talking strictly about elevation here.
Northernmost and Westernmost – 48 Contiguous States
La Push to Sumas, Washington
It’s not that I don’t love Alaska and Hawaii, its that they skew anything to do with directional superlatives in the United States. I’ll give a little nod to Alaska momentarily although for purposes of northernmost and westernmost post offices I’ll focus on the contiguous 48 States. They were both in Washington and not too distant from each other. Best of all, the preferred route calculated by Google required a ferry. That would put it pretty high on the 12MC list of sites I’d like to visit someday. I’ll bet readers in Seattle could probably accomplish this easily. Wouldn’t it be cool to tell folks that you’d been to the northernmost and westernmost post offices in the Lower 48 in a single day? Perhaps mail yourself a letter from each spot? Maybe I’m the only one who would find that interesting. I don’t know.
The northernmost post office served Sumas, Washington, Zip Code 98295. The ZIP Code abutted the Canadian border although that wasn’t special. Lots of other locations shared that attribute. What made Sumas different, however, was the physical location of its post office building just a stone’s throw away from the actual border. I also wondered about the name Sumas. The City of Sumas provided an explanation. It also provided a website that looked like it had been transported through a dial-up model directly from the 1990’s. Wander over there if you’re ever feeling nostalgic about how the Intertubes used to appear including the use of 3-D buttons as links, educating people to "click here" and the placement of a site counter at the bottom of the page.
Sumas (pronounced Soo’mass) means "land without trees". Although lake and swamp once covered most of the area there was also a considerable area that because of natural flooding was a wide open grassland.
The westernmost post office, on the Olympic Peninsula, served ZIP Code 98350 in La Push, Washington. Its name also had an interesting etymology: "La Push is from French La Bouche, meaning ‘The Mouth’ of the Quillayute River, adapted into Chinook Jargon."
Barrow, Alaska by NASA ICE, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
The USPS bestowed a tie for the coldest post offices, for Barrow, ZIP Code 99723 and Wainwright ZIP Code 99782, both on Alaska’s North Slope along the Arctic Ocean. The site didn’t offer an explanation for "coldest" although I knew that neither of those locations represented the lowest temperature ever recorded in Alaska. That happened that at Prospect Creek on January 23, 1971, when the thermometer fell to -80°F / -62°C. Rather, I believe the claim was based on average temperature. Barrow routinely remains below freezing for eight months of the year, often considerably below. However its oceanfront location and lack of elevation variation tends to keep its very cold temperatures relatively stable versus the spikes and drops found farther inland. It’s also getting warmer.
Instrumented weather and climate observations were first made at Barrow during the first International Polar Year in 1881-82. The modern era of weather observations commenced in 1920. Climate observations have continued uninterrupted to the present. These observations support what every resident in America’s northernmost town can see: climate change is happening—right now—in obvious and dramatic fashion.
Ochopee Post with flag by Chris Griffith, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Look at the cute little post office for Ochopee, Florida, (map) serving ZIP Code 34141. Just look at it. The entire building covers only 61.3 square feet (5.7 square metres). A nearby historical marker explained the situation.
Considered to be the smallest post office in the United States, this building was formerly an irrigation pipe shed belonging to the J. T. Gaunt Company tomato farm. It was hurriedly pressed into service by postmaster Sidney Brown after a disastrous night fire in 1953 burned Ochopee’s general store and post office. The present structure has been in continuous use ever since-as both a post office and ticket station for Trailways bus lines-and still services residents in a three-county area including deliveries to Seminole and Miccosukee Indians living in the region. Daily business often includes requests from tourists and stamp collectors the world over for the famed Ochopee post mark. The property was acquired by the Wooten Family in 1992.
It wasn’t a joke. It was a temporary fix that became permanent due to inertia.
Oldest in the Same Building
Hinsdale Post Office by Doug Kerr, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
I don’t know why this one fascinated me. Nonetheless it seemed remarkable that the post office serving Hindsdale, New Hampshire (map) had remained in the same building for two centuries, or about a century and a half before ZIP Code 03451 even existed. It didn’t have much of a backstory beyond its age. The town said its "1,327 square foot building was constructed on September 25, 1816, following the appointment of Hinsdale’s first postmaster in 1815." From an architectural perspective, "A Field Guide to American Houses describes this design as a Gable Front Family Folk house common on the East Coast of the U.S. before the Civil War." That was about all I found.