The Geographic Center of the 48 States – why moving it could help

One hundred years ago, someone employed by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey cut the shape of the contiguous 48 States out of a cardboard sheet and determined its center of gravity by balancing it on a point. The balance point on that cardboard map was said to represent the geographic center of the country.

Map of USA (lower 48 States) showing location of geographic center

Lower 48 States with star marking geographic center

Humans are attracted to centers no matter how they are determined. People flock to city centers, cultural centers, shopping centers, garden centers, sometimes even to detention centers. No one speaks of ‘places’ of excellence. In physics, the center of attraction is the point to which bodies tend by gravity. We, on planning a trip across the Great Plains, pick the route that passes through the center of the land.

From St. Joseph, Missouri, we head west on U.S. Route 36, cross the Missouri River, and enter Kansas. It’s early morning so the rising September sun is directly behind us. The expressway narrows to a two-lane highway and soon the country opens up. We see fewer trees and broader vistas. Before us lie the Great Plains, a vast sweep of land stretching east from the Rocky Mountains and from the Rio Grand in Texas to Alberta and Saskatchewan in the north, half a million square miles of relatively flat land, once the home of prairie grasses and bison, now largely given over to crops and cattle.

Some say there’s nothing to see on the plains except endless fields of wheat. In her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather says:

“. . . there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under ones feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud.”

Lebanon, Kansas, is a small agricultural community situated a few miles north of Route 36 in an unremarkable area of the plains. The city has suffered from rural flight and shows it: empty lots, closed schools, deadly quiet streets. Its population, once above 800 in the 1920s, is down to a couple of hundred. Its only claim to fame is its proximity to a set of map coordinates that have no cartographical or scientific relevance.

The cardboard cutout method used by the Geodetic Survey in 1918, determined the country’s geographic center to be at 39″50’N 98″35’W. Since that position lies fairly close to Lebanon, the Lebanon Hub Club, anticipating a sizeable tourist flow, arranged in 1940 for a monument to mark the spot. However, due to the spot being on private property, an alternate location on which to plant the monument had to be found. The result of the search was a piece of land two and a half miles northwest of the center of Lebanon, accessible by a turn-off from Route 281.

Map of Lebanon, Kansas and vicinity

Lebanon, Kansas and vicinity (Geographic Center in upper left corner). Map image: KDOT

There’s a mystery here. Why wasn’t the monument planted in the center of Lebanon instead of out in the middle of nowhere? After all, the cardboard cutout method used to determine the center of the country was only accurate to within ten miles at best. To put it another way, any point within a ten-mile radius of the calculated coordinates, including any point within the city of Lebanon, could have been chosen to represent the geographic center.

While the chosen site is pleasant and well maintained (the tiny chapel is a nice touch),  it has never attracted more than a trickle of visitors. A motel built to accommodate the anticipated flood of tourists closed down long ago. A monument within the city would not only give tourists a reason to visit the town, it would also enable Lebanon to advertise itself as the geographic center of the country, not just a place that happens to be near such a center. There seems to be no shortage of potential sites on which to plant a center monument within city boundaries. There are empty lots in the very center of the town. The land fronting the city’s water tower on Main Street might suit nicely.

Who would object to such a move? Certainly not the U.S. Geodetic Survey. That department is no longer interested in geographic centers. Oscar S. Adams, Senior Mathematician at the department, in his article titled Geographic Centers, says this:

“As a matter of fact, the conclusion is forced upon us that there is no such thing as the geographical center of any state, country or continent. The point determined will depend entirely upon the definition given by the one making the computation.”

After inspecting the existing center monument and then returning to Lebanon to walk about the streets, we are hungry and thirsty but find no place to eat. We head back to Route 36 and continue our journey westward. A twenty minute drive takes us to a restaurant called Paul’s Cafe and Dining Room in the city of Smith Center.

Map of Smith County, Kansas

Smith County, Kansas. Map Image: KDOT

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