2017-01-25 14:07:08
Trilobites: North America’s Geographical Center May Be in a North Dakota Town Called Center

14:07, January 25 399 0

In 1931, the town of Rugby, N.D., erected a 15-foot stone monument declaring itself the “Geographical Center of North America.” For 85 years, the town has enjoyed a steady stream of tourists to the monument and local gift shops.

But recently, Rugby received an unwelcome challenge, from a bar about 100 miles south. “By our calculations, the center of North America is in Robinson, a couple feet outside Hanson’s Bar,” said Bill Bender, the owner of Hanson’s and mayor of Robinson, N.D., which has a population of 40. “We have as much claim to it as anybody does.”

Now the science of geography may prove them both wrong. When Peter Rogerson, a geography professor at the University at Buffalo, heard about the kerfuffle, he decided to weigh in. In 2015, he had published a new method for calculating geographic centers. Using this method, he found that the continental center was in a town called (wait for it) Center, N.D. By car, Center is 145 miles southwest of Rugby and 90 miles west of Robinson.

The novelty of Dr. Rogerson’s method is the map projection he used. Map projections transform Earth’s three-dimensional surface into two dimensions. The process always introduces some distortion, in shape, area, distance or direction. Perhaps the most well-known projection is the Mercator, which greatly distorts size, showing Greenland at roughly the same size as Africa, when Africa is 14 times as big. Another projection, the Mollweide, preserves size, but distorts shape, direction and distance.

To calculate geographic centers, Dr. Rogerson uses the azimuthal equidistant projection, which accurately shows distances and angles from its center, at the expense of shape and size toward its edges. (Think of the flag of the United Nations, centered on the North Pole.) With accurate distances, Dr. Rogerson can calculate the point at which the sum of squared distances to all other points in the region would be smallest — the mathematical definition of a geographic center.

“When I ran my computer program and looked at the final latitude and longitude, I was astounded to see that it was in a place called Center,” he said of calculating the midpoint of North America.

It’s not hard to argue that Dr. Rogerson’s claim is more precise than Rugby’s and Mr. Bender’s.

Rugby snatched the title of geographic center after the United States Geological Survey reported in 1931 that the heart of North America was six miles west of a town called Balta, N.D., which is 16 miles southwest of Rugby. Back then, geographers balanced a cardboard cutout of a region on a needlelike point to find its center — not the most sophisticated approach.

Mr. Bender said that one night he and some buddies in Robinson realized over beer and bourbon that the Geological Survey’s center wasn’t in Rugby. So they eyeballed North America’s center using a ruler on several different maps. “It was trial and error,” he said. “I can’t give you an exact formula.”

Last summer, Mr. Bender registered Hanson’s Bar as the owner of the phrase “Geographical Center of North America” with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Rugby’s registration had expired in 2009, when the town failed to file a renewal. A decal that reads “Geographic Center of North America” now sits on the floor of the bar, and Mr. Bender plans to build a monument outside.

When word got out that Mr. Bender had nabbed the federal trademark, some residents in Rugby were concerned. “It’s been our main tourism draw for so long,” said Cathy Jelsing, director of the local Prairie Village Museum, who added that the town had just spent $5,000 sprucing up its stone monument.

Officials from Rugby declined to comment, but Mr. Bender said he received a letter from the town’s lawyer, asking him to rethink his actions. Mr. Bender said he would prefer to settle things in a more civilized fashion — like a “charity boxing match” between mayors.

It’s possible that Rugby has a case, said Josh Gerben, a trademark lawyer and founder of Gerben Law Firm, based in Washington. “If you use a trademark for long enough that people get to know you as the place where the trademark originates from, you have what’s called common law rights,” said Mr. Gerben, who has no stake in the conflict.

People in Center are excited about Dr. Rogerson’s finding, said Rick Schmidt, a county extension agent and longtime Center resident.

“We are basically a mining and agriculture community, and we just don’t have a lot of tourism opportunities right now,” he said. “For us to tap into something like this, I think it’d be very significant.”

Mr. Schmidt added that the town, which has 570 residents and gets its name from being the center of Oliver County, hoped to embrace its status as continental center without stepping on Rugby’s toes. If it came down to a fight, though, he says he thinks Center would pursue legal action, “if we feel we have a good case.”

Theoretically, science could be used in court to challenge Rugby’s and Robinson’s claims. Expert testimony from Dr. Rogerson and other scientists could be used to challenge a trademark claim on the grounds that it is deceptive, Mr. Gerben said.

That may be easier said than done, though — the final decision would be up to a judge or a jury, and Dr. Rogerson’s findings have no official backing. Past Geological Survey reports have stated that “there is no generally accepted definition of geographic center, and no completely satisfactory method for determining it.”

If the government were to change its mind, however, Dr. Rogerson’s method would be the way to go, said Francis Boscoe, a professor at the University at Albany who once calculated the center of Pennsylvania (which, incidentally, is in a county called Centre).

“If I were going to build a monument, I’d pick his spot,” Dr. Boscoe said. “As far as what you can do while sitting at your desk, his method is about as good as you can do.”