Why doesn't that part of Washington belong to Canada?

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By Jennifer Wing

There’s a tiny part of Washington state that is so remote you have to cross an international border twice to get there.

Isolated, surrounded by water and Canadians … why did Point Roberts become a part of Washington and not Canada?

I start the morning in Bellingham, its 6:30 a.m. I hit the Canadian border around 7 a.m. I turn on the radio and sure enough French is being spoken. I drive inland 23 miles, or should I say 37 kilometers …

After traveling west then south, I come to another U.S. border. If you cross it, the only place on the other side is Point Roberts, Wash.

So far it’s pretty quiet. I just saw someone riding a horse down the road, now here is someone riding a bike.

 

Fork in the road

The 1,300 year-round residents, known as Pointers, make this trip all of the time to take care of life’s basic needs. The five-square mile community has lots of natural beauty, but it doesn’t have a doctor, a pharmacy or a dentist.

Sandra Almond arrived 12 years ago. She and her husband have two children.

"It’s like living in a gated community. Beautiful school with 14 kids. We love it. We love it!"

Almond’s oldest is in the 3rd grade. That’s as far as the school goes. This means the family has hit a fork in the road.

Do they send their daughter on a bus every day to make four border crossings to go to school in Blaine, Wash.? Or, do they move to someplace not so cut off from the rest the state?

It’s a common problem.

 

Sylvia Schonberg pictured with one of the Icelandic horses she raises on her 10 acre property in Point Roberts. Photo by Jennifer WingNo American tomatoes

Sending your kids to school isn’t the only obstacle to living here. There’s also just grocery shopping. Bringing food across the border can be complicated. Sylvia Shoenberg, 80, tries her best to stay on top of what is and isn’t allowed.

"You can’t bring tomatoes, avocados. Sometimes you can’t bring back beef or lamb even if it's in dog food," she said.

 

Why U.S.?

Short answer: Geography is messy.

When the line was drawn between the two countries along the 49th parallel, a small piece from a peninsula got cut off and fell into American territory.

The British wanted to keep it; the Americans resisted. How it was resolved is murky. That was in the mid 1800’s.

Pioneers, such as Sylvia Shoenberg’s grandparents, didn’t arrive until 1894. They came all the way from Iceland, stopping along the way to check out places in Canada. Then they fell in love with this isolated piece of Washington State.

"They started an Icelandic community with their own library and their own church. It was like paradise for them to live off the land, have sheep, chickens and cows and be self-sufficient and independent."

 

Ram hide to Roosevelt

During the first 10 years while the Icelanders were hard at work, President Teddy Roosevelt was thinking about making the Point a military base. He sent an official to see what progress the pioneers were making before he made a final decision.

Roosevelt was so impressed by the report he told the Icelanders they could keep their land.

Joan Lindee is Shoenberg’s cousin and lives across the road.

“My grandfather killed his prized ram and his neighbor Mr. Eisner was a tanner. They sent the hide to Roosevelt and got a ‘Thank you’ note from the president telling them the skin was placed on his bedroom floor.”

 

Canadian invasion

Lindee gives me a driving tour of the community.

As proud as people are here to be U.S. citizens they are very dependent on Canadians.

Most of the boats in the marina are owned by Canadians. There are Canadians buying gas at one of the five gas stations in town, but Lindee shakes her head in disapproval as we pass large vacation homes, mostly owned by Canadians.

The homes are empty nine months out of the year.

But the fact is, Point Roberts and Canada have an unusual relationship. Homes in Point Roberts get their drinking water pumped in from Canada. And in emergencies, Canada has helped Pointers out with fires and floods.

My drive back to the mainland takes an hour and a half.

When I get to the border crossing in Blaine, I mention to the agent how beautiful Point Roberts is but how challenging it can be to live there.

He looked me in the eye and in all seriousness said, “Why wouldn’t you want to live there? It’s part of the United States of America, and America is a great country.”