Point Roberts, Washington
Point Roberts, Washington is an anomaly. It is less than 5 square miles, attached to the Canadian mainland, yet part of the State of Washington. The residents live in a unique situation in two different worlds – driving into the big city of Vancouver for a night on the town or to attend a show, and the next morning having to board a ferry to get to the mainland US to use a hospital or go to school. How did this small area of mainland Canada end up as part of the United States?
When the United Kingdom and the USA were hashing out the border between Canada and the United States in 1846, diplomacy had to strike a bargain. Canada wanted to retain Vancouver Island, which now is the site of the beautiful city of Victoria, BC, but the island is located well below the agreed upon 49th parallel. Negotiating borders has always been difficult with neither side wanting to give up territory, especially areas as beautiful and strategic as this. The area known as the Oregon Territory had long been a subject of negotiations and both sides wanted it all. They also both wanted to avoid yet another war between the two countries.
President Polk had been campaigning for president on a promise that the border would be at the 54th parallel. He was not able to make good on that promise. Instead the US did manage to gain control of the prized territory of what is now Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. In return, The British retained Vancouver Island. The border runs directly along the 49th parallel from the Rocky Mountains westward until it reaches the Straight of Georgia. At that point, things go a bit wonky, with most of the San Juan Islands in the Salish Sea going to the Americans, while the huge island of Vancouver went to the Canadians. It was a big loss for the United States, if you consider that Vancouver Island at 12,407 square miles is larger than the state of Massachusetts, and more than 3 times the size of Delaware. By comparison, Nantucket is only 105 square miles. The only hitch in the plan was Point Roberts. Where to exactly put the border was a point of contention for years until finalized by arbiter in 1872 with the Treaty of Washington. It finally set the boundary in the deepest point of the channel, gave the San Juan islands to the United States, and left Point Roberts on its own.
Life in the Borderland
The area of Point Roberts is now home to about 1,300 people who have a complicated relationship with their neighbors to the North. There are some benefits, as residents are freer to take advantage of lower prices of some goods in Canada, and Canadians enjoy filling their gas tanks in Point Roberts for the lower prices there. The infrastructure issues can be a bit trickier than just hopping across the border for a cheap dinner. Point Roberts gets its water from the city of Vancouver. It also receives aid from the Vancouver Fire Department when needed. It does have its own police station and a library. Point Roberts only has K-3rd grade school, so students must board a ferry to take the long ride to Blaine or Bellingham every day for their classes. There is limited medical care available in the small community, so residents must also hop a ferry or take a seaplane to head to the hospital on the US mainland if needed, unless they want to pay non-insured rates at a local Canadian hospital. Following 9/11, border crossing security increased dramatically, causing significant delays in crossing borders to get back into the US mainland. It became even more difficult once the Pandemic of 2020 hit. The border between Canada and the US closed to nonessential travel, again requiring residents to ferry or fly to get to the mainland.
Why live there if it’s so awkward?
In a way, residents can get the best of both worlds. When border crossings are back to normal, they have the benefits of the big city of Vancouver while living in the peace and quiet of a small community on the edge of a gorgeous sea. The wildlife and natural beauty of the area is a big draw. Who wouldn’t love to look out their kitchen window and perhaps see a whale, an orca, sea lions, or bald eagles? The relaxed pace of the area with its driftwood-strewn beaches just waiting for a sandy campfire at sunset, and the quiet, slower pace appeals to many people. The area’s natural beauty and calm seclusion draws visitors from the hustle and bustle of the big city.
While there has been talk on and off of seceding from the US over the decades, for now residents seem fairly content living in their own world – and what a beautiful place to have your world.
You can explore the Salish Sea and the San Juan Islands on a small ship cruise such as: