What is the Geographic Center of the United States?

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People like to find the center of things- the center of a baseball, the center of the Earth, the center of the universe, the center of a Tootsie Pop.

Our fascination with the center of things has led to incredible scientific discoveries like orbits of planets and movements of stars; lesser known discoveries have led us to understand how many licks it takes to get to the center of a jawbreaker.

There is some debate as to the center of things that aren’t necessarily round or easily measured. People have argued for years about the geographic center of the contiguous United States, for example.

As the United States has expanded and admitted new states to the union, the geographic center has shifted.  Map: NOAA
As the United States has expanded and admitted new states to the union, the geographic center has shifted. Map: NOAA

Measurements on land masses are especially difficult to obtain because of the fluidity of shorelines, which can change and erode rapidly in some places.

In the case of the United States there are also two different ways people choose to measure the center- some include the states of Hawaii and Alaska, which were added to the country after the first geographic center measurement was taken; this first measurement only included the lower 48 states which dramatically shifted the geographic center’s location.

Original Calculation of the Geographic Center of the Continental United States

The original geographic center of the contiguous United States has long been considered to be about 2.6 miles northwest of the town of Lebanon, Kansas. The GPS coordinates are 39°50′N 98°35′W.

Soldiers posing in 1918 in front of the geographic center of the contiguous  United States near Lebanon, Kansas.  Photo: Mennonite Church USA Archives, no known copyright restrictions.
Soldiers posing in 1918 in front of the geographic center of the contiguous United States near Lebanon, Kansas. Photo: Mennonite Church USA Archives, no known copyright restrictions.

This measurement was taken in 1918 by the U.S. National Geodetic Survey and included the states of Arizona and New Mexico, which were added to the lower 48 states in 1912. This was seen as the most complete United States calculation at the time.

The U.S. National Geodetic Survey, or NGS, didn’t have complex digital methods of determining the geographic center of the United States at the time. Instead they used a cardboard cutout of the nation and balanced it on the head of a pin- where the cutout balanced perfectly was taken down as the geographic center of the nation.

Now, this obviously isn’t a very good method for determining a country’s geographic center! The NGS used the materials they had and ended up with a center measurement that was accurate to 20 miles. The coordinates for the geographic center were nearest to the town of Lebanon but were actually located slightly outside of town in a local hog farm. To protect the owner of the hog farm from tourists plaguing his land, a plaque denigrating the geographic center of the US was placed in its current location about half a mile away in 1940.

The geographic center of the United States was immortalized in Neil Gaiman’s fictional book, American Gods. The place today contains a small chapel, plaque and an American flag.

Geographic Center of the Entire United States

The geographic center of the United States taking Alaska and Hawaii into the equation is located near a town called Belle Fourche, South Dakota.

Although the NGS no longer maintains a stance on where the geographic center of the US is, this is widely considered the more accurate measurement. This geographic center is located about 20 miles north of Belle Fourche at latitude 44 58 02.07622 (N) and longitude 103 46 17.60283 (W).

Geodetic marker from the National Geodetic Survey marking the location of the geographic center of the United States (including Hawaii and Alaska). Image: NOAA
Geodetic marker from the National Geodetic Survey marking the location of the geographic center of the United States (including Hawaii and Alaska). Image: NOAA

This location is also marked with a plaque from the NGS and an American flag, although the exact measured center is located nearby and is only marked by an underground slab of concrete in a nearby pastureland.

The difference between the 1918 measurement and the more recent measurement is about 550 miles.

Map showing the locations of the U.S. geographic center of area, mean center of population, and median center of population, 2010 (U.S. Census Bureau).
Map showing the locations of the U.S. geographic center of area, mean center of population, and median center of population, 2010 (U.S. Census Bureau).

Despite the more accurate measurement of the more recent geographic center (that of Belle Fourche in South Dakota), the precise geographic center of the United States may simply be too hard to determine.

A consistent opinion on shorelines needs to be obtained by the NGS and other interested bodies in order to have a concentrated approach to measuring the center of the United States taking erosion and shoreline change into consideration or not.

The existence of an accurate geographic center of the US doesn’t matter to a lot of people, and yet for others finding the true center is the ultimate goal. While many of us might not see the appeal of going to Lebanon, Kansas or Belle Fourche, South Dakota to take a picture next to a plaque, the historical and geographical significance of these two places can serve as reminders of how the nation has physically changed during its existence.

Reference

Barmore, F. E. (1994). Center Here; Center There; Center, Center Everywhere!. https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/60202/Reprint94BarmoreA.pdf

Geographic Center of the United States (n.d.) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. https://www.ngs.noaa.gov/PUBS_LIB/GeoCenter_USA1.pdf

Richeson, D. (2005). Centers of the United States. The College Mathematics Journal36(5), 366-373. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/07468342.2005.11922151

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