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Strange International Borders

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Setting Boundaries

Peace treaties after wars often turn up anomalies of geography; little bits of isolated or divided territory that make no practical sense. Most of the time these abnormalities go unremarked but sometimes tensions rise.

National boundaries and flags.

National boundaries and flags.

The World's Longest Undefended Border

It's a well-worn saying that Canada and the United States live peacefully on either side of their 5,525-mile- (8,891 km-) long border without the need of armed forces. But, since the 9/11 atrocities, the border has hardened and simple, hassle-free crossings are a thing of the past. Although, in some places, travelling between the two countries is still casual and unnoticed.

Point Roberts is a piece of American territory that is only accessible by land by travelling through Canada. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 is to blame. This set the boundary between British North America (later Canada) and the United States at the 49th parallel. However, treaty negotiators didn't notice that the southern tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsular was below the 49th parallel, making it American territory.

The community's economy is heavily dependent on its northern neighbor, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated it. In March 2020, the Canada/U.S. Border was closed to all but essential travel so Point Roberts lost 80 percent of its business.

Brian Calder, director of the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that “When you walk down [the main street] today, you see nobody and I'm not kidding, nobody. It's a ghost town.”

Point Roberts severed from its homeland by the 49th parallel.

Point Roberts severed from its homeland by the 49th parallel.

Rumour has it that when surveyors marked the boundary between Quebec (Canada) and Vermont (United States) they had been drinking heavily. So, the line wobbles either side of the 45th parallel, not that anybody took much notice of the division.

In 1901, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House was built straddling the boundary. So, people browsing the shelves looking for a good read constantly cross the international boundary.

By mutual agreement, patrons only need a library card and not a passport in order to borrow books. Likewise, people watching a concert in the opera house are mostly sitting in the United States while watching a performance in Canada.

The library has two addresses: 1 rue Church, Stanstead, Quebec, and 93 Caswell Avenue, Derby Line, Vermont.

The photographer is in Canada and has to cross into the United States to use the washroom.

The photographer is in Canada and has to cross into the United States to use the washroom.

Angle Inlet in northwest Minnesota is a community of 50 or so proud Americans, but it's entirely surrounded by Canada. To get to Angle Inlet from the lower 48 people have to travel through Manitoba, Canada.

Or, they can fly in (expensive), or drive over an ice road across Lake of the Woods (not advised in a family car), or wait for the spring melt and travel in by motorboat. This oddity is a relic of 1783's Treaty of Paris and a bit of dodgy map making.

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The Vennbahn Cycleway

Let's go for a bike ride. We'll start in Aachen, Germany and finish in Troisvierges, Luxembourg. During our time on the 125 km- (78 mile-) long paved trail we'll go into and out of Belgium several times and scarcely notice that we've crossed national boundaries.

The area of the trail has been fought over countless times with the result that peace treaties have created some very strange borders.

The route of the cycle path owes its existence to a railway built by Germany in the late 19th century. It was constructed to carry steel and coal between Aachen and Luxembourg.

During World War I, military supplies were hauled over the line. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles that ended the conflict gave some areas of Germany to Belgium including the track bed.

So, the 20 m (65.6 feet) width of the track became Belgian territory passing through parts of Germany. This created what are called exclaves—areas of land belonging to one country but physically separated from that nation by the territory of another state. Today, five of these exclaves remain and it's through these that the Vennbahn Trail passes.

Lack of traffic caused the railway to shut down in the early 2000s, and the route was turned into the trail.

The Diomede Islands

Little Diomede Island is part of the United States. Big Diomede Island belongs to Russia. They both sit in the Bering Sea, about two-and-a-half miles (3.8 km) apart.

If it's Tuesday in Little Diomede, then it's Wednesday in Big Diomede. That's because the two islands are separated not only by the international boundary but also the International Date Line. They have been nicknamed Tomorrow Island (Big Diomede) and Yesterday Island (Little Diomede). Confusingly, for the inhabitants there is no Today Island.

A community of about 100 lives on Little Diomede and practices a largely traditional lifestyle, supplemented by the occasional arrival of flown-in supplies. Big Diomede is uninhabited except for some members of the Russian military who likely committed some foul breach of regulations to get that posting.

Until 1867, the two islands were Russian possessions, that's when the United States bought Alaska for the modern-day equivalent of $0.40 an acre.

Russia didn't want 1,518,800 km2 (586,412 square miles) of wilderness populated mostly by wolves and grizzly bears. In the wisdom of the treaty negotiators, the boundary line passed between the two Diomede islands.

During the Cold War it became known as the Ice Curtain. Given the toxic relations between America and Russia today, the old moniker might be resurrected.

Inhospitable Little Diomede Island.

Inhospitable Little Diomede Island.

Bonus Factoids

  • There was a time in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when, because of duties, coffee was considerably cheaper in Belgium than Germany. That caused enterprising Belgians to carry sacks of beans across the border at the Vennbahn right-of-way. The area soon gathered the names “Sinful Frontier” and the “Aachen Coffee Front.” A bronze statue, Der Schmuggler, has been erected to commemorate the trade.
  • Panmunjom sits in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. There is a building there called the Negotiation Hall within which there is a table that straddles the border between the two countries. Representatives from both countries can sit across from each other without leaving their own countries and engage in peace talks to end the Korean War of 1950-53. A formal peace has never been concluded and North Korea usually refuses to engage in talks.
  • American Lynne Cox swam between the two Diomede islands in 1987 at a time when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union (Russia) were not as frosty as usual. She was congratulated by both Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
  • Sanlúcar de Guadiana is in Spain, Alcoutim is in Portugal. Between the two is a zipline that crosses the Guadiana River, the only such contrivance that straddles international boundaries. It also affords customers the thrill of time travel, because the two countries operate in different time zones.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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