Colorado shouldn’t be a rectangle — it has 697 sides

This text was first printed on Large Suppose in October 2018. It was up to date in January 2023.

America loves its straight-line borders. The one U.S. state with out one is Hawaii — for apparent causes.

West of the Mississippi, states are larger, emptier, and boxier than again east. From a distance, all appear to be made up of straight strains.

Solely once you zoom in do you see their squiggly bits: the northeast nook of Kansas, as an example. Or Montana’s western border with Idaho that appears like a human face. Or Oklahoma’s southern border with Texas, meandering because it follows the Pink River.

New Mexico comes tantalizingly near having solely straight-line borders. There’s that quick stretch north of El Paso that may have been simply 15 miles (24 km) lengthy if it have been straight as a substitute of wavy.

No, there are solely three states whose borders are fully made up of straight strains: Utah, which might have been a rectangle if Wyoming hadn’t bitten a bit out of its northeastern nook; Wyoming itself; and Colorado.

Pink: states with solely straight-line borders. Yellow: states with some straight-line borders. Inexperienced: states with out straight-line borders. (Credit score: mapchart.web)

Besides that they aren’t. For 2 distinct causes: as a result of the earth is spherical, and since these Nineteenth-century surveyors laying out state borders made errors.

Congress outlined the borders of Colorado as a geospherical rectangle, stretching from 37°N to 41°N latitude, and from 25°W to 32°W longitude (2). Whereas strains of latitude run in parallel circles that don’t meet, strains of longitude converge on the poles.

Which implies that Colorado’s longitudinal borders are barely additional aside within the south. So in case you’d look carefully sufficient, the state resembles an isosceles trapezoid (3) somewhat than a rectangle. Consequently, the state’s northern borderline is about 22 miles (35 km) shorter than its southern one. The identical goes, mutatis mutandis, for Wyoming.

That’s not the place the story ends. There’s boundary delimitation: the theoretical description of a border, as described above. However what’s extra related is boundary demarcation: surveying and marking out the border on the bottom. Colorado entered the Union in 1876.

Solely in 1879 did the primary boundary survey crew get round to translating Congress’s summary into precise boundary markers. The official border wouldn’t be the delimited one, however the demarcated one. Sadly, Nineteenth-century surveyors lacked satellites and different high-precision measurement instruments.

Let’s not be too harsh: contemplating the dimensions of the duty and the limitation of their instruments — magnetic compasses and metallic chains — they did an unbelievable job. They needed to stake straight strains regardless of terrain, typically by means of inhospitable land.

However sure, errors have been made — and have been actually fairly recurring. Take for instance the forty ninth parallel, which for greater than 1,200 miles types the worldwide border between the U.S. and Canada. Fairly than being a straight line, it zigzags between the 912 boundary monuments established by successive groups of surveyors (the final ones in 1872–4). The markers deviate by as a lot as 575 ft north and 784 ft south of the particular parallel line.

The identical form of factor occurred when the primary surveying groups went out to demarcate the Colorado border. This map magnifies 4 of essentially the most egregious surveying inaccuracies, the place the distinction between the boundaries delineated by Congress and the border demarcated by the surveyors is best.

4 Corners (and 4 extra)

Situated in a dusty, desolate nook of the desert, the 4 Corners monument appears very removed from the center of something. But that is the assembly level of 4 states: Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. It’s the solely quadripoint in america (4). The monument’s precise location is at 36°59’56″N, 109°02’43″W.

4 Corners. Clockwise from prime left: Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona. (Credit score: Getty Inventive)

Nevertheless, it’s not the place Congress had decreed the 4 states to satisfy. That time is about 560 ft (170 m) northwest of the quadripoint’s present location, at 37°N, 109°02’48″W. Did you drive during the desert to overlook the precise level by a couple of hundred ft?

No, you didn’t: in 1925, the Supreme Courtroom dominated that the borders as surveyed have been the proper ones. However maybe the unique quadripoint deserves a small marker of its personal, if solely to supply the location with an additional attraction. Or why not go for 3? Some sources say the unique level deviates by 1,807 ft (551 m).

 The La Sal/Paradox deviation

In 1879, a survey occasion marched north from 4 Corners, putting markers at each mile. The surveyors finally reached the Wyoming border, however not the place they thought they’d find yourself. Later surveys, in 1885 and 1893, discovered the place the unique surveyors had gone mistaken, however by that point the border as surveyed had turn out to be the official one. Altering it might have required each Colorado and Utah to agree on an answer, and Congress to approve it.

The largest error happens simply south of the highway connecting La Sal, Utah to Paradox, Colorado. Throughout an eight-mile stretch, the surveyors strayed westward earlier than regaining true north. The ensuing deviation is 3860 ft (1.18 km).

Border deviation close to Edith, CO. (Credit score: Google Maps / Ruland Kolen)

Issues go south after Edith

West to east, Colorado’s border with New Mexico begins out pretty straight. Nevertheless, simply east of Edith, the border swerves southeast for about 3,400 ft (1 km) earlier than resuming its course due east, now 2,820 ft (860 m) additional south than earlier than.

Why? Plainly for as soon as, the surveyors have given in to the dictates of topography: the deviation follows a small valley oriented northwest-southeast.

The Colorado border swerves south, consuming into the Oklahoma Panhandle. (Credit score: FascinatingMaps.com)

Panhandling into Oklahoma

Virtually on the finish of their surveying mission, it appears the occasion misplaced the plot once more. Within the final 53 miles (85 km) earlier than the border turns north, the stretch the place Colorado rubs towards Oklahoma, the road once more swerves to the south, by as a lot as 1,770 ft (540 m).

Don’t blame the terrain: appropriately for a spot so near the Oklahoma Panhandle, it’s as flat as a pancake. Maybe the surveyors have been confused by the very featurelessness of the place.

Every dot is a twist in Colorado’s supposedly straight borders. (Credit score: FascinatingMaps.com)

Colorado is a 697-sider

These are simply 4 of the most important, most simply noticed surveying errors. In whole, Colorado’s borders have a whole lot twists and turns — most a lot smaller than the Large 4. Right here they’re: each dot on is a border deviation, as indicated on the OpenStreetMap of Colorado.

Accordingly, the state has not simply 4 sides, however a complete of 697 sides. So if Colorado shouldn’t be a rectangle, what’s it? Effectively, not a pentagon, (Greek for 5-sider), hexagon (6-sider) or a heptagon (7-sider), however a — maintain on to one thing — hexahectaenneacontakaiheptagon (697-sider).

Wyoming: simply as fallible as Colorado — however extra keen to confess its errors. (Credit score: FascinatingMaps.com)

Don’t get your hopes up, Wyoming

With Colorado totally disqualified to as one in every of America’s two really rectangular states, does that depart Wyoming holding the crown all by itself? Nope. Seems the surveyors who plotted the Equality State’s define have been simply as fallible because the Colorado set.

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This map exhibits a couple of bigger ones of the numerous deviations in on all 4 sides of Wyoming. Apparently, the deviations proven are available pairs, whereby the second ones appear to right the deviation of the primary ones.

So, whereas Wyoming is simply as imperfect as Colorado, it does appear that a minimum of it’s higher at admitting (and correcting) its errors than its southern neighbor.

Maps of Colorado and Wyoming each by FascinatingMaps.com.

Unusual Maps #945

Obtained an odd map? Let me know at [email protected].

(1) When you’re not into the entire obviousness factor: Hawaii is a bunch of islands, which subsequently don’t have a land border — neither with different U.S. states or third nations.

(2) That’s west of the Washington Meridian — the third one, to be precise. Over time, 4 Washington meridians have been outlined as prime meridians for the U.S. They handed by means of the Capitol, the White Home, the Previous Naval Observatory and the New Naval Observatory. Outlined by Congress in 1850 at 77°2’48.0″W of Greenwich, the third Washington meridian was used as the bottom line for a lot of western state borders, together with:

  • at 17°W, a stretch of border with Texas within the west, and Arkansas and Louisiana within the east. This line passes by means of the two-state conurbation of Texarkana;
  • at 25°W, the Colorado-Kansas border (and a part of the Nebraska-Colorado border);
  • at 26°W, a stretch of the border between Texas and New Mexico (the Oklahoma-New Mexico border, simply to the north, is ready again two miles to the east);
  • at 27°W, the 555-mile stretch from Colorado north to the Canadian border, separating Montana and Wyoming within the west from the Dakotas and Nebraska within the east;
  • at 32°W, the straight line from Wyoming to Mexico, separating Utah and Arizona within the west from Colorado and New Mexico within the east (additionally operating by means of 4 Corners, the place these 4 states meet).

Outlined from the now commonplace Greenwich Meridian, the jap and western extremities of Colorado are 102°2’48″W to 109°2’48″W, respectively

(3) An isosceles trapezoid is a four-sided form with two parallel sides and two non-parallel however equal sides.

(4) The one state-level quadripoint. There are, actually, dozens of quadripoints between U.S. counties, a whole lot between U.S. municipalities, and certainly 1000’s (of often bilateral ones) on the perimeters of checkerboard-patterned Indian reservations and different federally reserved territories.

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