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Solving the Michigan-Indiana border confusion

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Look at a map of the United States, and there's a clear line between Michigan and Indiana. But in reality, the actual border between the two states has been unsettled for decades. From member station WVPE, Jakob Lazzaro explains why, and what's being done to fix it.

JAKOB LAZZARO, BYLINE: Michigan borders three states - Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio. And that Ohio border has been the most controversial by far. In 1835, the two sides nearly went to war for control over the Toledo Strip. And one century later, Michigan and Wisconsin went to the Supreme Court to settle a border dispute in the Upper Peninsula. But the Michigan-Indiana border is different.

JACK OWENS: I call it the quiet border because nothing ever comes up.

LAZZARO: That's Jack Owens, semi-retired surveyor who has been advocating for a modern retracing of the border for 20 years now. He says because of those past controversies, Michigan's Ohio and Wisconsin borders were resurveyed in the early 20th century and staked with durable markers of concrete or stone. In contrast, the Indiana border has not. It was last surveyed in 1827. The team placed wooden posts every mile to mark the border, recording the locations using two reference trees and any notable topographic features like lakes or streams. But those posts have long since rotted away, leaving the state border unclear.

OWENS: Everybody's got an idea where it is. It's just, you know, if you had to know exactly, you know, we can't tell you.

LAZZARO: Jack Owens took up the issue 20 years ago, when he gathered a group of surveyors. One of them, John Comer, says one of the reasons a modern border survey is needed is because surveyors in 1827 were limited by equipment and the terrain. To illustrate that, he pulls out a record of an 1885 survey done to determine property lines on some land near Lake Michigan. While not along the state border, county surveyor Elbert Drew still went through quite a lot, battling 25-foot deep sand drifts and rough terrain thickly filled with trees.

JOHN COMER: And therefore, I depended entirely upon the needle for my course, which would have been his staff compass. What he should have been doing is perpetuating, kind of leapfrogging that line along, but he couldn't see back from one to the other to push it forward.

LAZZARO: In the notes, Drew also offered some advice for future surveyors.

COMER: And then he says, if it ever becomes necessary to resurvey this section, let me advise the man who undertakes it to get his life insured.

LAZZARO: John Comer says since most of the original markers are gone, a new survey can only be done through the Supreme Court or the respective state legislatures. So they began lobbying, and their efforts paid off. Indiana approved legislation to create a state boundary commission in 2009. And Michigan followed suit in 2011. But Comer says funding for the surveys never got off the ground, and the commissions eventually dissolved. Now there's a renewed push. Last month, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer reestablished her state's border commission. Indiana did the same thing three years ago. Using a mix of technology like GPS, along with the 1827 notes, the survey will look for the locations of the original markers and set permanent mileposts to give an exact picture of where the border is. But when it's all said and done, any potential differences will not be massive. In places where the border is off, it's likely only by a few feet or a few inches, most likely not entire houses and definitely not whole towns. So why even bother doing this?

COMER: When it's your line, and especially if there's a problem, then it's very important. I mean, when I was doing a lot of private practice, people would come in and fight over inches.

LAZZARO: And even if it's just a few inches, Comer says people should care about a properly surveyed state border as a matter of state sovereignty. For NPR News, I'm Jakob Lazzaro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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