Why Alaska is Home to America's Easternmost Point

Semisopochnoi Island, top right, is the easternmost point of the United States.
Semisopochnoi Island, top right, is the easternmost point of the United States.
Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon (NASA Earth Observatory) using Landsat data provided by the United States Geological Survey, via Wikimedia Commons. // Public Domain

In the contiguous United States, the farthest east anyone can travel without tripping into the ocean is the lighthouse at West Quoddy Head, Maine (coordinates: 44.815ºN 66.951ºW). But this beautiful spot at the northeastern tip of the Pine Tree State is not actually the easternmost point of the United States. That designation belongs, curiously, to a state that is considered part of America's west—Alaska.

While most of the United States is firmly planted in the globe's western hemisphere, America happens to possess plenty of islands and territories on the eastern half of the planet: Saipan, Guam, and Wake Island to name a few. All of these Pacific islands sit on the other side of the 180th meridian, which separates the eastern hemisphere from west, and are technically east of the mainland United States.

(Guam, an American territory with more than 150,000 American citizens, likes to boast about its eastern location, billing itself as the place where "America's Day Begins"—though, technically, that distinction goes to Wake Island. Located on the opposite side of the International Date Line, Guam sees sunrise 15 hours before New York City.)

Yet Guam (coordinates: 13.444°N, 144.793°E) is not the easternmost point of the United States either. That honor resides with an uninhabited Aleutian Island called Semisopochnoi.

Translated from Russian, Semisopochnoi means "having seven hills." It sits about 10 miles from the 180th meridian, making it America's most eastern piece of real estate in the eastern hemisphere (coordinates: 51.960°N, 179.772°E). "In other words," Ken Jennings writes for CN Traveler, "Semisopochnoi and the dozen or so Aleutian islands lying beyond it are so far west that they're actually east!" Of those, Semisopochnoi is the closest to the 180th degree longitude.

Today, this volcanic island in Alaska is home to millions of seabirds, mainly a penguin-like critter called the auklet. It's also heavily monitored by volcanologists, "likely due to its location under prominent trans-Pacific flight route," WIRED reports.

And the pedantic geography fun facts don't stop there! Since the Aleutian Islands cross the 180th meridian, they happen to contain the easternmost and westernmost spots in the United States: the latter honor belongs to the small island of Amatignak (coordinates: 51.270°N, 179.119°W), which is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

All told, the distance between the easternmost and westernmost points in the United States is just 71 miles.

Themed Geography Grab Bag Quiz

The U.S.-Canada Border Runs Directly Through This Library

Though the Haskell Free Library and Opera House might not be as well known as the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty, it's undoubtedly one of America's most unique tourist attractions. Completed in 1904, the building is stationed directly between Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont, with the official U.S.-Canada borderline running right across the library's floor.

Martha Stewart Haskell and her son, Colonel Horace Stewart Haskell, both Canadians, built the building as a tribute to Mrs. Haskell’s late husband, Carlos. The family hoped that citizens from both countries would use it as a “center for learning and cultural enrichment,” according to the official Haskell Free Library website.

The Haskell is divided between the two countries. While the library’s official entrance is on the U.S. side of the building, most of the books are on the Canadian side. The opera house is similarly split, with most of its seats in the U.S. and its stage in Canada. As Atlas Obscura reported, it is often said that the Haskell is the only library in the U.S. with no books, and the only opera house in the country with no stage.

U.S. Border Patrol Agent Andrew Mayer speaks to Nancy Rumery as he stands on the Canadian side of a line on the floor of the Haskell Free Library and Opera House that marks the border between the U.S. March 22, 2006 in Derby Line, Vermon
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Passports and other forms of identification aren’t required to cross from country to country in the library, though the Haskell’s website notes that the border inside the "building is real and it is enforced.” Visitors are expected to return to their side of the border after a visit; if they don’t, they risk possible detention and fines.

Even beyond the building's unique position, library director Nancy Rumery told CTV News that Haskell staffers—Canadian and American alike—consider the institution to be like any other library in the world.

"We're just trying to be the best library we can, and our community is made up of people from two different countries," she said. "We don't think of it in that big symbolic way that I think a lot of people do. These are all our neighbors and we do our very best to help them on their life-long learning journey."

This article originally ran in 2016.

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