May 01, 2019

Russians on the Border



Russians on the Border
Sumas, Washington State. Nicholas Sandford

“The land without trees” was how the original Native American settlers described the area around Sumas, Washington, and as you drive north from Seattle through a flat, lushly green and flood-prone valley, it’s easy to see why they did.

Nudging the Canadian border, Sumas today is a community of some 1,400 souls (almost twice that of twenty years ago), with a classic Western-style main street lined by low-roofed storefronts, a couple of modest restaurants, and a bingo hall. Back in the 1890s, it was something of a boomtown. There was gold to be found in the foothills of nearby Mt. Baker, and the place quickly became a supply center and jumping-off place for prospectors – a lively frontier outpost where store owners kept a shotgun under the counter, women in tight skirts loitered in doorways on Cherry Street, and whiskery Russian, French and Swedish immigrants drank and gambled away their newfound wealth in one of the town’s twelve saloons.

But, as so often happens with gold, the good times ended as abruptly as they came. Sumas today is an agreeable if sedate little place, its mines long since spent, and chiefly notable for its both busy and wrongly-surveyed international border crossing. When the line was drawn between the US and Canada following the 1846 Oregon Treaty, there were no such things as satellites or computers, and Google Maps had yet to be invented. In their absence, the job was done by an ill-paid crew of volunteers who tramped around in the hills and woods along the 49th Parallel, armed with sticks and twine. As a result, Canada and the US still employ a full-time boundary commission in order to iron out the nineteenth-century navigational errors. Meanwhile, a large chunk of Sumas sits on ground north of the true spot that should rightly be Canadian soil.


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