Sunday, April 26, 2009

Right place at the wrong time


“Four corners.” Almost everyone used the label to describe that part of the country. The whole general area, for 50 to 100 miles in every direction, was identified by that cement slab surrounded by guardrail out in desert just off of Highway 160 -- I couldn’t believe it.
I also couldn’t tell you when the first time I visited the monument, but it must have been a windy, early-spring day sometime in the 1960s. Tired of snow and mud at 7,000 feet altitude on the Dolores River, the whole family would pile in the car and head for someplace lower, warmer, drier.
Memory tells me it was certainly warmer and drier, but windy enough to blow your eyes dry, when we got out of the car down there. Just a few hearty Navajos with rickety back-sheltered, car hood ‘storefronts’ were offering jewelry, maybe some frybread, and miscellaneous other wares -- to us, and a few crazy tourists.
Even my little seven- or eight-year-old brain was developed enough at that time to figure out that this thing is in the wrong place.
That’s why, when the Associated Press reported that an 1868 survey was off by as much as two and a half miles west of where it should be, then followed it up a few days later with a correction saying it is off, but now its 1,800 feet east of where it really should be, I was a little surprised.
I don’t think I was the only one.
In fact, Park Manager Dewayne Johnson was quoted in the Farmington (New Mexico) Times, “It’s nothing new. It has been questioned before. We were a little startled that they are bringing this up now,” he said.
“The majority of people that thought this was a big deal are non-natives. It appeared that the media broke this story, but we’ve known it,” said Johnson according to an Alysa Landry story in the Times.
An Associated Press follow-up cites Dave Doyle, chief geodetic surveyor for the National Geodetic Survey, which defines and manages the national coordinate system, as saying that though the marker is about 1,807.14 feet east of where it should have been placed, given the tools of the time, it was amazing they were able to do what they did.
“Their ability to replicate the exact point –what they did was phenomenal, what they did was spot on. Nailed it,” AP quotes Doyle.
The story holds that there would be about a 2.5-mile difference if measured to the 109th Meridian west of Greenwich, England. But statute creating Colorado's western boundary called for measuring it from the Washington Meridian, which passed through the old Naval Observatory in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
Besides, this is not the first time it has come up. Colorado was a tough state to survey.
“At first glance, Colorado looks like a perfect rectangle,” notes Historical Atlas of Colorado by Thomas Noel, Paul Mahoney and Richard Stevens. “A closer look, however reveals only its eastern boundary is a straight line – the other three sides are crooked due to survey errors. None of the corners are precise,” says the 1994 book.
One error in Archuleta County, by Ehud Darling, was not resolved until 1960 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided the boundary dispute between New Mexico and Colorado when it held that an official boundary survey – even an erroneous one – was valid.
“Thus Darling’s error persists, as do A.D. Richard’s error, in his 1873 survey of the Wyoming border; Rollin J. Reeves’ 1879 blunder on the Utah border; and Chandler Robbin’s 1875 mistake, in placing the Four Corners marker a half mile east of its true position,” writes Noel, Mahoney and Stevens.
The first marker, placed in 1875 and made of sandstone, apparently had to be moved and the current location has been located where it is now since 1912.
In 1992, the cement (with guard rails of my memory), was replaced by a granite marker with a bronze disk in the center.
“And, two years after a granite marker embedded with a bronze disk was placed in 1992, surveyors reported the state borders on the marker did not match the actual boundaries,” according the Farmington Times.
“It was out of whack,” the Times quoted Ranger Johnson. “They just turned the disk so it lined up.”
Close enough for government work.
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