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In 1846, the United States and Canada signed a treaty to finalize their border. It set the 49th north line of latitude as the border from the Lake of the Woods in Minnesota/Manitoba to Puget Sound in Washington/British Columbia. As part of the deal, the British were able to keep Vancouver Island south of the 49th parallel. For the most part, the border worked as advertised, except for one thing. Just below Vancouver, there was a bit of land on the tip of a peninsula which dipped below the 49th parallel. As per the terms of the treaty, that hunk of land was United States territory and today is Point Roberts, Washington.
What makes Point Roberts is that it is totally cut off from the rest of the United States by land. To get there, you have to drive 30 miles through Canada. The total size Point Roberts is only about 4 square miles and it has a population of about 1,500 people. It seems to have created a niche for itself as a place for Canadians to get cheap gas and to set up post office boxes to get mail which can’t be shipped to Canada. Despite its small size, Point Roberts has five gas stations and four places where you can get a post office box outside of the actual post office.
Given its proximity with Canada, there are several things you’ll find there you will not find anywhere else in the US.
- All of the gas stations quote prices in liters, not gallons (the lady working the counter where I purchased gas said that 60% of their business was from Canada).
- My iPhone was unable to pick up an ATT signal, so if I wanted to make a call I had to pay international roaming charges, even though I was in the United States.
- The cash registers I saw were able to handle both US and Canadian currency on the fly. I’m told Canadian currency is used more often than American currency in Point Roberts.
- The physical border has no fence. The backyards of houses in Canada literally emptied into the US. I saw swing sets, gardens, and hammocks a few feet from the borderline with nothing between it and America.
- There is a special card locals can get for getting through the border with no hassle. Residents of Point Roberts have to go to Canada for almost everything, and everything has to come through Canada.
There is one other hunk of American soil you have to drive through Canada to get to, and that is at the other end of the 49th parallel border: The Northwest Angle in Minnesota. I went there several years ago and the border is even less controlled than Point Roberts. You see a sign indicating you are entering the US and a video phone booth you are supposed to use to contact immigration. The phone didn’t work when I was there.
Point Roberts is truly America’s appendix; a tiny dangling, vestigial leftover of a time long forgotten.