An American city stranded at the tip of a Canadian peninsula where strict adherence to the "49th parallel rule" became problematic.
The Convention of 1818 between Britain and America following the War of 1812 had a tough job to take on: determining the border between Canada and the United States. In an effort to avoid controversy and confusion caused by drawing the boundary based on watershed, the two countries agreed on a simpler solution: the 49th parallel.
There were, of course, multiple problems that arose with this solution, including the fact that Vancouver Island was split in two by the imaginary line. The debate over whether the line of latitude should split the island in two or if it should be ignored, giving the full island to Canada, was known as The Oregon Boundary Dispute. In 1846 President James Polk proposed making Vancouver Island an island of two countries, therein designating more land to America, but this was immediately rejected by the British. In the end, the British and Americans agreed to give the entire Vancouver Island to Canada, while giving the San Juan Islands to the United States.
Problem solved, right? Not exactly. Due to limited knowledge of the region’s geography at the time, there was one land area that both the Americans and the British failed to notice: The Tsawwassen Peninsula.
This peninsula was unknown at the time, but once discovered, it was too late. The agreement had accidentally cut off a tiny piece of Canada and given it to the United States.
Nowadays, at the end of this peninsula, there is a little American town called Point Roberts, Washington. The only land route out of Point Roberts is through Canada. This town of over 1,000 people has a clinic, a police station, a fire department, a library, a marina, and a primary school.
As a result of this geographic peculiarity, the town has some strange habits. Every day, a large portion of the Canadians living just north travel across the border to buy groceries and gas, which are about a third cheaper in the U.S. It is said that Canadians will also travel over for the medium rare burgers, which are unheard of in Vancouver because of the strict Canadian health code. Point Roberts is also an unusually safe city: because of the border security, the crime rate of Point Roberts is over three times lower than that of Washington as a whole.
Despite all of these intriguing qualities, it seems that keeping this geographically isolated town in working order is remarkably difficult. The county that this town belongs to has been slow in providing it with adequate infrastructure, considering that it took two years to install a single streetlight. Business is slow, except for in the summer, when the residency quintuples due to Canadian tourism. There’s no shoe store, no veterinarian, and no dentist. There also isn’t a single school that serves students from grades 4-12. To access these things, it’s necessary to cross the Canadian border to Tsawwassen, circle to White Rock, Canada, and finally cross the American border to Blaine, Washington. This trip is 40 minutes there, 40 minutes back, and it requires four borders to be crossed. For students who live in Point Roberts, the bus to Blaine High School leaves as early as 6:25 a.m., which is before sunrise on most school days.
Regardless of the pros and cons, it is quite spectacular that places like these exist. It’s a place that’s almost as Canadian as it is American, where maple leaf flags fly high (the vast majority of boats in the marina are owned by Canadians). It’s a place that is here by accident, by foolishness, a mistake that went unfixed. It also shows the ability of people to adapt, and to make this strange geographical exclave a livable home for over a thousand people.
The Atlas Obscura Podcast is a short, daily celebration of all the world’s strange and wondrous places. Check out this episode about Point Roberts.
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