In his article "Riding the Roadbed: Part I, The Route to the Tunnel," in the April-May-June 1984 issue of the Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge Society Bulletin, William Kaminsky compares two photographs of the California/Nevada state line marker. The first, found in Mallory Hope Ferrell's "Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge" (page 53) show an 1888 Carson & Colorado train standing by the marker. The second shot, taken sometime after 1929, is reproduced in George Turner's "Slim Rails Through the Sand" (page 20). These two photos show the marker in two obviously different locations.
Kaminsky then goes on to describe finding two possible locations for the marker during a September 1983 survey "less than ¼ miles" apart, and asks, "Did the C&C engineers make a mistake ... or ... did the location of the state line move?"
The two photos do indeed show different locations, and quite properly so. The California/Nevada border moved not once, but several times between the dates of the two photos, and indeed, is still the subject of not a little controversy [US DOI 1962, Uzes 1977].
The 1849 California Constitution described this part of the boundary as a straight diagonal line from 42° North, 120° West to the intersection of the 39th parallel with the Colorado River [Uzes 1977] -- a casual political description that has been the source of both aggravation and litigation ever since. One of the first delegations the Nevada Territory sent to Sacramento asked that the border be made the crest of the Sierras, arguing that it did not pass through populated territory, and that during the winter months the area east of the divide was inaccessible except from Nevada anyway.
Their request fell on ears both deaf and incomprehending. The precise location of this boundary was not a subject of practical concern to the California politicians. Indeed it wasn't until 1852 that Captain L. Sitgraves discovered, to everyone's surprise and consternation, that the "corner" of the border was actually in the middle of Lake Tahoe, and title to some of the land around that lake is still in the courts today.
There were two events that made the prompt and accurate location of the boundary a matter of some urgency. One was the 1859 discovery of the Comstock silver lode, which was the proximate cause of the Carson & Colorado and most other industrial development in the area. The other event was the sad case of the community of Susanville [Lillard 1949].
The California Legislature felt that Susanville was part of Plumas County, California, while the government of the Nevada Territory felt the town and surrounding agricultural area belonged in Roop County, Nevada. To exercise their political might, both jurisdictions caused the election or appointment of a full complement of government officers. This came to a culmination in early 1863 when the citizens of Susanville got into a bit of a spat over just where they were.
Speaking for Nevada were Judges Gordon Mott and John Ward, Sherrif William H. Naileigh, and community leader Isaac Roop, for whom Roop County, Nevada was named. Opposing them were Plumas County, California officials from the county seat at Quincy, including Judge William Young, Judge Hogan, Sherrif E. H. Pierce, a hundred man posse, and a piece of artillery, caliber unknown.
Let's see if I can keep this straight: Judge Mott came to Susanville, Nevada, to hold court. Judge Young enjoined him from practicing in Susanville, California. Judge Ward then enjoined Judge Young from practicing in Susanville, Nevada; had him arrested, tried, and fined $100. Judge Hogan issued an injunction against Judge Ward and Sheriff Naileigh, which Sheriff Pierce served, only to be served himself with an injunction. Pierce arrested Naileigh and Ward, and was returning them to another part of California, when Roop and other good citizens intervened and prevented Pierce from taking his prisoners out of the Territory of Nevada. I think this is where the posse brought up the artillery, but I may have missed a volley or two.
Things got out of hand, and gunfire erupted at what is now known as Roop's Fort (actually it was some poor farmer's barn). The "Sagebrush War" was on, and it claimed a number of casualties in several hours of fighting. Pretty soon common sense reasserted itself, and commissions composed of members of both parties were dispatched to the state and territorial governments with a call for decent survey.
Further south, the town of Aurora found a better way to deal with such uncertainties [Lillard 1949]. The town was the county seat for both Esmeralda County, Nevada, and Mono County, California. They elected two judges, two sheriffs, and representatives to both the California and Nevada legislatures. Election day was cause for great celebration there, as the two polling places were at opposite ends of the main street, with all of the interveing saloons doing land office business. The phrase, "Vote early and often," might well have begun here, and if you didn't prevail in one election, you might well win in the other.
Thus it was in 1863 that California Surveyor General J.F. Houghton and Nevada Land Commissioner Butler Ives headed a survey of the boundary to settle the claims of thesee and other communities [Uzes 1977]. After first establishing the border between Lake Tahoe and the Oregon border, they turned their attention to the southern half. Just past Bodie, they found their line of survey to be occupied by a very large party of Indians performing a ceremony. Not wishing to disturn them, partly out of respect for Indian culture, but mostly ouot of respect for the high military odds against them, they proceeded to wait the ceremony out, and were caught by an October snowstorm that left eight of the men suffering from frostbite, and the rest in no mood to continue.
The survey resumed two years later, extending the line almost halfway to the Colorado before work was called off because of the growing war. (The war my great granddad wanted me to call, "The War Between the States").
By 1872, the peace was firm enough (and the federal government solvent enough) to allow the U.S. General Land Office to contract with surveyour Allexey W. Von Schmidt to survey the entire eastern boundary of California, and to erect stone markers each mile. He spent much time that year trying to reconcile his instructions with the difficult topography, questionable prior surveys, and disgruntled Indians along the northern half of the border. The following year he ran the line from Lake Tahoe south, with many of the same difficulties.
Upon reaching the Colorado River, he discovered his line to be off by several miles. This is not too bad for dead reckoning over four hundred miles of unmarked territory. The routine for retracing a line and making corrections to the original survey was one well understood by surveyours of the nineteenth century. Von Schmidt, however, was working on the short end of a fixed price contract in an area of no perceptible economic value, with knowledge that the last surveying team was caught in an early snowstorm and had suffereed severely. He elected to correct the line not back to its start at Lake Tahoe, but only about a third of that distance, producing a "straight line" with a pronounced kink in the middle.
Apparently, it was on the basis of this survey that the Carson & Colorado construction crews placed the state boundary marker, locating it accurately on the line set by Von Schmidt. When the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey resurveyed the area between 1893 and 1899, they discovered not only Von Schmidt's kink, but that the end points for his line were not accurately located either. As a result, the C&C was presented with a new state boundary crossing, and it seems they moved the monument about two thousand feet to the southwest accordingly, which agrees not too badly with Kaminsky's estimate of the distance between the suspected monument sites.
The United States Geologic Survey 15 minutes series "Benton, Nevada" quadrangle map includes Montgomery Pass, the Queen Valley, and the C&C/SP crossing of the state line [US DOI 1962]. This map shows prominently two of the many different boundary lines: the Von Schmidt line of 1873, upon which the range and township boundaries are still based; and the US C&GS line of 1893-1899, which has formed the official border only since 1943.
All of which goes to show three things: History is funnier than Comedy; it's not just earthquakes that move California; and some very moving monuments commemorate lazy men.
Lillard, Richard G.
"Desert Challenge: An Interpretation of Nevada."
Knopf, 1949, pp. 57-59.
United States, Department of the Interior, Geological Survey.
"Benton Quadrangle, Nevada-California", 15 Minute Series, 1962.
Uzes, Francois D.
"Chaining the Land: A History of Surveying in California."
Sacramento: Landmark Enterprises, 1977, pp. 61-96.
Copyright © 1984, 1998 by Bruce A. Metcalf, who will appreciate your comments.