November 27, 2008 in Voices

Trail boulder marks border

Stefani Pettit

Montana the chocolate Lab chases her shadow that is reflected on the Washington-Idaho state line boulder marker just west of the Spokane River on the Centennial Trail. Interstate 90 and Cabela’s are in the distance across the river.
(Full-size photo)


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Every year, thousands of people ride, glide, roll and stroll by the big white boulder along the Spokane River Centennial Trail just before the trail crosses over the Spokane River into Idaho.

It would be hard not to notice the 6-foot-tall boulder on the north side of the trail just opposite a small bench and a stone’s throw from the trail’s bridge over the river. What might be easy to miss, however – unless you stop to read the plaque on the boulder – is that the boulder officially marks the line separating Washington and Idaho.

It has been there since 1989, officially sited and placed by professional surveyors in commemoration of the 1989 and 1990 centennials of the states of Idaho and Washington.

The initial survey which marked the dividing line between the Washington and Idaho territories – from the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers at the south almost to the Canadian border at the 49th parallel to the north – took place in 1873.

That initial survey involved the chaining and measuring of 176.5 miles, with historic accounts telling of how the survey crew battled the onset of winter, near exhaustion of provisions and a variety of terrain hardships. Rollin Reeves, U.S. deputy surveyor in Spokane, led the expedition consisting of himself, an astronomer, two transit men, four chainmen, a leveler, four mound-builders/axmen, two cooks and three packers.

With a $10,800 appropriation from Congress, they were to erect a monument every mile along the way and inscribe the initials “I.T.” (Idaho Territory) on the east side and “W.T.” on the west side (Washington Territory), according to a story, “Commemorating the Washington-Idaho Boundary Survey of 1873,” in the June 1999 issue of the magazine Professional Surveyor.

It was quite an adventure, with the crew unable to mark the Canadian border due to landmark issues, the approach of winter and with rations nearly depleted. They returned to Lewiston, Idaho Territory, in the winter of 1873-’74 and later learned they had been approximately one mile from the 49th parallel. The final mile was surveyed in 1908-’09.

But that was not the last time a survey of the state line was conducted. In 1989, to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of statehood for Washington and Idaho, professional surveyors from Washington and Idaho retraced the Spokane-area portion of the 1873 survey and held a seminar on the history of the boundary.

Walt Dale, owner of Benthin & Associates land surveying company in Spokane, was part of that experience. He noted that they buried a time capsule at the site along the Centennial Trail and brought in the huge white granite boulder.

And they erected the plaque which reads: “The Washington-Idaho State Line. Surveyed in 1873 by Rollin J. Reeves. Retraced in 1908 by S.S. Gannett. Retraced by the Land Surveyors’ Association of Washington and the Idaho Association of Land Surveyors in commemoration of the states’ centennial celebrations 1989 and 1990. 87.51 miles north of the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers.”

As part of the 1989 celebration, about 20 members of the Washington and Idaho land surveyor’s organizations got together in clothing from 1873 and used the tools of that time to recreate the regional portion of the Reeves survey.

“We used a solar compass, a solar transit and old chain techniques just for fun and to see how they did it back then,” Dale said.

Apparently, they did it pretty well all those years ago. Dale said his group also used conventional GPS to check for accuracy. How close was the original survey?

“Pretty darn close,” Dale said.

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