The analysis of landlocked national lowpoints amused me so much that I decided to extend the exercise to individual states within the United States. Once again I found a perfectly matching Wikipedia page so I didn’t have to recreate my own, a List of U.S. states by elevation. Only two states included elevations below sea level, California and Louisiana, and both featured seacoasts. Thus, I only had to search for states with positive elevations, which by process of elimination would have to be landlocked. If the District of Columbia ever became a state it would lead the pack with a single-foot lowpoint at the spot where the Potomac River exited the nation’s capital. However, setting that aside, there were three states with impressive lowpoints all falling beneath a hundred feet (30 metres).
The delta of the Mississippi River drained an incredibly flat plain although it still surprised me that it extended all the way into Arkansas. It had the lowest elevation of all landlocked states. Arkansas was a solid two hundred miles (320 km.) from the nearest seacoast at the Gulf of Mexico. Yet it offered a lowpoint where the Ouachita River crossed from Arkansas into Louisiana at an elevation of only 55 ft. (17 m.). The Ouachita joined the Tensas River, forming the Black River, commingling later with the Atchafalaya River and eventually intertwining with the Mississippi River. The whole mass of bayous, sloughs and waterways formed an immense tangled delta reaching far inland.
Native Americans thrived in the swamplands for hundreds of years during the Pre-Columbian period, building large settlements and ceremonial mounds.
The major Indian tribes that lived along the OUACHITA were the Washita, Caddo, Osage, Tensas, Chickasaw and Choctaw… The Spanish explorer DeSoto recorded in 1540 the existence of an enormous mound built on the banks of the OUACHITA. This site was named "Anilco", and was located at the present site of Jonesville, Louisiana. This mound was tragically destroyed when a bridge was built over the site in the 1930’s. This mound was one of the largest ever recorded in North America.
Priceless cultural artifact or second-rate highway bridge? Apparently priorities differed in the 1930’s.
The actual Arkansas lowpoint (map) occurred at an interesting intersection for followers of modern geography, directly upon a county quadripoint. Four counties (parishes in Louisiana) joined where the Ouachita River left Arkansas and entered Louisiana: Union County, AR; Ashley County, AR; Union Parish., LA and Morehouse Parish., LA. The two entities named Union were referenced previously in "Adjacent Counties, Same Name, Different States."
Arizona also surprised me although maybe it shouldn’t have seemed all that counterintuitive once I considered the situation some more. Arizona was such a large state and it seemed so far away from a seashore. Yet, if one looked at a map it became abundantly clear that its southwestern corner fell pretty close to the Gulf of California. One would have to travel through neighboring México to accomplish that though, and perhaps that was why I tended to overlook it mentally. The quickest path to the Gulf followed the course of the Colorado River, making Arizona’s lowest elevation 72 ft. (22 m.) where it exited the state at San Luis.
Oddly, that hadn’t happened much in the last half century making the lowpoint a dry, empty riverbed instead. A series of state compacts, international treaties and dams strictly parceled the Colorado’s waters to variously prescribed residential and agricultural purposes. The final dam built on the river at a place straddling the U.S / Mexican border between Yuma and San Luis — the Morelos Dam (map) — took what little flow remained and channeled it into croplands in surrounding areas of México. That converted what used to be a wonderfully diversified estuary and turned it into just another patch of Sonoran desert sometime around 1950. Environmentalists on both sides of the border began to wonder what might happen if the Morelos Dam opened periodically and allowed the Colorado River to flow naturally to the sea for limited times. Thus the notion of the "Pulse Flow" came to pass and it actually happened in March 2014:
… officials released an experimental pulse of 105,000 acre-feet of water from the Morelos Dam on the United States-Mexico border, and on May 15 the river once again flowed into the sea. The eight-week water release, though small, was enough to cause a 43 percent increase in green vegetation in the wetted zone and a 23 percent increase along the river’s borders…
Actually all three of the landlocked states with elevations of less than a hundred feet completely fascinated me. Third on the list went to Vermont — literally the Green Mountain — where one would expect higher elevations instead of lower ones. Certainly Vermont included impressive peaks within its boundaries although it also bordered on Lake Champlain (map). Its lowpoint coincided with the lake, a diminutive 95 ft. (29 m.) flowing into the St. Lawrence River and onward towards the Atlantic Ocean.
Lake Champlain served as an important transportation corridor during colonial times and the early days of an independent United States where difficult overland travel took place on muddy, rutted roads. It was a lot easier to navigate a boat inland wherever that was possible instead of turning to horse and wagon. Lake Champlain became Vermont’s access to the outside world. It was no wonder that the lake figured prominently in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Forts such as Ticonderoga and Crown Point appeared along its shorelines. British and American naval forces battled upon its waters. The United States fortified Lake Champlain’s shoreline even after the wars, including the infamous "Fort Blunder" placed on the wrong side of the border by mistake. Canals later connected the lake to the Hudson River watershed and the Erie Canal system, creating a vast superhighway over a large swath of the continental interior.
This was one of the more enjoyable article series I’ve written in awhile. Lowpoints seemed to offer more untold stories waiting to be discovered than highpoints.
Loyal reader "Lyn" contacted Twelve Mile Circle a few weeks ago with a stack of digital images from a recent road trip to California’s Salton Sea. This has long been on my list of places I’d love to see some day, and I still hope that will happen, so I was pleased to receive the photos. These pictures plus the text I’ve created around them will have to keep me content until the day I can visit the Salton Sea in person.
This wasn’t the first time Lyn contributed to 12MC either. I mentioned receiving a web hit from Cameroon awhile ago. Yes, that was Lyn who happened to be in Douala at the time and knew I’d appreciate the ping.
I’m fortunate to add Lyn to the very selective list of 12MC readers who have provided material that became full articles. All photographs belong to Lyn and are used with permission.
According to the Salton Sea History Museum, this geographic feature was actually an extension of the Gulf of California until about four million years ago. The Colorado River washed enough silt downstream over numerous millennia to cut the tip off from the Gulf. This left behind a large, deep depression now known as the Salton Sink. The floor of the empty sink extended far below sea level, down to -226 feet (-69 metres). By comparison Death Valley — the lowest spot in North America — measured -282 ft (-86 m) so the Salton Sink compared rather favorably as the second lowest spot on the continent.
The Salton Sea was an artificial creation and an accident. People diverted the Colorado River to irrigate parts of the sink, and for a time around the turn of the previous century the area blossomed with cropland. The river busted from its man-made diversion in 1905 after it ran higher than usual, and flooded uncontrollably into the sink. Engineers couldn’t completely halt the breach for two years and by then the spill grew to 35 miles long and 15 miles wide (56 km X 24 km) within the depression, and formed the Salton Sea.
However it was an endorheic basin without an outlet to the ocean. The salinity increased over time, and continues to increase, making it difficult for the few fish species that survived there to thrive in ever worsening conditions.
That naturally brought up a legitimate point. Why would 12MC, or anyone for that matter, want to experience the Salton Sea in person? I supposed it had to be because every description I’ve ever seen of the few settlements still clinging to its shores undoubtedly referenced the phrase "post-apocalyptic" (e.g., Salton Sea: From Relaxing Resort to Skeleton-Filled Wasteland).
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. The Salton Sea held so much promise after its accidental creation while the water remained fresh, before salt built up and poisonous farm runoff added to the disaster. Bombay Beach was envisioned as an inland resort, a beachfront paradise, and was constructed in such a manner. Now it’s mostly a ruin, a desolate place strewn with graffiti and abandoned belongings in the searing Sonoran Desert by a fetid saline lake, a photographer’s paradise and an oddball’s dream. A handful of outcasts still live among the detritus adding character to the scene. Now does it make sense?
Harsh conditions created strange situations out there on the fringes of society. Slab City started as a marine corps training facility during the Second World War: Camp Dunlap they called it. The marines had no need for remote camps in the middle of the desert after the war so Camp Dunlap closed and the government dismantled it, leaving behind only the cement foundations of various buildings.
Seasonal campers in large recreational vehicles learned about the wide selection of perfectly level concrete slabs and figured that a favorable wintertime climate made this an attractive spot to park for a few months every year. Slab City came without amenities, however people remained there as long as they wanted for free. "And now thousands of visitors return to ‘The Slabs’ each winter."
I couldn’t be sure if the isolation created unique behaviors or if people with those traits saw the Salton Sea as a beacon and arrived there from elsewhere, or a little bit of both. No matter the case, this location provided a perfect backdrop for something as wonderful as Salvation Mountain by Leonard Knight (1931–2014).
Leonard’s passion has lovingly created this brilliant “outsider art” masterpiece resplendent with not only biblical and religious scripture such as the Lord’s Prayer, John 3:16, and the Sinner’s Prayer, but also including flowers, trees, waterfalls, suns, bluebirds, and many other fascinating and colorful objects… Its 50 foot height and 150 foot breadth is made totally of local adobe clay and donated paint and is truly unique in the United States and probably the world.
I barely scratched the surface of the Salton Sea’s weirdness or Lyn’s collection of photographs. I need to save a few surprises for later in case I ever make it out there.
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.
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.
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.