Clamoring on the steep incline under the weight of my heaviest film camera (reserved only for the most promising of discoveries), slipping twice to one knee on rime ice, I hitch one last gasp of frigid oxygen as my head lifts my eager eyes into perfect position to feast on the conquered monument. Sheepherder’s Monuments!? !*&#@%! “This is NOT the Geographic Center of the United States of America??!!” My lips are too numb to spew anything out, but my mind handles it beautifully in their stead. “I climbed all this way, alone in the middle of Greenland, South Dakota for THIS!?” Kicking the fence while hanging on with one gloved hand to steady my footing, the shards of ice and frozen atmosphere target the only opening to my skin, right down the back of my neck. And if there’s any justice, hopefully into the dens of a few sleeping rattlesnakes.

“Sheepherder’s Monuments or stone Johnnies survive the days of the open range. These stone columns were probably built to indicate distance and direction to waterholes and provided the sheepherder with a pastime while herding his flocks.”

The Geographic Center of the U.S. is not where you’d expect. Furthermore, it’s not where my 2004 Atlas said it would be. After spending an hour-and-a-half combing the area, I know. North of Belle Fourche (Bell Foosh), South Dakota on Highway 85, just South of Junction 168, my Atlas in bright red said: “Geographic Center of U.S. Marker”.

From setting my sights on a grandiose solo road trip self-portrait at the geographic center of the United States of America, the search dwindled to looking for something as tell-tell as a unique T-Post in the frozen fence line. Incredulous the grandiose was not forthcoming, I became desperate to find something and perplexed as to what could have happened to a marker of such importance. Blood pressure increasing, my eyes landed on the remnants of an old paved road. No gates, no signs, with just enough pavement and old footings to indicate something of note stood here at one point, I excitedly drove around the site to get my bearings. Perched above the disintegrating pavement and towering above the prairie was an area surrounded by a menacing fence. Without question this was something the Department of Interior had gone to great lengths to protect — I’d discovered it after all.

Confused? So was I. So here’s my best shot at an explanation. But I warn you, there’s not a lot of authoritative research to rely on and a lot of what follows is disputable. In 1959 the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey officially designated a point 13 miles north of Belle Fourche, South Dakota as the Geographic Center of the U.S. (which includes Alaska and Hawaii). The location was surveyed at: Latitude 44 degrees, 58 minutes North, and Longitude 103 degrees, 46 minutes West.  Any marker grander than the requisite USGS benchmark in the ground was up to the state of South Dakota to provide and maintain. Around the same time, maybe AT the same time, the Department of Interior built the Monument marker and fence (since it’s on Bureau of Land Management land) for the nearby high-plains cairns of Sheepherder’s Monuments. The State of South Dakota then proceeded to build a picnic area, restrooms, etc. on the site and sold tickets billed for seeing both monuments. Recall previously I mentioned the footings for buildings and the video shows restrooms.

The rattle snakes must have felt they weren’t being cut their fair share and laid claim to the area. Either the Department of Interior, the state of South Dakota or both, closed and abandoned the Sheepherder’s Monuments’ area in the mid-1990’s.  Solo road trippers, caution is ALWAYS justified and should NEVER be disparaged. What you don’t know can kill you. There were no signs warning of rattlesnakes. Had I gone in any of the 3 other seasons of the year…well, I was wearing hiking boots. Given that I’m here to tell this tale, I learned a lesson and should I be faced with such a situation again, I will recall this hell-bent mission to see something and hopefully make a good decision.

Eventually the Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce approached the National Geodetic Survey with a plan to build a new concrete and granite marker IN the town of Belle Fourche making it easier to share the marker with the world. The National Geodetic Survey agreed to the new location and contributed the stainless steel centerpiece of the monument. It was unveiled in 2007.

The original marker STILL LIES 13 miles North of Belle Fourche off highway 85 on someone’s fence row, seldom visible, and is but a footnote in history, if that.  It’s the marker I want to see.

The official bronze mark made in 1959

The original USGS benchmark made in 1959 — NOT my photo.

Of Rattlesnakes & The Geographic Center of the U.S.

From the top of Sheepherder’s Monuments. While not locating the Geographic Center of the U.S. marker, seeing Sheepherder’s Monuments, in retrospect turned out to be a very exciting find. I’m glad I made the trek.

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