Utah has been called a "pretty, great state." Surprisingly it's a "pretty crooked state," too. And we're not talking crime, but the state's deceptively tidy shape.
Minus the distinctive notch in its northeast corner, Utah is commonly thought of as a perfect rectangle. However, those fourth-grade Utah history students are drawing it all wrong with straight lines.In fact, if the borders had been drawn straight - as intended - some Idaho border towns, like Franklin, might straddle the state line. At least one other community, Strevell - now a ghost town - would definitely have been in Utah.
Also, the state would be somewhat larger, maybe several hundred acres bigger, because of land that ended up in Idaho, Colorado or Wyoming.
Utah's true borders contain at least seven crooked spots that are considered "pretty" crooked by mapmaking standards, though perhaps only "slightly" irregular by public perceptions.
These irregularities vary from as small as a quarter of a mile off the true mark to almost a mile in error.
Looking closely at the official Utah State Highway Map, two of the irregularities can be spotted. On the small statewide map on the cover of the Utah Atlas & Gazetteer, a third crooked spot can be seen.
With the Gazetteer's detailed topographical maps, three more crooked locations can be readily seen. The seventh error stands out most on the Bureau of Land Management's overall state map.
Three of the irregularities involve a meandering line, while three others look like notches and the seventh resembles a hump. (See story above.)
Were these six crooked spots meant to be there?
"They're survey errors that were made when the state boundaries were laid out," said Gary Nebeker, chief of operations for the Salt Lake office of the U.S. Geological Survey Center.
The Salt Lake office of the Bureau of Land Management is the caretaker of the original survey documents made on the Utah state line boundaries. It agrees on the cause for the crooked lines.
"It was primarily survey errors," said Daniel W. Webb, chief cadastral surveyor for the BLM in Salt Lake City.
He said surveyors in the late 1800s had crude instruments and pulled 66-foot-long chains for measurements.
A colleague of Webb, Dave Cook, is a cartographer with almost 40 years of map experience with the BLM and the National Weather Service.
After several hours of examining the original, 100-plus-year-old diaries of the different federal surveyors, he could find no apparent reasons for their mistakes.
Cook speculated that surveyors were paid by the mile, so they were in a hurry. If they made a mistake - even if they knew it - they weren't likely to go back and redo it.
Survey crews traveled in parties of one to two dozen men and suffered harsh conditions on Utah's rugged borders in the 1870s and 1880s. Rocks and wooden posts were the common markers left by survey parties. They theoretically put markers every mile along state boundaries, though obviously some are missing more than a century later.
Cook said the sad thing is that we live with these mistakes. Longtime federal laws make states rely on existing survey monuments for borders, whether they are in the right place or not.
"Monuments prevail," he stressed.
Those laws have been challenged by various courts over the years and have always been upheld.
Even with exact location technology available with orbiting satellites, no federal entity has the time or money to correct such errors, according to Webb.
At best, small adjustments may be made as specific landownership issues are raised.
Since Utah's borders are crooked, so are those in the adjoining states of Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado. Cook believes many other states probably have similar boundary problems. For example, the same surveyor who made at least three mistakes across the Utah-Idaho border also kept going west to the Pacific Ocean.
Checking detailed Oregon maps, he made at least four similar mistakes along its southern border with California.