Nobody knows exactly how to locate the geographic center of the continent. Nor is there any scientific value in knowing where the center is.
So, I figured I should find a geographer and go looking for it.
Geographer Brad Rundquist agreed readily. He’s dean of UND’s College of Arts and Sciences, former chair of UND’s Geography Department. In an earlier life, he was a journalist.
Besides, we wouldn’t be going too far out of our way. We’d agreed to share a ride to Medora to attend the joint convention of the North and South Dakota newspaper associations. The center of the continent would be on our way.
So, we were off.
We weren’t the first to seek the center of the continent. Humans have always been aware that the area that became North Dakota is close to the center of something, and over centuries that realization has had religious, cultural and commercial significance.
The Mandan people built a web of trade from their villages on the Missouri River, which was once one of the continent’s largest urban areas. Elizabeth Fenn traces its history in her Pulitzer Prize winning book “Encounters at the Heart of the World” (Hill and Wang, New York, 2014).
Europeans soon grasped the importance of the Mandan trade and set out to find their headquarters. A nobleman titled Sieur de la Verendrye, who was in the service of the king of France, was the first to leave a record, in 1735. A townsite in North Dakota, near the middle of the continent, is named for him.
More to the point, geographically speaking, is the monument near the townsite. The monument honors David Thompson. He was once the world’s foremost expert at calculating latitude and longitude – the latter a particular problem that required careful observation of the angle of the sun at prescribed times. He set out for the Mandan villages in December 1797, a bitterly cold season, but he kept up his work. His reckoning for Christmas Day put him near the mouth of the Wintering River, a tributary of the Souris, which meets the Assiniboine River near Brandon, Manitoba. John MacKay, in charge of the Northwest Company’s fur trade operation there, sent Thompson to locate the 49th parallel, a critical if imaginary line that was soon to become the boundary between the United States and Canada.
The David Thompson Memorial is a simple sphere etched with lines of latitude and longitude. It could plausibly be considered the geographical center of the continent, and it was the first of our four “center stops.”
The Thompson Memorial is about 40 miles northeast of the Mandan trading center, which is now incorporated in Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. Between them is Dogden Butte, which “has served as a traveler’s landmark for centuries if not millennia,” Fenn wrote. The butte figures prominently in Mandan origin stories. In 1851, an historically important encounter between the Lakota and the Metis occurred nearby. The exact location of the battle is in doubt and the outcome in dispute, but the cause is clear enough: access to buffalo at the heart of the continent.
The memorial is about 25 miles due west of the actual center of the continent as determined in 1928 – by balancing a cutout of North America, “not the most sophisticated approach,” the New York Times noted in a story about North American’s geographical center published on Jan. 25, 2017.
That point is six miles west of Balta, just about where a county road curves around an unnamed wetland at 48 Degrees 10 Minutes North Latitude and a few seconds short of 100 Degrees 10 Minutes West Longitude.
Finding these places is easier with a detailed map, such as the DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer or the Game and Fish Department’s atlas locating publicly accessible lands in the state.
Our third “center stop” was a few miles to the south, just north of Orrin, another of North Dakota’s near ghost towns. Twin brothers Wendelin Bickler and Joseph Buechler (who didn’t agree on the spelling of their family name) erected a shrine to “Mary the Center of America.” The designation is significant because Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is the patron saint of the United States. (Search “Geographical Centers – Orrin” to find more about the site, which is on private property.)
The religious theme is continued in Orrin itself. Although Sacred Heart Catholic Church is closed, the well-kept church yard includes an outdoor “Way of the Cross,” a long-established Catholic ritual, as well as statues of Mary and Jesus.
Balta – the nearest named community to the putative Geographical Center of North America – has a population of 65, according to the current North Dakota highway map. Rugby is 15 miles by road from Balta and more than 20 miles by road – some fewer as the crow flies – from the unnamed wetland crossing where the cutout of the continent balances.
But Rugby claimed the prize, copyrighted the phrase and erected a stone cairn to mark the “Geographical Center of North America.” The town has been casual about the accuracy of the claim; the cairn has been moved at least once, and literature about it has acknowledged that the “actual center” is some distance away.
Alas for their claim, the trade mark expired, and an enterprising tavern owner in Robinson claimed the mark. His name is Bill Bender, and he’s also the mayor of Robinson. His claim is based on “trial and error,” he told the Times. Basically, he and his buddies “eyeballed” some maps, used some rulers and determined that Robinson had a claim equally as good as Rugby’s. He put a decal on the bar floor to proclaim Robinson “Geographical Center of North America.” The dean and I weren’t able to visit the bar; we’d spent too much time admiring the Thompson Memorial, and Robinson, a town of 37 according to the road map, was 100 miles away.
Plus, we were driving.
Rugby, population 2,876, is on U.S. Highway 2 about 150 miles west of Grand Forks – and four-lane all the way. A full-service tourist destination has developed there, including a modernesque representation of the Northern Lights and a large historical museum. A café nearby serves huge portions of Mexican food – appropriate for a place that calls itself the center of the continent.
Our fourth “center stop,” Rugby continues to attract center seekers. We encountered a Canadian film crew producing a documentary about Gabriel Dumont – a name much more familiar in Canada than in the United States. Dumont was “the adjutant general” of the Metis resistance to British rule; when the Northwest Rebellion was put down, he fled to Montana. Dumont has numerous North Dakota connections, we learned from the film’s producer, including blood ties to North Dakota’s Metis communities at Turtle Mountain and Spirit Lake. The North Dakota State Historical Society has a pair of his snowshoes. At 13 years of age, Dumont was among the Metis buffalo hunters approached by Lakota warriors. He lived into the next century and died, repatriated as a Canadian, in 1906.
This century has brought a greater level of sophistication to geographical reckoning and a new challenge to Rugby’s claim. The headline of the New York Times story proclaimed that “North America’s Geographical Center May Be in a North Dakota Town Called Center.” That’s according to Peter Rogerson, who teaches geography at the University of Buffalo. As the Times explained, calculated “the point at which the sum of squared distances to all other points in the region would be smallest – the mathematical definition of a geographic center.”
That point is near Center, N.D., so-named because it is the center – not of North America, but of Oliver County.
Center, population 571, is about 100 miles north west of Robinson and 130 miles southwest of Rugby – but the Missouri River metropolis of the Mandan people is only 20 miles away.