THE FOUR CORNERS monument is an unusual cartographic landmark, and it keeps getting bigger and better. The latest version opened to the public in 2010, significantly expanded to accommodate the activity that people engage in there, a particular form of ground truthing, geographic performance, and souvenir photography. The early monuments were simple pads with lines. Now it is an arena, where spectators can sit and watch while people perform their cadastral contortions at the convergence point.
Most linear attractions in the nation are binary, like a state line marked on the pavement, creating two different places to be in at once–here, and there–something well suited to a bipedal creature, like humans. Things get a little more complicated at tri-points, where three states come together on land. While this occurs 35 times in the USA, and most of the sites are clearly marked with a monument, they are visited infrequently, as few of them are served by a road.
At Four Corners, of course, four states converge at one point, the only place where this occurs in the nation. And though it is far from most places where people live, for many it requires a pilgrimage, to obtain geo-photographic evidence that you can be in many places at once. From a single point, your body extends cartographically to the limits of four large southwestern states, an area of 424,579 square miles. It is a sensation of being both on and in a map, where you have awareness of your body in relation to the vastness of America. And you are fixed in an exact place, locked down by both axis of the grid. Here you know exactly where you are.
It is unknown if the 19th century surveyors leaving their various marks felt such elations. Ehud Darling was the first federal surveyor to come through, in 1868, when he surveyed the 37th parallel of latitude to establish the boundary between the territories of Colorado and New Mexico. He started at the northeast corner of New Mexico and headed west along the line, leaving marked stones as he went, and stopped at a site that was 8,192 feet west of the current site. Close enough.
Next came Chandler Robbins, in 1875, who surveyed the north/south line dividing New Mexico from Arizona, as established by law in 1863 as being 32 degrees west from the Washington Meridian (which ran through the dome of the Naval Observatory in Washington D.C.) He triangulated from an already surveyed point at Shiprock to determine the longitudinal (north/south) line, and where that line met Darling’s east/west line is where Robbins began his survey southward. He set a marked stone there, which was the first Four Corners monument. Three years later the surveyor Rollin J. Reeves started at the monument and marked a line north between Utah and Colorado.
In 1903, Harold Carpenter was commissioned to resurvey this portion of the 37th parallel, which was by then a boundary line that spanned nearly half the continent, the accepted boundary between Utah and Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, and Kansas and Oklahoma (and was historically significant too as it also marked the division of western slave states and free states up to the Civil War).
Carpenter found that Darling’s 1863 attempt to mark the parallel for the 331 miles dividing Colorado and New Mexico, as recorded in his field notes and marked with more than 200 milestones and eleven astronomical monuments, wandered, and was often off by more than 1/3 of a mile. Carpenter, as instructed, destroyed all of Darling’s markers as he went, and established his own. After submitting his report and field notes to the Federal Land Office, his new line was accepted as the correct division between the states. As a result, a narrow strip of land totaling dozens of square miles, most of one town, two villages, and five post offices, were awarded to New Mexico, and taken from Colorado.
Congress approved a resolution changing the state line in 1908, but the President vetoed it. A lawsuit between the states over the matter was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925, confirming that the original Darling survey from 1868, though in error, was to continue to be used as the official boundary. It was concluded that the 1903 line, though more precise, would also have inaccuracies, and that no survey could be completely accurate.
In 1931, a more significant bronze disc was embedded in the ground with concrete, by Everett Kimmel of the General Land Office, replacing a smaller monument that had been placed there in 1912, when New Mexico became a state, which itself had replaced the Page-Lentz Stone, a surveyors monument placed there in 1899 (named after two U.S. surveyors who were visiting the area at that time and found that the original marker had been broken and moved.)
In 1962 the site was upgraded by the BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs with a bigger concrete pad, and embedded radial lines emanating from Kimmel’s bronze disc at the center, quartering the pad into four triangular zones of equal size, with a large bronze seal from each state, and the name of each state embedded in the pad with large letters. The words FOUR STATES HERE MEET IN FREEDOM UNDER GOD were also engraved in the concrete in a circle, though often scratched out over the following years. For the next couple of decades, the pad was surrounded by highway guardrails to keep people from driving their cars in four states at once.
In 1992, the site was significantly upgraded again, with a new bronze disc, and by raising the concrete pad, which was rebuilt, with the same features of the 1962 pad, surrounding it with bollards (replacing the guardrail), more flagpoles, and a viewing platform.
In 2010, after periodic closures for construction that frustrated visitors who had come from miles away, the latest version opened to the public, the largest transformation yet. The original brass disc from 1992 remains the epicenter of a reconstruction of the 1992 pad, but with a larger concrete square, 200 feet on each side, surrounding it, and sloping inwards. Rows of benches face the epicenter, and now four ADA-compliant raised viewing platforms, one in each state, provide an elevated view of the monument, and serve as a photographic platform for taking pictures of friends, family, and pets engaged in the contortions and ecstasy of quadro-statism.
Permanent shade structures for vending stalls line the perimeter of the monument area, forming an outer square, looking inwards. From these perches sit local Native Americans watching the performances of the hundreds of visitors the site sees daily, like judges who never hold up a score-card or offer a verdict.