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?