I received an email message the other day from a first-time reader who happened to stumble across 12MC randomly through a search engine, hoping to learn the answer to a burning question. I’d never covered the topic on the site before so I didn’t have a ready answer. It fascinated me though and of course I dropped all of my other research topics underway to pursue it further because I have a short attention span and I love to follow tangents. I put as much effort into the question as I’ve done for any article I’d post ordinarily so I might as well share the results with the rest of you.
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The reader who went by "James" recalled an anecdote from the not-too-distant past. He was traveling through Yuma, Arizona and wanted a bite to eat. Sometimes it’s tough finding a decent meal on the road and we all have our own ways to deal with that. I like to go to brewpubs under the theory if the food falls short at least the beer will be decent. James homes-in on casinos for the buffets. I hadn’t thought of that option before so I’ll have to add that to my travel tip list.
Anyway, he crossed the Colorado River — the border between California and Arizona — only to discover a small chunk of Arizona on the "wrong" side of the river with the state line running through the casino parking lot. It’s the Paradise Casino owned by the Quechan Tribe (formerly known as the Yuma Indians). I don’t believe it was an issue of legality since there are Native American casinos in California, too. However it’s not particularly germane to the anecdote so I’ll leave the question of this particular state-hugging casino alone. The more important aspect was the sliver of Arizona within territory one would ordinarily expect to belong to California.
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One is able to appreciate the full extent of the anomaly by zooming out the map a little further. Rivers don’t normally flow at right angles so it’s not like the current state border followed an old riverbed that changed over time. Why, James wondered, did this artifact exist?
I had no idea. I thought it might trace back to old Fort Yuma, constructed in the 1850’s on the California side of the river to protect the new settlement on what was then the New Mexico Territory. That was an interesting bit of history, however, it didn’t provide an explanation.
The answer turned out to be much more recent: March 12, 1963. It seemed crazy that two long-standing states (California since 1850 and Arizona since 1912) were still arguing over their common border as recently 1963 since it was supposed to be the Colorado River, and yet that was indeed the case. That’s when the two finally agreed upon an "Interstate Compact Defining the Boundary Between the States of Arizona and California." The United States Congress approved the Compact in 1966, thereby enshrining the odd jog in the border permanently. The Compact explained its logic:
The boundary between the State of Arizona and California on the Colorado River has become indefinite and uncertain because of the meanderings in the main channel of the Colorado River with the result that a state of confusion exists as to the true and correct location of the boundary, and the enforcement and administration of the laws of the two states and the United States have been rendered difficult.
It also provided, in excruciating detail, 34 points forming the new border in perpetuity (e.g., "700 feet to Point No. 28, which lies on the easterly shoulder line of said north-south road due east of the northeast corner of the stone retaining wall around the Indian School Hospital…"), along with requirements for another 234 subpoints not monumented.
This was elaborated upon further in a U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper published by the Government Printing Office, "Boundaries of the United States and the several States." The key reference can be found on Page 153.
Because determination of the position midchannel at the time California entered the Union would be difficult now, it was decided to place the boundary line in a position that would provide an equitable distribution of the land that had been affected by the movement of the riverbed.
A map found on the following page (Page 154) clearly showed the jog.
How the two states agreed that this particular block should become part of Arizona may never be known except to those involved in the 1963 negotiations. Was it because it was close to Yuma? Was it because it was easy to reach from the rest of Arizona? That remains unanswered. However it was clearly intended to compensate Arizona for changes in the course of the Colorado River that had not been well-documented over the prior century. It was an approximation so straight lines and right angles were appropriate and probably easier to survey.
Thanks James, and I hope you become a regular reader.
Think of Nevada and the cacophony of Las Vegas springs to mind reflexively. It’s a familiar refrain that repeats across hundreds of desert towns large and small, a symbiotic intertwining of a state economy and a robust gaming industry. Entire towns have even blossomed simply to entice the residents of stricter states seeking legalized gambling.
There are at least two towns in Nevada that have bucked that trend by banning industrialized casino-style games of chance since their founding. The long arm of the Federal government contributed to both cases, but interestingly enough, through opposite ways; one town in spite of the government and one because of it.
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A river called the Meadow Valley Wash drains a portion of southern Nevada as part of the much larger Colorado River watershed. True to its name, the river nurtures greenery along its banks as it traverses the arid desert terrain. Early settlers took notice. Mormons eyed the Meadow Valley as a logical extension of their geographical reach as they sought to expand from their base in Salt Lake City. They colonized Panaca, Utah with several hundred settlers in 1864.
UTAH? Yes, Utah. Nevada split from Utah in 1861 and became a state in 1864. It gained successive slices of Utah’s territory including a final degree of longitude in 1866. The reasons were varied. Ostensibly, this was a mining district and Nevada was a mining state. Nevada could better manage these resources as the story goes. However, one shouldn’t discount good old-fashioned discrimination and distrust of the Mormon people either. Nevada gained statehood after only three years. Utah remained locked in second-class status as a territory for nearly fifty years, losing major chunks of land to its neighbors on several sides.
The citizens of Panaca became unexpected residents of Lincoln County, Nevada only two years into the colonization. Many people returned to the Utah Territory now several miles away. Others ignored Nevada’s sovereignty and refused to pay taxes for a number of years. Those who remained acquiesced eventually but they didn’t abandon their values or their faith. The residents of Panaca turned inward to preserve their way of life.
They farmed the Meadow Valley and formed an uneasy relationship with unruly silver miners streaming into eastern Nevada. Miners needed provisions and Panaca could supply them for a price. Eventually the bulk of prospectors moved away in search of the next big strike, leaving behind a string of abandoned ghost towns crumbling into the desert floor. Panaca easily outlasted the short-timers who arrived in the valley with silver dreams of riches. Several hundred people still reside in Panaca, many of them descended from original settlers, its remoteness insulating the town from contradicting social influences. The Federal government changed the border, but did Panaca really ever leave Utah philosophically? It’s no wonder that both gambling and alcohol are prohibited within its borders.
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Boulder City is a much more recent creation, owing its existence to the Bureau of Reclamation, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The government erected Boulder City in 1932 as a place to house thousands of workers building nearby Hoover Dam. It ran the town as a government camp for the next quarter century, making all decisions normally reserved for a town’s citizens. The government determined that gambling and alcohol were detrimental to its workforce. Residents were not given a choice other than moving away.
The Bureau of Reclamation relinquished control. Later Boulder City incorporated in 1960. It eventually jettisoned alcohol prohibition but continued to outlaw gambling for its sixteen thousand residents. Chapter 4-4-1 of the Boulder City Code states explicitly that "it shall be unlawful for any person to allow, operate, carry on, conduct or maintain gambling within the City," although it does provide exceptions for certain charity events and for social games in private residences.
This custom is a rather quaint artifact and an unusual anomaly given its geography. Clearly it can’t have much of an impact on the habits of residents who can be standing on the Las Vegas Strip in less than half an hour, or at smaller establishments just over the Boulder City line. Perhaps that’s the point. They’ve created a quiet oasis for daily living with plenty of options just beyond town.
 Yes, I succumbed to those bright lights a couple of years ago and gambled my customary one dollar on a trip to Vegas to attend a wedding. I neither demonize nor advocate gambling – let adults make their own financial decisions – I’m simply cheap. Notoriously cheap.
 I say "at least two locations" have banned gambling although wherever I looked on the Intertubes it said "only two locations". The readers of Twelve Mile Circle have debunked similar claims several times before so please submit a comment if you know of any other locations in Nevada.
It’s my lucky day. I found both a time zone anomaly and a (potential) border anomaly all wrapped up into one neat little package. Even more exciting, if the border does change then the two anomalies will occur in opposite directions! Those of you who have spent any time on the Twelve Mile Circle realize that I’m not being sarcastic. This is big stuff.
The border between Nevada and Utah is a rather boring straight longitudinal line. Anything that might mess with this has to be be appreciated if only for the sake of variety. The stars aligned in 1999 when the Federal government changed as small piece of the boundary between Pacific Time and Mountain Time along the Nevada / Utah border. It resulted in a little jog into Nevada, pulling West Wendover and only West Wendover into Mountain Time
From the northeast corner of the State of Nevada southerly along the Utah-Nevada boundary to the junction with the northern border of the City of West Wendover, Nevada. Then westward along the northern, western, and southern boundaries of the City of West Wendover back to the Utah-Nevada boundary. Then southerly along the Utah-Nevada boundary, the Nevada-Arizona boundary, and the Arizona-California boundary to the boundary between the United States and Mexico. (49 CFR 71.9)
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Everything in Nevada, save this tiny 7.5 square mile chunk rests squarely within the Pacific Time zone. Why the exception? Gambling, of course. West Wendover is the quickest, closest spot away from Salt Lake City, Utah if people want to experience casino gambling legally. There are more than a million people in the Salt Lake City metropolitan area. It takes less than two hours to reach the Nevada border driving due west on a wide-open Interstate 80 for 120 miles. Any questions?
West Wendover sits just over the border with several tantalizing casinos for the gaming pleasure of the fine citizens of Utah. In contrast, West Wendover is a good 400 miles from either Reno or Las Vegas, so it makes sense for them to align with their customers in Mountain Time rather than with the rest of Nevada. There’s little other reason for them to exist.
An adjacent and contiguous town, Wendover, sits on the Utah side of the border. West Wendover booms with gambling revenue, delivering robust development and steady tax revenues. People and companies have gravitated from Wendover into West Wendover in pursuit of job opportunities, lower personal taxes and an attractive business climate.
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The Utah state line marker is the small sign on the left. To the left of the line, in Utah, there is an empty lot. To the right, in Nevada, is casinos.
Wendover, Utah has not been able to compete with its counterpart in Nevada. It does not have a steady stream of gambling to fill its city coffers with tax revenue or augment services to its citizens. It’s a vicious cycle. Those who remain tend to be of lower incomes in search of affordable housing, which in turn, results in even less tax revenue and fewer services. The downward spiral continues.
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Meanwhile, over the border in Wendover, Utah…
The residents of both towns want to join together to form a single town in Nevada. Utah isn’t standing in the way, either. The town as currently configured drains revenue from Utah and the state would be better off financially without it. If this were to happen, the border between Nevada and Utah would no longer form a straight line. Fifteen square miles of Utah would switch to Nevada.
This would be totally amicable. Residents of both towns voted affirmatively. The respective state governments of Nevada and Utah endorsed it. Their Congressional delegations supported it. Everything seemed probable until November 2006 when it hit a snag. Nevada would be happy to annex the land but it had to come debt-free, a debt that had grown to $27 million. Apparently that was a deal breaker although theoretically the idea hasn’t died. If it’s ever resurrected we’d have a time zone protrusion to the west around a cojoined Wendover and a state border protrusion to the east, a condition that would have been doubly noteworthy.
For a good overview of the underlying situation – albeit somewhat out of date – you can refer to a 2001 New York Times article, "Moving a Border to Wed Rich and Poor Towns."
There’s one more interesting aspect to West Wendover. It has nothing to do with geography but I like strange roadside attractions. Check out the one-and-only Wendover Will on the western edge of town.
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Wendover Will is 64 feet of awesome sheet-metal and neon tubing that waves, winks and smokes a cigarette above Wendover Boulevard. He sat right along the state line when erected in 1952 but he was decommissioned several decades later when the casino changed owners. A few years ago nostalgic town residents brought him out of storage, fixed him up, and moved him to his present location. There is an American Heritage article on him as well as a recent entry from a blog called BoomtownUSA if you really want to know.
It has an interesting history though, that I will probably write about someday in the future
Another Nevada town, Jackpot (along the Idaho border) also recognizes Mountain Time but does so informally. Only West Wendover is recognized as being within the Mountain Time zone officially and explicitly through the United States Code of Federal Regulations