A Town of Two Countries

November 8, 2022

Derby Line, Vermont, is located in a geographically interesting part of the country. The incorporated village in the town of Derby lies directly on the Canadian border. What is even more interesting is that the border runs right through it, making for a situation where one step, even in a building, puts you in another country — Canada.

Back in the 18th century, when surveyors were drawing the international border between the U.S. and Canada, a mistake was made. The border was supposed to follow the 45th parallel, but the surveyors placed the borderline north of the 45th parallel instead. This created a predicament for the citizens of Derby Line as well as Stanstead, Quebec, the town on the Canadian side of the border. The border not only cuts across the town’s streets, but it also runs through individual buildings.

The border running in the Haskell Library.
The U.S.-Canadian Border running through Haskell library Wikimedia

One of the most popular buildings is the Haskell Free Library and Opera House. It was intentionally constructed on the border between the two countries in 1904. The donors for the construction were a married couple who were both Canadian and American. Carlos F. Haskell was a U.S. citizen, and his wife, Martha Stewart Haskell, was a Canadian citizen. They intended to build a structure to be used by citizens of both countries.

Today, anyone using the library can do so without having to go through any border security, and there’s a simple black line that runs through the building to denote the border. The entrances are on the U.S. side, but a good portion of the building is in Canada. Although there are no restrictions when moving inside the building, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some problems.

When renovations were to take place on the aging structure, permits had to be met that satisfied both countries code requirements. Everything from the plumbing, construction, and fire safety had to be congruent with the country in which it was located. The result was a renovation that took over three years to complete.

The border outside Haskell Library
The border outside Haskell Library Stan Hieronymous/Flickr

Another interesting building in Derby Line and Stanstead that was affected by the border is a tool-and-die factory built right on the borderline. The portion of the factory on the Canadian side closed in 1982, but the Derby Line side of the building continued to operate under a new owner in 1988.

There are places where the border runs through individual homes, allowing people to sleep in one country and eat in another. Even the water around the area makes a trip between the two countries. The drinking water comes from Canada, is stored in the U.S., and its distribution system is maintained by the Canadians. The sewage from Derby Line crosses the border and is treated in Canada. If there is an emergency in either town, crews share calls between Stanstead and Derby Line.

The citizens of the two adjacent towns have to coexist with the customs officials of both countries. Two streets cross the border without any checkpoints, although people are supposed to report to an inspection station. Anyone walking across the border, even it’s just to get a couple of eggs from a neighbor, are technically required to check-in at the border inspection station.

When people are inside their own dwellings, the rules are different. One such example is an apartment building that is cut in two by the border. The residents inside are free to cross the line inside, but if they leave the building to a country where they hadn’t entered, they are then required to report their intentions to customs. Just going to say hello to your neighbor could require some pre-planning in this sleepy town.

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About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of great trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium. I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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