A whimsical inquiry

March 2006 » Columns » PERSPECTIVE
Did the United States inadvertently give away some land to Canada when a bridge across the international border was replaced in the early 1960s? Or, did Canada mistakenly give some of its land to the United States?
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S.

Did the United States inadvertently give away some land to Canada when a bridge across the international border was replaced in the early 1960s? Or, did Canada mistakenly give some of its land to the United States? This is a minor matter in the greater scheme of things, but perhaps some readers would be interested in a historical saga.

The details were brought to my attention by Neal Bettigole, a bridge engineer who worked for Hardesty & Hanover from 1956 to 1966. This happened during that long-gone period when we didn’t have GPS and other modern, accurate surveying instruments to establish boundaries and geographical features easily with an acceptable degree of accuracy.

Bettigole and I meet for brunch occasionally and sometimes discuss how the civil engineering profession has changed over the years. At one of these outings he asked, "Did you know that perhaps I, or someone else working for a U.S. bridge design company, may have been responsible for giving away some of our beloved American land and water area to Canada, or taking some of Canada’s for our own use?" In about 1960, the governments of Canada and the United States were faced with the problem of replacing an old and failing bridge connecting the two countries. Bettigole said that while working on the design for the replacement of the Lewiston- Queenston Bridge, which crosses the St. Lawrence River about one mile downstream from Niagara Falls, he had reason to believe that the point on the bridge where the international boundary marker was placed was not the true and exact international boundary.

(I realize that this reach of the St. Lawrence River is called the Niagara River, but in my opinion that is a misnomer. The watercourse draining all five of the Great Lakes, as well as the Oswego River and innumerable other major streams flowing south out of Canada and north out of the United States, should properly be called the St. Lawrence, notwithstanding the fact that some of its reaches may have other names, such as the Detroit River, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and those two other wide places in the St. Lawrence River—Lakes Huron and Superior! If you don’t believe this harangue, look at a map.)

Other than imperial pride in land ownership or control, there are a number of reasons for being concerned about the exact location of the international boundary on the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge. For one thing, the question of which country takes care of snow removal could be a concern, unless there is already an agreement between the two countries. The Niagara Falls Bridge Commission is in control of the question, and perhaps money is provided by each country to cover the cost of this vital service, as well as the maintenance of the paved surface.

An even more important governmental function also is necessary—police protection. In the event that a serious crime were committed near the center of the span, it would be important to ascertain which jurisdiction should adjudicate legal action. Would U.S. or Canadian laws apply? Would Royal Canadian Mounted Police argue with New York State Troopers about who makes the collar? An accurate, well-marked boundary is essential to proper governance.

The main reason I believe that there may be a question as to the exact location on the bridge of the international boundary marker is contained in a letter provided by Bettigole, dated April 16, 1962, on the letterhead of the International Boundary Commission—United States and Canada. The letter, written by Nelson W. Smith, engineer to the Commission, said, in part: "To meet the desire of the local residents, I am willing to go to Lewiston...and...with assistance...remove the markers from the old bridge, place temporary wooden markers on that bridge and arrange their approximate position on the new bridge so [we] can attach the markers in a temporary way to the new bridge for the opening ceremonies.

"...Then this fall I can make the survey and move the markers to their permanent position."

I also have a copy of a memo to Bettigole from M. Harry Weeks, Jr., resident engineer for the bridge construction project, who was employed by Hardesty & Hanover. It reads, in part, "The markers as set by us are approved until such time—probably in June 1963—as they can be checked and adjusted. As a rough check on accuracy, I was informed...that the true position was about two-fifths [of the way] across the river from the United States shore." Consequently, Bettigole said that he had some doubts about whether the current marker is in the correct location.

(If any of this account is in error, I take full responsibility for its inclusion in this column. Bettigole is innocent of any culpability in this matter.) If a mistake was made in Canada’s favor, please give the acreage, which would be near the middle of the Niagara River, back to us.

If the error was made in favor of the United States, can we keep the land? Actually, it’s water, since I presume that the international border exists near the centerline of that stream. Maybe some readers more knowledgeable than me in this matter can enlighten us on this slightly whimsical conundrum.

Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S., is a consulting engineer in Hackensack, N.J. He can be reached at 1-201-441-9719; or e-mail him at pagan@cenews.com.


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