Carolinas plot do-over with dueling surveys
GPS could change 1730s map
Judy Helms considers herself a South Carolinian. For years, the state of South Carolina agreed. But a new survey of the North Carolina-south Carolina border, taking advantage of the latest mapping technology, may soon turn Ms. Helms into a Tarheel.
“I felt like I was stepped on,” she said, recalling her response to a letter she received a few months ago telling the longtime resident of Clover, S.C., in the state’s York County that her house might be in North Carolina’s Gaston County.
Ms. Helms is one of dozens of homeowners, renters and businesses located along the border between the states facing the prospect of being reclassified South Carolinian or North Carolinian as the two states wrap up a $1 million remapping project that began in the mid-1990s.
The project brought the technology of modern surveying — GPS, digital levels and infrared sights that measure distances instantly and with precision — to bear on a border determined in the 1730s by surveyors using compasses and sextants and marking the line on trees and the occasional stone marker.
It was the same for borders across the country. Early maps were often inaccurate or contradictory, and surveyors blazed their lines on trees, rocks and other landmarks that in many cases have disappeared or shifted with the construction of roads, homes and other development.
With the trees and other landmarks gone and original stone markers often buried or missing, determining the exact location of the border has became a guessing game for residents and officials alike.
Iowa and Missouri fought the tense but bloodless “Honey War” in the 1840s before agreeing on a border. The war was so named because tax collectors from Missouri chopped down three bee trees filled with honey on disputed land as revenue before they were chased away by pitchfork-wielding Iowans.
“I can almost safely say that very few state borders are where they should be,” said Bart Crattie, a Chattanooga, Tenn., surveyor who sits on the board of the Surveyors Historical Society.
Even many Western states, with their seemingly straight-line borders, have jogs and squiggles to accommodate local features at the ground level.
The project of re-establishing the Carolina border is understandably stressful for residents like Ms. Helms.
A new border could affect where Ms. Helms and her neighbors vote, their tax rates, their school districts and their driver’s licenses. States want a sharply defined border so they can decide where to prosecute crimes, where to start and stop road maintenance and how to allocate services.
The Carolinas moved to clarify their border when surveyors started to come to them in the 1990s asking where the exact line was. They couldn’t tell them. So the two states established a joint boundary commission in 1994.
They started digging through the archives, looking for evidence of the border. “Over time, the evidence of the state boundary disappeared,” said North Carolina Geodetic Survey chief Gary Thompson.
The counties, when they needed to parcel out land, would use the best information that they had. Mr. Thompson said local officials also used indications such as the U.S. Geological Survey’s topological maps and road signs.
The researchers went back into the libraries looking for old deeds and maps and were able to piece together the state border.
After 17 years, the effort is winding to a close.
The effects of the realignment have left some people unhappy. Ms. Helms discovered that the line runs through the middle of her house. Her patio is in South Carolina while her garage is in North Carolina. Her house is on one of 93 parcels of land affected by the shift.
“I don’t want to get in a lawsuit about it,” she said, but “I know a lot of people will press this.”
Sid Miller, co-chairman of the Joint Boundary Commission, said, “We’re both very sensitive to it. It’s not their fault.”
He said that a legislative solution is in the works.
The situation on the border is uncertain. Homeowners wait as the Joint Boundary Commission collects their concerns for their next meeting on March 21.
Mr. Miller stressed that the two states are not fighting. It’s “absolutely not the case.”
But sometimes, the search for clarity along the border becomes heated for neighboring states. Decisions and surveying errors made centuries ago can have very real consequences today.
In 2008, Mr. Crattie, who lives on Lookout Mountain overlooking Chattanooga, Tenn., published some of his research in the Atlanta Journal-constitution concluding that the original state line for Tennessee and Georgia was intended to be about a mile farther north than it is today — a mapping mistake caused by a faulty survey that ended up becoming the border.
Fixing that mistake would give Greater Atlanta, struggling with a severe water shortage, access to the Tennessee River.
State leaders in Georgia immediately called for “correcting” the line, but Tennessee officials have ignored the request.
“Now [Georgia] realizes that it’s not possible. It’s not going to happen,” Mr. Crattie said.
Once two states agree on a border, that’s the border, regardless of how accurate the surveyor is. “The original monument has no error, no matter how wrong it is,” Mr. Crattie said.
If Georgia officials want to press the matter, the Founding Fathers have suggested the path forward. The Constitution gives the Supreme Court authority to arbitrate state boundary disputes.
A solar flare Tuesday evening provided a spectacular astronomical scene but threatened to disrupt power grids, GPS and airplane flights as it reached Earth late Wednesday. Forecasters at the Space Weather Prediction Center said the flare was the largest in five years.