By Greg Bluestein
Sunday, February 10, 2008
COLE CITY HOLLOW, Tenn. -- Nearly two centuries after a flawed survey placed Georgia's northern border just short of the Tennessee River, some legislators are thirsting to set the record straight.
A historic drought has added urgency to Georgia's generations-old claim that its territory should extend about a mile farther north and reach into the Tennessee -- a river with about 15 times the flow of the one Atlanta depends on for water.
"It's never too late to right a wrong," said Georgia state Sen. David Shafer (R), whose bill would create a boundary-line commission that aims to resolve the dispute.
The reaction of Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D): "This is a joke, right?"
Two potential side effects of making the 35th parallel Tennessee's southern border: Not only would Georgia get a chunk of Chattanooga, but Mississippi would get a slice of Memphis.
In Cole City Hollow, an obscure border community where some northwest Georgia residents rely on Tennessee roads, the river is so close to crossing the state line that it almost juts into the yard of a Georgia house.
If Tennessee's southern boundary were the 35th parallel -- as Congress designated in 1796 -- Georgia would have a share of the Tennessee River. But a surveying team sent by Georgia to chart the line in 1818 was a bit off the mark.
Historians say mathematician James Camak, who led the team, begged the state to provide him the latest equipment, but instead he had to rely on an English sextant -- an instrument more familiar to sea captains than to land surveyors. Other stories say Camak's team was scared away by an American Indian party.
Surveyors now know that the Georgia-Tennessee border was placed about 1.1 miles south of where it should be. But that, surveyor Bart Crattle said, is history.
"Just because you have more accurate equipment, you can't start moving border lines," said Crattle, a Georgian who works in Chattanooga and is licensed to survey in both states. "Can you imagine what would happen to our boundary lines? They'd be all willy-nilly.
"It's correct -- no matter how wrong it is."
The border has been in place for generations, though there is some dispute over whether Georgia ever formally agreed to it. In any case, Georgia partisans say they want what is rightly theirs.
"A state boundary can only be changed by the legislatures of the states, with the consent of Congress," Shafer said. "It cannot be changed by a mathematician with a faulty compass or a skittish surveying party afraid of the Indians."
The drought has whetted Georgia's thirst for the river, but this is far from the first attempt to redo Camak's math. Shafer's resolution traces efforts as far back as 1887, when North Carolina -- another state affected by the line -- authorized its governor to appoint commissioners and a surveyor to meet with neighboring delegations over the boundary. No record of such a meeting exists, it said.
The river winds closest to Georgia near the Camak Stone, a slab placed by surveyors to mark the corner where Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee meet.
Few who live near the border are happy with the idea of moving it.
"All they want to do is get them some water, and I'm against it," said Freddy McCulley, 70, who lives on the Tennessee side. "They ought to control their growth in Atlanta. This has nothing to do with the people. It's the politicians."
"That would be ridiculous. I'd have to move my phone line and everything," said Joe Dugger, a 63-year-old Tennessean. "This is a forgotten part of Georgia, and they have nothing to do out here except pave the roads every once in a while."
Some influential Georgia politicians have suggested using old-fashioned horse trading to broker a water deal, saying Georgia should offer a high-speed rail line from Atlanta to Chattanooga in exchange for rights to the river. But Tennessee's governor said he was unaware of the Georgia legislation until he was told of it last week by a reporter.