Four Corners marker 21/2 miles off? Too late

Published: Monday, April 20 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Florence Nick, 15, of Cologne, Germany, "visits" four states at once at the Four Corners Monument earlier this month.

Lynn Arave, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

The Four Corners, a famous and popular tourist spot in the American Southwest, is and isn't where it should be. Confused? Read on.

Four Corners — the only place in the United States where four state boundaries come together — was first surveyed by the U.S. government in 1868, during the initial survey of Colorado's southern boundary line. Its intended location was an even 109 degrees west longitude and 37 degrees north latitude.

However, due to surveying errors, it didn't come out that way.

According to readings by the National Geodetic Survey, today's official marker sits at 109 02 42.62019 W longitude and 36 59 56.31532 N latitude.

That means the current monument marking the intersection of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona is approximately 2.5 miles west of where it should be.

According to three different Internet sites for distance calculations (including an FCC site and GPS visualizer) the readings were 2.493; 2.484; and 2.499 miles.

A member of the Utah Association of Geocachers in Price also came up with 2.5 miles by using two other Internet sites, Google Earth and the Great Circle Calculator. (Geocachers routinely rely on GPS data to find exact locations.)

The true location would be downhill to the east of U.S. 160 in Colorado and northeast of the San Juan River as it flows into New Mexico.

San Juan County surveyor David Bronson said of the present monument, "That's the accepted location."

"That's a long ways to be off," he acknowledged of the 2.5-mile discrepancy, but stressed once it was set, it remained.

Sam Cantrell, assistant San Juan County surveyor, said he understands the original marker could not be found by a later surveyor in 1875 and it ended up a mile to the east until 1899 when a third survey crew rediscovered the original marker. That's where it has remained ever since, but for 24 years it may have been a mile closer to the intended location.

Both men believe it's pretty amazing that surveyors of that day were as accurate as they were, given the crude equipment of the era.

What's the effect of this 2.5 mile variance?

Wikipedia incorrectly reports that sometime in the past this error became an issue and so the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the current location had become the standard over time and so it should be recognized as the official boundary between the four states.

No original source could be found for that Supreme Court reference. In fact, a 2007 article in the Four Corners Free Press states that the Supreme Court ruling simply reaffirmed the current Navajo-Ute tribal boundary involving a 300-foot discrepancy, not the Four Corners monument itself.

Utah and Arizona lost the most land in the original Four Corners survey mistake; Colorado and New Mexico gained ground.

Despite the miscalculation, the four state lines still somehow appear reasonably straight as they converge at the current Four Corners. However, about 77 miles north, near La Sal and state Route 46, the Utah-Colorado state line makes a definite jog to the east, perhaps to compensate for the difference. No such aberration appears visible on the Arizona-New Mexico state line, though.

There's little chance of moving the monument, especially because millions of dollars have been spent to improve it and because the current state lines have been firmly established now for 110 years.

TO REACH FOUR CORNERS

There is no direct route from Utah — you have to go into Arizona or Colorado first. Visitors can take state Route 163 east from Bluff. It turns into Colorado Highway 41. Turn southwest on U.S. 160. Four Corners is about 40 miles from Bluff.

Or take U.S. 191 south from Bluff into Arizona and turn east on U.S. 160 to the monument.

Four Corners Monument is open year-round, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Entrance fee is $3 per person.

For more information, go to www.navajonationparks.org/htm/fourcorners.htm

E-MAIL: lynn@desnews.com

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