Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Tripoint and a Highpoint in One Fell Swoop

Laramie County, Wyoming
Weld County, Colorado
Kimball County, Nebraska
July 7, 2013

Old Texas Trail marker in Pine Bluffs
Getting There

Here I am barreling down Interstate 80 soon to cross the Wyoming-Nebraska border like I have done a dozen times before. I continued going straight the dozen times before, but for this trip on the freeway I have planned my own detour. Twelve miles south of I-80 are two places on the geographer's bucket list, and I am now taking the time and effort to find those places before I continue heading east on the freeway.

I exited the freeway at Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, drove through town, found a historical marker for the Old Texas Trail, and now headed south on Laramie County Road 164 towards Colorado. As I started to feel like I was getting close to Colorado, I looked for the telltale signs of the state boundary line between Wyoming and Colorado. There were no signs welcoming me to Colorado (and no signs behind me welcoming others to Wyoming), but I knew I entered Colorado when things underneath me changed. I traveled from Laramie County Road 164 to Weld County Road 105, and the road transformed from pavement to a dirt / gravel mixture. A change in road maintenance is a sure sign of going from one governmental jurisdiction to another.

I was not a novice when it came to the tripoint marking the intersection of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. I knew there was a marker for the tripoint, the marker was at the end of a cattle fence that ran along the state boundary, and there was a rough dirt road from County Road 105 to the tripoint, which was around three-fourths of a mile to the east. Some of the Wyoming pavement bled into Colorado, and I looked behind me to find the state boundary. Around a hundred feet behind me was a fence line and an entry to a dirt road. I was in cattle country, and I could see from the road plenty of cows and a windmill with a stock tank. The dirt road that ran along the fence line did not have a gate, only a cattle guard, and I saw this as more of a public road welcome rather than a private road no trespass. I steered my compact car down the road to find that invisible point where the boundaries of the states of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming meet.

Before I could reach it though I had to stop and walk the last 400 yards. Overflow from the stock water tank eroded a gully across the road, which my Mazda3 with its low clearance could not cross. Oh, how I miss not having my Nissan Xterra to easily solve these simple problems off the highway. You can see the tripoint marker from a distance, and I walked along the fence line to reach it. If the tripoint was not so important that you would need to mark it, the corner of two fence lines would tell you that you have reached it. When I reached the end of the fence, I was there — the tripoint of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. And when I looked to the northeast, there it was 1.2 miles away — Panorama Point, the highest point of natural elevation in Nebraska.    

The Tripoint

This tripoint was first created when Nebraska was still a territory and the American Civil War was being fought far away. The boundary between Nebraska and Colorado along the 41st degree of north latitude was established by Congress when they created the Colorado Territory on February 28, 1861. The boundary between Nebraska and the future state of Wyoming along the 27th degree of west longitude (from Washington, D.C.) was established when Congress created the Idaho Territory on March 3, 1863.  March 3, 1863 is the date when the Colorado - Nebraska - Wyoming tripoint came into being. It took a little bit longer for it to become a state tripoint since Wyoming did not become a state until 1890.

The first time someone had the same idea as me to find this spot on the map was in 1869. Robert R. Livingston, the United States Surveyor General for Nebraska and Iowa, contracted with Oliver N. Chaffee of Detroit, Michigan to survey the two western boundary lines of Nebraska and the southern boundary line of Nebraska located between them. As part of his survey, Chaffee would need to find the 41st degree of north latitude and the 25th and 27th degrees of longitude west of the Washington (D.C.) meridian.

In the 1860’s the United States used a meridian of longitude that went through the center of the dome of the old Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. to describe and survey territorial and state boundaries. It was thought in 1869 that the Washington meridian was 77 degrees 2 minutes 48 seconds west of the Greenwich Meridian, which was adopted by the United States in 1912 as the prime meridian. To establish the far western boundary of Nebraska, Chaffee was surveying for 27 degrees 00 minutes 00 seconds west longitude from the Washington meridian or 104 degrees 2 minutes 48 seconds west longitude from the Greenwich meridian.

The boundary survey began on July 23, 1869 in Julesburg, Colorado. Chafee and his survey party went north a little bit more than a mile to the 41st degree of north latitude. After going east to the South Platte River, they turned west to survey this line of latitude traveling more than 90 miles until they reached their destination. Their destination was the same as my destination, and to the best of their knowledge, they were at the 41 degrees north latitude and 27 degrees west of the Washington meridian of longitude. I was the latest arrival at this point of destination, but Chaffee and his survey party were the first persons to visit this point, well, at least knowing about this particular point on the earth's surface. On August 17, 1869 they set a monument where these two lines on the earth’s surface met.

This monument still exists and is a limestone post six-feet high and one-foot square. Chaffee etched information on each face of the post:
  • Facing North — 27 W.L. (indicating the monument was on the 27th degree of longitude west of the Washington meridian)
  • Facing East — 104 miles 72 ch. 26 lks. (indicating the distance of two degrees of longitude and the distance of the monument from the 25th degree of longitude west of the Washington meridian on the same line of latitude)
  • Facing South — Colorado
  • Facing West — 41 N.L. (indicating the monument was on the 41st degree of north latitude)
Chaffee and his crew placed rocks around the monument to protect it from erosion, and the monument sat there alone for the next 112 years with nary a visitor except for cattle, ranchers, and an occasional sightseer. However, in 1981 Art Henrickson and Howard Kieler repaired the over-a-century’s worth of damage and rehabilitated the monument. Probably at this time a multi-stone four-foot square base was laid around the 1869 monument with unique stone representing each state.  The Bureau of Land Management in 1990 set a cadastral survey benchmark on top of the 1869 monument to indicate this is the common point of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. More preservation work was done by a variety of local, state, and federal agencies and organizations in 1997. And in July 2004, the Kimball Rotary Club and a local boy scout constructed the surrounding fence railing and placed an engraved metal plate at the base of the monument with the states indicated at their proper location. There is also now a nearby marker to inform visitors of the history of this point.

I knew I reached the point I was seeking, but I wasn’t too sure that Chaffee reached the point he was seeking. He was aiming to plot the point intersected by the 41st line of north latitude and the 27th line of longitude west of Washington, D.C.. If Chaffee and his survey party correctly surveyed these lines of latitude and longitude and the point where they intersected, the 1869 monument would have been at 41 degrees 00 minutes 00 seconds North Latitude and 104 degrees 02 minutes 48 seconds West Longitude from the Greenwich Prime Meridian based on their understanding of longitude and meridians at their time. However, surveying technology in the 19th century was quite limited to the tools and technology available to surveyors today. One example, in Chaffee’s time a clock was important in surveying longitude, but in 1869 clocks could only measure in seconds, and an error of only a half of second of time could result in an error of over 500 feet. Today, we have atomic clocks that can measure time to the millionths. Also, geodetic datum, the coordinate system and reference points used to locate places on earth, has evolved over time, and the same point of latitude and longitude will be at different points based on the datum used. This is called datum shift.

The modern addition of the base to the monument recognizes that Chaffee and his survey party may have missed their target by a few seconds (of latitude and longitude that is). On the edges of the base are inscribed the following coordinates: 41 00 06 N. LAT and 104 03 09 W. LONG. The geodetic datum used for these modern coordinates was not noted, and there was no official United States geodetic datum when Chaffee set the monument. Geodetic datum becomes a rabbit hole if try to figure out the one true location of something on earth, and I will not go down that hole any further. Let’s just say that Chaffee and his survey party were only one-sixth to one-third of a mile to the north and west from the point they were trying to locate. Not too bad for 19th century technology using chains to measure distance on uneven land. 
Because mistakes can be made, surveyors can disagree, and surveying gets more defined as time passes, there are lots and lots of property disputes throughout the United States from neighboring property owners up to neighboring states. Fortunately, the state legislatures of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming agreed some time ago to recognize the 1869 monument as the common point of the three states. Fortunately, that made it easy for me to know I was at the tri-point of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming.

The Highpoint

Although I was only less than two miles from Panorama Point and only 45 feet below it, I had a choice to make: hike the 3 1/2 miles round-trip or drive my car to the very top of Nebraska's highest point. Since I had a long way to go in today's travels and time was a factor, it was an easy choice. I got back in my car, drove back to Weld County Road 105, took a left southwards for two miles or so to County Road 136, took a left eastwards for three miles to County Road 111, and then took another left, this time northwards. Although there was nothing to tell me that I went from one state to another, after two miles I crossed the state border into Nebraska (and Weld County Road 111 became Kimball County Road 5), and 800 feet later I was at a private road that would take me the last mile or so to Panorama Point.

At the beginning of the private road is a large sign announcing you have arrived at High Point Bison. Panorama Point is on private property, and the owners allow highpointers and other interested folks to visit Nebraska's highpoint. They have even made it easy by grading a dirt road right to the top. The sign informs you about bison since this is a bison ranch and requests that you stay on the road, pack out your trash, and pay an entry fee of $3.00 per person. Because some people may not realize that bison and people without a vehicle to protect them are not very compatible, another sign has been tacked on to the bottom of the larger sign:

Bison Area

NO Hiking
NO Biking

I placed my $3.00 in the envelope, deposited it into the mechanical contraption designed for holding the fee, and headed up the road (with vehicle). I did not see any bison in the area, and five minutes later I was 60 feet higher in elevation and at the highest point in Nebraska (although I would not have known it except for the road ended and there was a small out-of-place marble monument). I was not at the top of the mountain, not at the top of a hill, not even at the top of a prominence. Panorama Point is a low-lying, north-south ledge that is no more than 70 feet higher than a drainage course running along its western edge. It is the high point of a nondescript rise of land in the far southwestern reaches of Nebraska, but this also makes it the highest point of natural land in the state of Nebraska at 5,424 feet above sea level, as clearly etched in the marble monument.

This was discovered in October 1951 when Art Henrickson and Claude Allen explored this part of Nebraska to pinpoint the state's highest point of natural elevation using an altimeter. Twenty years later the Kimball Chamber of Commerce erected a marble monument at the spot, the one you see there today.

At Panorama Point there is a standing metal desk with a register if you desire to say I was here. There is also a view to take in. If you take a few steps west, you will have encompassing views of the High Plains, distant views of the Rocky Mountains, and a view of three states with one glance — Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. And if you look to the southwest, you will see where those three states converge to a common point, a tripoint.

USGS Topographic Map of Area

View of CO-NE-WY Tripoint from Panorama Point in Nebraska.

The windmill, water well, and watering hole
on the way to the tripoint.

The fence road that leads to the CO-NE-WY Tripoint.

The CO-NE-WY Tripoint. The left fence line is the border
between Colorado and Wyoming. The right fence line is the
border between Wyoming and Nebraska.

The tripoint marker. There is an historical plaque
to the left of the tripoint marker.

Close-up of tripoint marker. View to the south with
Nebraska in the lower left corner, Wyoming in the
lower right corner, and Colorado in the upper half.

Historical plaque near tripoint marker.

View to northeast from CO-NE-WY tripoint. Panorama Point,
the highpoint of  Nebraska, is visible at the center left
of the ridge in the background.

The Highpoint Bison road leading to Panorama Point.

The High Point Bison welcome sign.

A tall sign leading us to Panorama Point, Highest in Nebraska.

The highpoint of Nebraska at the end of the road.

A register for those wanting to share their adventure, and a
stone marker on top of Nebraska's highest point.

Panorama Point,
Elevation 5424,
The Highest Point in Nebraska,
Erected by Kimball Nebraska
Chamber of Commerce

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