Geographic Centers

It is the theory that decides what can be observed.
Albert Einstein

The initial point of the public land surveys in New Mexico is located on a small mesa near San Acacia, just east of I-25 at exit 163. I have on several occasions discovered, that it is sometimes mistakenly assumed to be the center of the State. This initial point was never intented to be the geographic center of New Mexico, although by chance it is only about forty-six miles to the west-southwest of it. The geographic center of the State is located about ten miles southeast of Mountainair, however that is only a computed location and not a monumented point. It is about four miles from the nearest paved road, State Highway 55, that leads from Mountainair to Gran Quivira National Monument, and its remoteness makes it of little value to anybodies Chamber of Commerce. Its geographic coordinates are: 10606.7W, 3430.1N, putting it into an area of 500 by 600 feet.

The U S. Geological Survey has long published a list of approximate geographic centers and probably regretted it. Part of the difficulty is that there is no generally accepted definition of geographic center, nor is there a satisfactory method for determining it. A State or any other political or geographic entity may have as many geographic centers as there are definitions of the term. It may be defined as the center of gravity of the surface, or the point at which the surface would balance if it were a sheet of uniform thickness. As can be imagined, if topography is to be considered, mountain ranges would tend to shift the point of gravity, just like a hammer balances near its head. Another method might be to ignore elevation altogether and balance the area on the shell of the spheroid, of the geoid, or of any other reference surface that has been cut along the projected exterior boundaries of a State. An area could also be projected onto a plane surface and its center be computed, this would yield as many different centers as there are projections.

There is also no agreement as to how bodies of water are to be treated; one suggestion is to assume them to be holes in the surface that do not add to the weight of it. By that proposal, the filling of a reservoir would shift the geographic center as the dry surface is reduced. Are glaciers bodies of water? If one includes far-off island they could shift the geographic center of a landmass offshore; the State of Hawaii has its geographic center about twenty miles south of Maui Island in the Alenuihaha Channel, but at least it keeps that State from monumenting a point that shifts every time a volcanic eruption adds land to the islands. How are territorial waters to be treated, are they a part of the area to be considered? Some countries think so.

Yet geographic centers, just like the earths poles, the equator, the tropics, or other geographic points or lines do have a certain fascination that goes beyond any mathematical, astronomic, or scientific significance, a fact not lost on the promoters of tourism. Nor is it a modern phenomenon. In ancient times people made pilgrimages to the oracle of Delphi. Delphi was considered the geodetic center of Greece. Here was the temple of Apollo, the god of Delphi, containing his golden statue, and near it a globe of marble, the omphalos (navel) or center of the earth. A similar object was maintained by the Egyptians in Thebes as the geodetic center of Egypt. It has been suggested that the name Thebes has its origin in the Phoenician word for navel.

To be in the center of something or at a corner of it appears to exert a pleasant stimulation on the nervous system not experienced by just to be on it or in it. Our own Four Corners is a good example. The monument is well designed and worth a visit, if you do not mind the fee the Navajo collect for whatever pleasure is to be derived by touching the surface of four different States without walking a step. At least that monument defines a definite point, while any monument marking a geographic center should be considered a dubious location.

If you are looking for centers and not for corners (no pun intended), you may want to travel to Lebanon, Kansas, to visit the monument that is supposedly at the center of the conterminous forty-eight States. It is only about forty-two miles north of Meades Ranch triangulation station that is sometimes confused with the geographic center of the United States. Although Meades Ranch became a fixed point to which the North American triangulation network has been adjusted, it is only a point in the junction of the main east-west and north-south triangulation arcs that stretch across the North American Continent.

There is an interesting story as to how the Lebanon "geographic center," was determined. It seems that an employee of the Coast and Geodetic Survey found the "center of gravity" of the country when he or she cut the shape of the lower 48 States out of a cardboard sheet and balanced it on a pin. This method, even at its best, is believed to be accurate only within ten or twenty miles. Modern computers and accurate boundary information have greatly improved the methodology but have done nothing to validate and clarify the definition.

For the center of all fifty States you will have to go to Castle Rock, Butte County, South Dakota. Not satisfied? There is a twenty-one foot high masonry pyramid in Rugby, North Dakota, that marks the center of the entire North American continent. Still not satisfied? There is also a geographic center of the entire landmass of the earth, which has been calculated to lie at Iskenderun in Turkey, to the disappointment of those who claim that distinction for the Great Pyramid. Oh well, continental drift or a rise of the sea level may yet move it there.

We are not the only people who like to have their picture taken in front of a monument with the appropriate lettering, but you better put on warm underwear if you visit the geographic center of the Russian Federation. It stands in the Siberian uplands near the Arctic Circle, where the temperature has dropped to as low as ninety degrees below zero, and is marked by a twenty-five foot high silver column with a golden ship at its top. It could easily double as the geographic center of nowhere, especially since about a year ago death claimed the areas only resident, Anatoly Denisenko, a hermit who made his living by fishing and hunting.

Perhaps the most artistic monument for a geographic center is the one that until recently marked the center of the European Union. It is located in Belgium near the French border, just outside the village of Oignies-en-Thirache. The monument was created by Belgian artist, writer and master glass-craftsman Bernard Tirtiaux in 1996 and consists of a cathedral made of colored glass. Circling the sculpture are 15 milestones, each pointing to the direction of the capital of a member state, with the name of the country and the year it joined the union. A few sculptures by various European artists complete the ensemble. The location became obsolete on May 1 of this year, when ten new countries were admitted to the Union, shifting the geographic center to a small village (Kleinmaischeid) ten miles north of Koblenz, Germany. Situated less than a mile off the Autobahn between Frankfurt and Cologne, the villagers can expect an invasion of tourists.

What about the poor souls in the Chamber of Commerce of towns that are located off center in their respective geographic areas? Well, most of them could also have a monument because there are as many geographic centers as human imagination can invent. The term has been applied to population distribution, manufacturing centers, commerce, religions, ZIP Codes, and many, many more. There even is a Geographic Center of the Political Correct Universe. Should you be contacted to survey and monument a point for that one, you would be well advised to get its definition in writing, attested to by whoever pays for the survey. But that would be good advise for locating all the other geographic centers as well.

As for myself, I side with Oscar S. Adams, a former Senior Mathematician of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey who said: There is no such thing as the geographical center of any state, country or continent. That opinion is supported by Einsteins remark.

About the Author

Fred Roeder, LS

Fred Roeder lives in Tularosa, New Mexico. He emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1957 and spent most of his surveying career in the Southwest, working for the U.S. Forest Service. Now retired, he started writing a regular column for the New Mexico Professional Surveyors Newsletter in 1988. In 1994, NMPS produced Antepasados, a book of his columns. Many surveyors are good writers, especially about technical or legal matters. However, it's not often that we find a surveyor/story-teller who can present historical facts in a manner that makes them fun to read. Fred Roeder is such a writer and we are pleased to present more than 80 of his stories here. Bibliography is a list of the books Fred used in his writings, and includes a numbered index of the articles. Index is a list of all the articles Fred has written and when. Editor's pick: The King Who Had No Title
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