Yuma Anomaly

On December 11, 2012 · 6 Comments

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.

Aurora: A County Seat in Two States. Simultaneously!

On November 26, 2008 · 2 Comments

Nobody lives in Aurora today although upwards of five thousand people called it home immediately after its founding in 1860. No less a luminary than Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) called Aurora his home for several months during his mining days. It was a vibrant, successful town along the Nevada / California border claimed by both states desiring the gold and silver reserves just below the surface, worth millions of dollars. That’s often the case when valuable natural resources are at stake. Everyone wants it for themselves and most of the time a condominium arrangement simply won’t work.

The border between the two states was a little iffy, which seems rather odd when one considers that it’s formed by two straight lines: One running north-south from the Oregon border directly down the 120th meridian to the 39th parallel; and the other extending from there, heading in a southeastern direction to a point where the Colorado River intersects the 35th parallel. Easy, right?

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Well, not so fast. Surveying techniques were not entirely precise as we’ve noted a number of times in Twelve Mile Circle. It didn’t help that 39°N 120°W happens to fall right in the middle of Lake Tahoe, and on the other end the Colorado River tends to shift from time-to-time, thus complicating the measurement of the oblique line in particular. Several different surveys took place and each one produced a slightly different result.

Consequently the town of Aurora, located along the oblique border, was claimed by both states. That’s perhaps understandable given the imprecise boundary, but what’s truly strange is that it became the county seat for Mono County, California and what was then a larger Esmeralda County, Nevada than the present version at the same time! A single courthouse served both purposes. Aurora held local elections in 1862 to determine representation for both counties and states. The same townspeople could vote in both elections. According to the State of Nevada Department of Cultural Affairs:

During that year, many Aurora citizens participated in the politics of both counties and both states. Dr. John W. Pugh was elected to the Nevada Territorial Legislature and became the President of the Council (similar to the current State Senate). Timothy N. Machin was Mono County’s choice for the California Assembly, of which he became Speaker. Both elected officials were residents of Aurora.

A more precise survey the next year placed Aurora about three miles inside of the Nevada Territory in what today is Mineral County. Even so, some California officials continued to conduct government business in Aurora until 1864 when the Mono County seat officially moved to Bridgeport.

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California may have gotten the better end of the bargain. While Aurora may have been the second largest town in the Nevada when the border dispute was resolved in 1865 (Virginia City being larger), its heyday lasted only about a decade and it faded away once the gold and silver ran out. The county seat moved to Hawthorne in 1883. Aurora became a ghost town by the 1920s. Now it crumbles and rots into the surrounding terrain.

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