The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Points on the Line


As part of its contribution to an upcoming exhibit, called Baja to Vancouver, which will be travelling to a number of art museums (from Baja to Vancouver) starting later this year, the CLUI has been examining the landscape along the West Coast of the United States. Field researchers from the Center have been filling in the gaps in the Center’s photographic and text archives, completing a study of the land use of West Coast of the United States - the coastal line itself.

DEPENDING ON WHO YOU ASK, the West Coast is 1,200 miles long, as a minimum, or 8,000 miles long, if you include the bays and estuaries up to the head of tide. Even though we know it must have some finite length, there is, in truth no way to accurately measure the length of the coast. How minutely do you measure the facets of each peninsula, each rock, or each grain of sand? Some, for example, say Washington State has 157 miles of coast. If you add up all the islands and the estuaries, this number is over 3,500 miles. A recent googling of the phrase “how long is the coastline of Washington State” returned a single web page, one that describes the Mandelbrot set, the Van Koch Coastline model, and other mathematical structures related to fractals and chaos theory. Some of which, interestingly, suggest that the length of the coastline of Washington State may, theoretically, be zero. And, in a sense this is so. The coast is always operating at a loss. No matter what, the coastal structures will, someday, slump into the sea. It is a negative infinity.

534Looking west at the last structures along the USA/Canada border, Point Roberts, Washington. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell
Longitude, North to South
One system of abstract measurement that can be applied to the coast with a great degree of certainty is longitude. These unwavering lines radiating out from the poles, round the girth of the planet in invisible stripes, whose location relative to the ground can be measured down to the foot. Within this system, there are certain parts of the coast that really stick out. Cape Flattery, in Washington State, is the westernmost point of land on the Lower 48. The Makah Indians own this land, a tribe in the headlines a few years ago for beginning traditional whale hunting again. The peninsula is accessible by a dirt road, and then a path, which leads to a rustic natural overlook platform, an interpretive site built for visitors, which describes the history of the tribe, but makes no reference to the location’s geographically superlative quality.

The coast of Oregon, though rocky and jagged, is relatively straight overall, compared to California and Washington. Few deep natural harbors exist, and thus no major cities have developed on the coast. Features that attest to the abruptness of the Oregon coast include the “world’s smallest harbor,” Depoe Bay, and the “world’s shortest river,” the D River at Lincoln City, only 150 feet long. The Oregon coast does have a longitudinally significant site, however, Cape Blanco, near the southern corner of the state, which is the second most westerly point on the West Coast of the United States. At the tip of Cape Blanco, as is common at rocky points up and down the coast, is a lighthouse, built to warn ships away from the shore. Being such a westerly landmark, the lighthouse was also used by a Japanese submarine captain to locate his sub along this unfamiliar coast on one evening in the fall of 1942, in the midst of World War Two. The submarine surfaced and unloaded a pontoon airplane from its deck. The pilot of the small bomber turned south at the Cape Blanco lighthouse, and flew another 50 miles to a strategic point above the forest, near Brookings, Oregon, and dropped an incendiary bomb, intended to set the Pacific Northwest, and its vast supply of wood, on fire. Though a small fire was started by the bomb, the moisture of the forest kept it from spreading quickly, and it was easily extinguished by firecrews.

There are around 50 lighthouses on the West Coast of the United States, marking westerly points, all of which have been automated (no longer requiring a tender - the “house” part of “lighthouse”), and all of which are maintained by eager lighthouse enthusiasts and historians, who regard these beacons with a level of affection unsurpassed by other forms infrastructural architecture. Within California’s Lost Coast, the largest stretch of coastline without a paved coastal road, the lighthouse at Cape Mendocino marked the westernmost point of land in California for over 100 years. It was automated in 1951, and the keepers dwellings were burned down in 1960 to keep squatters out. The lighthouse was completely abandoned in the 1970’s. In 1998, the lighthouse was moved from this remote, inhospitable spot by lighthouse enthusiasts to a more convenient location 35 miles down the coast, in a park at the town of Shelter Cove.

536Cape Blanco lighthouse, being restored. CLUI photo
Latitude, North to South
If the West Coast is united by its geographic structure, the chaotic crumbling coastline, running north and south, it is divided and segmented by the political and geographic stratifications following perpendicular lines, like those of latitude. At the northern end, the longest, straightest international boundary in the world dives into the ocean at Blaine, Washington, after passing through symbolic gates within the curious monument called the Peace Arch (a large white monument built by Sam Hill, in the “no mans land” on the lawn between the northbound and southbound traffic lanes). After crossing the shoreline railroad tracks (where the border line is marked casually in pink spray paint), and invisibly spanning the tidal mud flats, the international boundary makes landfall again at a curious geographic remnant called Point Roberts, a six square-mile community at the tip of a British Columbian peninsula that falls beneath the 49th parallel, thus creating a fragment of Washington State that can be reached by land only by travelling through Canada.

537A few hundred feet west of the Peace Arch, pink spray-paint marks where the "continental" USA/Canada border runs out of dry land. Unmanned, flagged towers and Point Roberts are visible in the distance. Blaine, Washington. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell
The next major political boundary to the south is the state line between Washington and Oregon, a series of segmented survey vectors which weaves through the Columbia River, angling around islands and nearly touching the riverbank. At the mouth of the Columbia, the second largest river in the country, the state line passes by Cape Disappointment and the Louis and Clark Interpretive Center, at the end of the explorers journey west. Then the line dissolves into the ocean, having become meaningless.

The state line between Oregon and California is in the middle of the mythical state of Jefferson, a mildly serious successionist area composed of several Northern California and Southern Oregon counties, that has been independence-minded since the 1940’s. The boundaries of the State of Jefferson, however, have not been agreed on, and are therefore impossible to locate. The Oregon/California state line was established at 42 degrees of latitude, but corrections for surveying inaccuracies make the nearly straight, 350 mile east-west line wobble a bit, changing course within a limit of just a half a minute of latitude. At the coast, the line hits the pavement of the coastal highway, visible with the usual overlapping change in the pavement from one highway department’s asphalt to the other, then it passes invisibly through some trees, across a beach, and into the ocean.

538The gate to Point Conception, kept locked by the owners of Bixby Ranch. CLUI photo
There are other latitudinal striations along the coast of course (county lines, military perimeters, national forests, towns), but the next one of note, continuing north to south, could be the poetically named physical protruberence called Point Conception, where the coast makes a nearly right angle turn, heading east, transitioning from Northern California, to the urban Southland. This remote peninsula, just south of Vandenberg Air Force Base, is inaccessible to the public (except by the Amtrak train), on a massive, privately owned ranch. Its lonely lighthouse and the ruins of some oil infrastructure are exposed on a treeless plain. Below the cliffs is what some claim to be the best surfing spot on the coast, but there is nowhere to park for miles.

At the bottom of the west coast of the country is the border with Mexico, a few miles after the last coastal apartment blocks of the suburbs of San Diego, and the last military helicopter practice field, and the chaotic, polluted estuary of the river that flows out of Tijuana into a sewage treatment plant on the American side. A small bluff above the beach has a park, on the US side, a stone obelisk monument brought around Cape Horn in the 1800s to mark the border authoritatively, and the steel fence, composed of military surplus Vietnam War era runway landing mats, which plunge into the sea, a “running fence,” if there ever was one.