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How Do You Figure out Where the Very Center of the United States Is?

Three different places have laid claim to the title since 1901.

(Jerold F. Penry/NOAA)
smithsonian.com

Finding the center of the United States is an odd and old pursuit — one that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization has taken a stab at several times over the years.

There’s no real reason for figuring out the middle of the country, aside from giving cartographers a point of reference and perhaps creating a tourist trap. It’s also an incredibly difficult mathematical problem to solve, writes Dan Nosowitz for Atlas Obscura, because the United States is an irregular shape wrapped around an enormous sphere. But even so, mathematicians and mapmakers spent years trying to answer the question.

The government’s search for the center of America is best chronicled in a 1959 report by Oscar S. Adams, a mathematician with the NOAA’s United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. Adams writes that the first center was chosen rather haphazardly: the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey simply picked a spot that looked good, a place in Kansas called “Meades Ranch.” A bronze marker was placed on the spot, and surveyors used that marker from 1927 all the way up until 1983, though over those years the “official” center moved twice.

You see, there was one big problem with trying to find the center of America in the early 20th century: the country kept growing. New Mexico and Arizona officially became states in 1912, changing America’s borders. So, Adams and his team came up with a new idea. They took a map of the United States and cut out the borders on a sheet of cardboard and used what Adams called the “center-of-gravity method,” writes Nosowitz:

“Basically: imagine the entire country is laid out on a piece of cardboard, cut precisely around its borders so you have a perfect, evenly thick map of the United States. Now balance that cardboard map on one point. Wherever it balances, that’s the center.”

According to the center-of-gravity method, America’s center was still in Kansas. Only now it was about 40 miles north of Meades Ranch on an old hog farm in the town of Lebanon. But the real trouble came a few years later, when Hawaii and Alaska joined the Union. Now Adams had a real dilemma: if he counted the distance between the new states and the continental U.S., that would place the country’s center smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. So he stuck the new states next to Washington, Nosowitz writes. Lo and behold, Kansas finally lost the center of the States. Ever since 1959, the title of America’s center has belonged to a humble cattle pasture in Belle Fourche, South Dakota.

If you think Adams’ search was a silly one, you’re not alone. He did too. In his 1959 paper on the search for the center of America, Adams wrote that the very idea of the country having a center "is a conception that depends almost entirely for its existence upon the curiosity of mankind." In looking for that middle point, Adams saw how arbitrary and illusory the idea was, having moved the point himself not once but twice. In the paper, Adams writes:

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.

The concept of the center of America can mean many different things to many different people. But if you want to see the U.S. government's official spot, there's always a plaque in Belle Fourche.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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