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United States/Canada Border

United States/Canada Border
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No roads follow the neat borderline between New England and Canada that you see on the map. Instead, you have to traverse, back and forth, in and out of Canada–a rough stitch that has pulled the two countries together since before either of them was a nation.

This is the story of that line–a line that was sometimes called “the friendliest border in the world”–and how it has changed since 9/11. Most of what I’ll tell you isn’t about these two countries, but rather about our own, at war with terror–not about a country, but a state of mind, a very expensive state of mind. Consider, for instance, the $26 million customs station built recently in the tiny town of North Troy (population 593), Vermont. A friend who lives nearby told me, “It looks like a fortress out in the middle of nowhere.”

It is indeed a fortress, with winged roof and huge letters spelling out United States of America, which seems like an announcement to the moose who might wander by. I pull into the station. Several agents are milling about inside, and one comes out. The traffic coming through is light. He’s military in appearance, complete with combat boots and weapons on the belt. He asks me to turn off the engine and put the car into park. He asks where I’m going, where I’ve come from, and where I live. I tell him I’m writing about the border. He asks for my passport and tells me to open my trunk, which holds my suitcase, laptop, briefcase, and picnic hamper. He doesn’t bother with my luggage, but burrows deep into the hamper. He emerges, triumphant, with a big, fresh lemon I’ve brought with me from home. A lemon can improve a lot of things. He holds it up almost delicately, like an Easter egg. It is indeed a fine lemon, and it looks even finer the way he’s holding it.

“Can’t let you get by with this,” he says. “Matterafact, just so you don’t think I’m going to take this home …” And he steps to the garbage can beside the station, lifts the lid rather dramatically, and drops it in, closing it with a clash. This vigilance for fruits and vegetables, which I am to find prevalent here, is about pests and worms and bugs that might hitchhike in with the fruits. I understand. Sort of.

In Derby Line, Vermont (population 792), the houses along Main Street are grand examples of Gilded Age style. On the day I visit last July, there’s a yard sale at one of these homes just off the town green. Three white-haired ladies sit in lawn chairs, presiding over their goods. They’re all abuzz about the raid that took place the day before.

“They went right down that street,” one says, pointing. Four men were arrested for trafficking 2,205 pounds of marijuana across the border. According to the local newspaper, the police had been watching these men since the early ’90s. They’d started by backpacking small loads across the border, then upgraded to tractor trailers. Three of the men live in town, and the ladies know them. One, they tell me, is “a good-looking man, lives in a beautiful home, has a nice wife and kids. We were always told it was his wife who had the money.”

It’s probably an old story in Derby Line. The main byway up into Quebec is called, locally, “Smugglers’ Road,” and some of these ornate homes were built from the riches reaped by transporting whiskey and other commodities during Prohibition. Or so it’s said. (There was only one other big industry in Derby Line, a machine-tool plant.) In that context, I ask the ladies whether these crimes today are much different from whiskey running. “No, not really!” they chorus. “Didn’t hurt us, what they were doing.”

The library in Derby Line is perhaps the most famous landmark along this 759-mile stretch between New England and Canada: The International Boundary cuts right through the middle of the building. Lest you think that was a mistake, it was, in fact, on purpose. Haskell Free Library & Opera House was a gift of friendship from Martha Stewart Haskell and her son, Horace Stewart Haskell, to the “boundary villages of Derby Line, Rock Island, and Stanstead,” as a memorial to her husband, Carlos F. Haskell. Mrs. Haskell was Canadian and her husband was American–hence the dual allegiance.

The cornerstone was laid in 1901, and this gesture of friendship between the two countries was constructed of granite (U.S.) and yellow brick (Canadian). The interior is elegant, with intricate woodwork and marble floors. The lobby is in the United States; the circulation desk is in Canada. A line of black tape runs diagonally across the reading room and through the rest of the building, too, a comical reminder of Mrs. Haskell’s charitable embrace of the two cultures. Now patrons are warned not to park on the Canadian side of the building if they’re American, or on the U.S. side if they’re Canadian. If they do, and they fail to report to customs, they may be arrested.

East of Derby Line, the town of Holland, Vermont (population 588), is a wide plain of farms and fields, stretching as far as I can see. I ask the town clerk, Diane Judd, whether there’s a crossing in Holland.

“Well, no legal crossing,” she replies. “But we have plenty of activity. There was an arrest just last week, and in the winter people cross on snowmobiles.”

As in many towns of the Northeast Kingdom, most of the roads are dirt. I drive down one road and come to a farm on a high rise, with open fields all around and a view of the town center and the hills beyond. I get out and walk over to the old farmhouse, which seems to have been partially renovated. It looks abandoned. Still, the lawn has been neatly trimmed, and the fields are freshly mown. Behind the house is the telltale obelisk–the boundary marker. A grassy road disappears into the woods, blocked by a big gate that sports a stop sign and warnings not to proceed any farther: the end of America.

Back down the road, I stop at a house where a woman is sweeping her front steps. I ask whether the farm at the end of the road is for sale. “I don’t know who owns that house,” she says. “I’ve lived here 11 years and I’ve never seen him.”

The next day, I visit Fernando Beltran, Patrol Agent in Charge at the Newport border station, about 7 miles from Holland. Beltran watches over 32 miles of the 90-mile Vermont boundary. Almost every border patrol agent I’ll speak with will feel the need to differentiate himself from the customs agents who check people at ports of entry. “There’s port entry and then there’s everything in between,” Beltran tells me. “It’s everything in between that we take care of.” That includes places like the abandoned farm I saw in Holland. “We have sensors,” he explains. “We know you’re there.”

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

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7 Responses to United States/Canada Border

  1. JANE A REEL April 5, 2009 at 7:37 am #

    Thank you for an intriguing story. I had never really thought about the issues connected to our border with Canada. Some of the things Edie Clark encountered highlight the mystery . On a topic unrelated to the story, I can’t imagine living in such a remote area. This story gave me a lot to think about.

  2. Ronald Donett April 10, 2009 at 1:39 pm #

    This was a very thought provoking article. This is only my opinion,but to me the worst tragedy since 9/11 is how society in general has changed. I am now 60 years of age and it just seems to me that we used to live in a world where people in general loved and cared for one another. Now,it is more of a ‘me first’ attitude on the part of many people. You can say hello to someone and they will drop their head and act as if you are not even there. I have gone different places and someone will go ahead of you through a door and not hold it for you. Isn’t it sad? The article about the New England – Canada border only magnifies how the society that we live in has drastically changed. The one thing that I take comfort in knowing is that in time,goodness always triumphs over evil.

  3. chris hall April 15, 2009 at 11:14 am #

    the Border creates more problems than it solves. it needs to be done with.

  4. Sandra Basgall April 26, 2009 at 3:19 pm #

    EastportMaine was settled in 1780, incorporated in 1798. It was seized by the British in 1814 but in 1818 was returned to the United States through the Treaty of Ghent. Fort Sullivan at Eastport, built in 1810, had a meteoric life – only four years later, on July 11,1814 when a British fleet of a dozen warships of 200 guns with troop transports hove into sight, the fort?s six officers and 80 men surrendered upon demand.

  5. Jim Crosbie May 27, 2009 at 11:12 pm #

    Your article was both interesting and sad. I’m 61 and have travelled back and forth to Prince Edward Island and the Maritimes since I was born. My Mom was born on a farm in P.E.I. and I have loved visiting our “Home from Away”. It is such a sad commentary on our society in general that we now fear everything and everyone. After 9/11 our government overreacted as they usually do and brought fear and uncertainty instead of calm and thoughtful actions to deal with the tragedy of 9/11. Our age of innocence is gone forever.

  6. Andy Grossman August 14, 2009 at 11:37 am #

    I have been at the Derby Line/Rock Island border a half dozen times over the past 45 years; the freezing of the border in recent years is a great pity. Some years ago I researched border issues and was told that US Customs tries to buy up and demolish houses that straddle the border. One hopes that the Haskell Free Library will avoid that fate. Another anomaly I was told about was that — at least in the days before the “Carte soleil” [Quebec health insurance scheme ID card] — the clinic in Newport VT was the closest maternity facility and many Quebeckers from the area were born there, thus being dual nationals. Then there were those families in houses straddling the border who had to make Grandma sleep on one side or the other to get SSI (from Social Security) or Canadian Old Age Security, each of which has a residence qualification. Finally there was the matter of the Quebec sovereignty movement, and the “francisation” program that preceded it — linguistically separating Quebec from “the other”. My company, a (tiny) Quebec corporation, had to change its name into French even though it did no business in that province and its name became unpronounceable except to somebody who is bilingual and logical nonsense in either language. For what it’s worth I always get a bigger smile from the Canadian border police when I speak to them in French; the identity crisis will not go away.

  7. Naomi Bigelow December 21, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    Yo boy, am I homesick now. After seven years in the White Mountains and a lot of trips west and east again, small adventures when I took off alone and drove up into Quebec, through the Eastern Townships and across Ontario to Michigan and back to NH, I felt so comfortable with traveling alone in Canada. I’d memorized many local landmarks in both provinces and knew where the nice places were to stop for coffee or a meal. Now, because my passport has expired, my easy zip across from Port Huron/Sarnia and through the southern Ontario peninsula will have to be a much longer and less relaxing trip around the Great Lakes and across. I hate it. I have a great deal of affection for my old route; I feel at home when reaching Derby Line. What a bummer. It is just so sad that our cultures have to clash in ways that most of us would rather not see happen. I consider myself a citizen of the world and Canadians as just some more of the distant cousins (and I do have a lot of ancestors who immigrated to Canada from Europe rather than the US).

    And to Andy Grossman: Yep; I made the mistake of asking an Ontario Provincial police officer stationed in Coaticook (in English) if he spoke English, because I knew my French was too limited to ask for the information that I needed. Stiff as a ramrod he inquired in French if I spoke French. (I’d forgotten about the Francophone/Anglaisphone(sic) contention and it’s passionate division of the population.
    I replied with a pitiful attempt to convince him in his language that, “Ma Francais is tree petite and tres mal.” (Sorry, best I could do!) I was completely convinced and immediately inquired in flawless and professional English, “How may I help you?” Oh for the day when people are just people.

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