Point Roberts – Stranded by an International Border

Point Roberts, Washington cannot be reached by land from the rest of the United States. One must drive first into Canada, curve around Boundary Bay, and then cross the border again to re-enter the United States at this remote corner.

Point Roberts
Point Roberts, Washington borders Canada only

The establishment of a border between the United States and Canada along the 49th parallel cut straight through the bottom tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula. The stranded southern land on the wrong side of the cut became Point Roberts.

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To locate this anomaly on a map, look at the straight-line border between Washington State and the Province of British Columbia. Point Roberts is located just before the zigzag south around Vancouver Island.

Picnic Shelter
Boardwalk and Shelters at Lighthouse Marine Park

All of the photographs on this page were taken along the Strait of Georgia at Whatcom County’s Lighthouse Marine Park. This can be found at the far southwestern corner of Point Roberts. The wooden structures shown here were part of the park’s boardwalk facility. Wooden alcoves built onto the boardwalk protected picnic tables from wind or sun. Nobody else braved the elements during our weekday visit to the park. Everyone seemed to be scared away by this cold, blustery wind pushing across the Strait.

Navigational Beacon at Point Roberts

Lighthouse Marine Park is a bit of a misnomer. There’s no longer a lighthouse at this location, having been replaced long ago by a functional but unromantic navigational beacon. There is now an effort underway to build a new lighthouse at this scenic spot. It would be a nice addition to an already pleasant seascape. Plus, a lighthouse in place of this beacon would sure make for better photographs.

Strait of Georgia
Strait of Georgia View

Point Roberts is supposed to be one of the greatest land-based spots in the region for whale watching. Orca pods swim regularly past the point in one direction or another in their constant search for food. That’s what they say, anyway. We saw lots of beautiful nautical scenes across the width of the Strait to the San Juan Islands and their Canadian equivalents, but we didn’t see any whales that day.

I am so fascinated by strange geography that we actually crossed international borders between the United States and Canada four times in a single day to reach this spot and return.

Bibb–Monroe Border War in Georgia

I don’t know what’s going on in the minds of the citizenry of the State of Georgia but they just don’t seem comfortable within their borders lately. They’ve been tugging, pulling, cinching and stretching their ill-fitting suit, maybe hoping to address some ancient wrongs or remove old annoyances. It’s not like they haven’t had an opportunity to settle things. They’ve had the same basic shape since 1802 when they ceded their western claim.

Last summer a legislator in Georgia wanted to redraw the border with Tennessee. This would have provided access to Nickajack Lake, a large water reservoir near Chattanooga and help them weather a protracted drought.

Now, only a few months later, an ongoing county-level squabble verges on nasty as an endgame approaches. Welcome to the Bibb–Monroe Border War.

Border of Bibb and Monroe Counties GA in January 2009

We need to look back a couple of hundred years when it could have been so straightforward. According to a 1941 article in the Monroe Advertiser the Georgia General Assembly established a firm, straight border in 1822 when it created Bibb county. It was a direct line between Torrentine’s Ferry on the Ocmulgee River and the northeast corner of Crawford County.

The deficiencies of early 19th Century surveying have been discussed several times on Twelve Mile Circle. That’s also the case here since the portion of the border that’s supposed to be "straight" appears a bit wobbly. Also, Torrentine’s Ferry was out of service so long that even back in 1941 the experts could only guess at its possible location by examining foliage patterns along the riverbank.

On top of that, take a look at the jog at its northeastern terminus. In 1877 a local doctor, Lee Holt, decided he wanted to live in Bibb County. He actually persuaded the General Assembly to change the boundary! In fairness to him, he owned all the land between his residence and the river so the change didn’t impact anyone else, but still, that’s a remarkable adjustment for the convenience of a single person. Today, however, it does have an impact. The legislation specified only that the residence of Dr. Holt should be incorporated within Bibb County. The definition of "residence" has become a point of contention.

It’s a big mess so the the Governor commissioned a boundary survey recently. Bibb County has many times more people, about 150,000 including the City of Macon. Monroe County has a much lower density with about 25,000 inhabitants. There is a subtext of rural versus urban lifestyles, interwoven with downstream factors such as tax rates, school systems, crime statistics and basic government services.

Granite survey markers began springing up within the last few days that seemed to suggest Monroe County would gain territory, even though a final decision has not been made. This has caused quite a ruckus.

I could spend a great deal of time outlining them but frankly there are much better sources that discuss the issues from a local perspective:

From WMAZ 13, the Macon CBS television station:

From a blog called WMCC News that has been doing a great job of covering developments in real time:

Comments posted by various readers in response to the blog entries are both instructive in terms of understanding all sides of the issue as well as being entertaining in their own right.

If you think this just inconveniences a few people who might now find themselves in a new county, you would be mistaken. A Bass Pro Shop sits right along the border, currently in Bibb County. It’s not just any Bass Pro Shop, but a 500,000 square foot distribution center that serves the entire southeastern United States along with a 125,000 square foot retail store and 1,000 jobs. The proposed border cuts right to through the facility with the promise of large tax revenues for Monroe County should the revised boundary stand.

The Twelve Mile Circle, Part II

The most visible manifestation of the so-called Twelve Mile Circle is an arc-shaped portion of the border between Delaware and Pennsylvania, as noted in the previous entry. However it’s not the only impact discernible. The oddity also effects albeit less visibly, the DelawareNew Jersey boundary.

Refer back to the map again and let’s reacquaint ourselves with the layout:

Delaware & Pennsylvania Twelve Mile Circle
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, which notes that the map was obtained from an edition of the National Atlas of the United States, which is in the public domain.

Imagine in your mind’s eye a complete circle and notice where it crosses the Delaware River on the north side and on the south. Delaware’s territory extends right up to the mean low tide mark on the eastern riverbank within the circle. In contrast, Delaware and New Jersey split ownership of the river using the thalweg method outside of the circle. I have a previous entry that describes various methods of splitting river borders so go there if you’d like a more detailed explanation. As unusual as it sounds, the two states have a different basis for dividing their river boundary depending on whether one is inside or outside of the 12-mile circle.

Other than being a geographic curiosity and a great trivia question, does it really matter? Indeed it does, and it comes with a lot of implications. First, Delaware owns all of river islands within the circle.

Fort Delaware

Pea Patch Island is one of those islands and today it’s the site of Fort Delaware State Park. I have an interest in coastal defenses and fortification and I was fortunate enough to visit here a few years ago. Pea Patch Island emerged as a mud bank in the 18th Century. By the early 19th it had grown large enough for the U.S. Military to construct a fort on the site. It was designed to help defend the river and the approach to important commercial centers such as Wilmington and Philadelphia. It never saw action but it did serve as a prison for captured Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Pea Patch Island increased further in size when the Army Corps of Engineers dredged a shipping channel nearby and used it as a convenient resting place for fill dirt. More germane to our topic though, and since Pea Patch Island falls within the circle, all 288 acres automatically belong to Delaware.

There are even portions of Delaware on the "wrong" side of the river, accessible by land only from New Jersey. Here’s one such instance:

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Notice where the border cleaves through the National Wildlife Refuge at Finns Point. The Delaware River silted-in was backfilled (perhaps by the Corps of Engineers) along this curve after the establishment of the original boundary. Today it provides vital wetlands for migratory birds within an otherwise developed area. Logically it would seem that the entirety of Finns Point should belong to New Jersey. After all, the boundary was supposed to be the mean low tide mark. However, as we’ve seen time and again, a state will not willingly cede territory just because a river changes (Carter Lake, Iowa and Kaskaskia, Illinois being but two fairly prominent examples). Therefore it remains part of Delaware. As an interesting tangent for those of you who collect state extremities, take note that Finns Point is the westernmost spot in New Jersey so strange geography abounds here.

The place where the 12 Mile Circle crosses the Delaware River on the south side presents another interesting anomaly:

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The arc departs from the low tide mark along the New Jersey shore and once again becomes a state border out to the river’s thalweg, clipping through the tip of a small peninsula which falls into Delaware territory. Good luck trying to get to that spot by land, though. Just to the south (and viewable in the satellite image) are the Salem and Hope Creek nuclear power plants, and the only road that seems to head towards the peninsula goes right through those sensitive, high-security areas. Boat might be a better option but my guess is that it might still be within a sensitive area. Tread lightly here.

Amazingly the border still causes friction between the two states. In the United States, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction over disputes between individual states, and there have been three separate cases dealing with the border in recent decades, all titled New Jersey v. Delaware. All three Supreme Court decisions uphold the existing boundary. The latest case was decided only quite recently, on March 31, 2008. The energy company BP wished to construct a liquified natural gas pipeline and loading facility within the Delaware River that would terminate at a storage and processing plant on the New Jersey side. Delaware denied BP’s petition as a violation of its Coastal Zone Act because the project would require dredging of Delaware land below the river. New Jersey stood to profit handsomely from the facility so they field suit against Delaware. Delaware prevailed in a 6-2 decision and the border still stands unchanged in its current configuration. This is covered in much greater detail in Wikipedia.

We’re likely to have this wacky river boundary — with different ownership rules inside and outside the circle — for some time to come.