Green River Island is one of those places that seems to belong to the wrong state. In this instance it feels like it should be part of Indiana but it’s actually part of Kentucky instead. It hardly seems like an island either although vestiges of its old topography continue to remain visible. Rather, the "island" has attached rather firmly to Indiana with no physical connectivity to Kentucky. It’s an exclave, albeit an accessible one for Kentuckians via the Route 41 bridge over the Ohio River.
Green River Island is also a bit of a misnomer. It’s definitely within the Ohio River, however the Green River confluence occurs on the opposite riverbank near its southeastern tip (map). That provides the name.
View Green River Island in a larger map
Big deal, an astute 12MC reader might conclude and with good reason. The major rivers of the vast North American interior — the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio — are known to change course in various places along their routes from time-to-time. Early leaders established state boundaries along those mighty watercourses and now we have to live with the consequences, a bunch of residual chunks of land on the "wrong" sides of the rivers. It’s completely commonplace after the passage of two centuries. Why even mention Green River Island?
I agree. It’s happened in dozens if not hundreds of spots. However, few instances have led to a precedence-setting Supreme Court decision like Green River Island did in 1890. The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in disputes that cannot be resolved between individual states (Article III. Section 2.: "In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the Supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction.") so it got involved directly in this mess and reached a definitive conclusion. The court ruled that Green River Island was part of Kentucky.
My interests are odd, I know, and I rather enjoy reading through geography-related Supreme Court decisions such as Indiana v. Kentucky. Let me see if I can summarize the logic behind the Court’s decision and put it into easy-to-understand English:
- This entire area was part of Virginia’s original colonial charter.
- Virginia relinquished its colonial claim to all land northwest of the Ohio River to the nascent United States government, which accepted it in 1784. However, the Ohio River was not part of the bargain. Virginia retained the river and ceded only the land northwest of it.
- Virginia ceded even more of its territory in 1789 to from the new state of Kentucky which entered the Union in 1792. The adjacent Ohio River conveyed to Kentucky since it was Virginia territory prior to that. The Kentucky border was set at the low-water mark on the far side of the river.
- Green River Island was indeed an island when Kentucky became a state. Surveys conducted at the time confirmed this condition and fixed the border accordingly.
- Indiana became a state in 1816. Its southern border was set at the Kentucky border.
- Indiana started to question Kentucky’s ownership of Green River Island in the 1870’s. It compiled anecdotal evidence to suggest that the so-called Island had been connected to mainland Indiana for at least parts of the year when Indiana became a state. Thus, it must be part of Indiana.
- The Court disagreed with Indiana. Green River Island was originally part of Kentucky. That remained the case even thought the channel silted-up over time. And by the way, Indiana shouldn’t have waited several decades to start complaining either.
As the Supreme Court said in 1890:
Our conclusion is, that the waters of the Ohio River, when Kentucky became a State, flowed in a channel north of the tract known as Green River Island, and that the jurisdiction of Kentucky at that time extended, and ever since has extended, to what was then low-water mark on the north side of that channel, and the boundary between Kentucky and Indiana must run on that line, as nearly as it can now be ascertained, after the channel has been filled.
"Indiana v Kentucky" continues to be cited as precedence for an entire class of internal U.S. border disputes up to the present. It also resulted in some interesting implications on the ground over time. Green River Island, Kentucky is situated directly outside of Evansville, the largest city in southern Indiana.
We’ve seen before what can happen at a border between jurisdictions with different levels of taxation or permissiveness. Green River Island caters to a couple of different vices.
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Indiana didn’t have any horse racing tracks or parimutuel betting until a couple of decades ago and Kentucky, well, Kentucky had its famous Derby and a huge entrenched horse racing industry. It didn’t take a genius to sense a business opportunity. Sure enough, the Ellis Park horse track sprouted on Green River Island in 1922 where it remains to this day. The island sits at the doorstep of a metropolitan area with upwards of 350,000 residents.
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Gambling wasn’t the only vice-based business opportunity on Green River Island. I zoomed-in on the northern tip and found another: Marina Pointe Tobacco Outlet. It maintains an Indiana address according to its website (1827 Waterworks Road, Evansville, IN) BUT it also advertises "Kentucky Prices." It appears that the smoke shop actually sits on the Kentucky side of the border. I checked a USGS topographic map and it appears the border drawn by Google Maps is essentially correct in spite of the oddly-placed road. As the website explains, "Ed knew way too many people who were making a weekly pilgrimage across the Ohio River to save a few dollars on tobacco, and he decided to do something about it."
Indeed, cigarette excise taxes vary greatly by state. A carton of cigarettes in Kentucky will cost almost $4 less than an identical carton in Indiana due solely to tax rate differences.
I found one other interesting feature on Green River Island where the state border cuts through its present-day tip. This has absolutely nothing to do with vices or business opportunities. Rather, it’s a museum, the USS LST Ship Memorial: "The LST (Landing Ship, Tank) is an amphibious vessel designed to land battle-ready tanks, troops and supplies directly onto enemy shores." The ship moored at the museum is the LST-325 and it served in World War II, Arctic operations and the Greek Navy before coming to the museum in 2000.
Thus, the museum is in Indiana while the ship itself is in Kentucky!
I’m going to have to add Green River Island to the list of places I hope to visit someday.