Tahoe and Vicinity June 1, 2024

The Boundary

The story goes that a tourist, exploring the Tahoe Basin, asked a local how to drive down the Lake. The local replied that the drive had to be around the Lake. Hearing that, the tourist pointed to a map with a black line running north-south, just east of the middle of Lake Tahoe. That was the road the tourist wanted to access and drive.

And that particular black line, a border, has caused confusion and trouble ever since two states began to share it. What is more, it may have been John C. Fremont’s original 1844 mapping errors that started the whole thing.

Early surveying equipment was scarce, and not very effective, leading to boundary line errors that ranged from miles to only yards. Measuring longitude requires the precise time. A one-second error in time equates to a quarter-mile mistake in distance. Having a precise time-piece in the 1800s was not exactly the norm, especially if one was trekking through snowy mountains, or across swollen rivers.

The California/Nevada border, running south from the Oregon border, had been set at longitude 120°W, ever since the 1849 California Constitutional Convention. Setting the border was simple, finding it – a bit more difficult. Six surveys, done over 45 years (1855-1900) tried to locate the 120° line, with results differing by three miles or more.

In 1861, Congress created the new Territory of Nevada, setting its western boundary at “the dividing ridge separating the waters of Carson Valley from those that flow into the Pacific.” That pretty much described the crest of the Sierra. However, the act further stated that “the State of California shall assent to the same.” California would not, did not assent. In fact, no one seemed to have thought of discussing the matter at all, so the area remained disputed.

In the winter of 1862-1863, incidents over elections, and tax collection became known as the “Sagebrush War.” In February of 1863, California sheriff, E. H. Pierce, brought a posse of armed men, either 40 or 100 strong (depending on the storyteller) to Susanvillle. The Californians shot from the safety of a barn, the Nevada settlers from the safety of the log home of their leader, Isaac Roop. Each side had one man wounded during the war; one shot in the leg, another under the collar bone. A few townsmen showed up to watch the “fun”  but after four hours of shooting, both sides agreed on a truce. Some say the combatants had dinner together.  Well fed or not, jurisdiction over the disputed territory was not settled, and the problem was left to the governments. California, however, retained the land.

The arguments continued until 1977 when California sued Nevada. Three years later, in 1980, the United States Supreme Court ruled that an 1872 survey completed by Alexey W. Von Schmidt (originally from Latvia) was indeed the border between the two states. Modern measurements have proven that Von Schmidt’s survey was correct – give or take 450 feet.

So, if the California-Nevada border is supposed to follow the line of longitude 120°W, why then does the black line on the Tahoe map jog to the east when it reaches latitude 39°N?

The answer to that lies in the California Constitution, which sets out the State’s lines:

…..running south on the line of said 120th degree of west longitude until it intersects the 39th degree of north latitude, thence running in a straight line in a south easterly direction to the River Colorado, at a point where it intersects the 35th degree of north latitude; thence down the middle of the channel of said river to the boundary line between the United States and Mexico….

Because the 120° longitude line meets the Pacific Ocean just north of Santa Barbara, without the jog, geography dictates that California would be a different place. Yosemite National Park would call somewhere else home, as would other national parks, like Sequoia and Death Valley. California would have no desert within its boundaries, and a good many acres of the productive central valley would be outside its borders.

And all of Southern California would be known as Southern Someplace Else. Then, what would have happened to all that California Dreamin’?