Life on the Line at Derby Line, Vermont

March 4, 2013

Essay by the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI).


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From the west, the international border enters the library’s reading room at the corner bay window. © CLUI.

International borders are places of abrupt transition, where a conceptual cartographic line can manifest itself physically in many ways. Along the US/Canada border, it is often in the form of a low fence or a cut-line through the trees, running along the path of the border. If roads head to the border in a perpendicular fashion, from either side, and do not hit a natural obstacle like a river, they are usually blocked by earthen berms, posts, guardrail, or overgrowth. If the road goes through the border, it usually has an inspection station, one for each country, on either side of the line.

In the case of the town/s of Derby Line, Vermont/Stanstead, Quebec, the border runs right through the community, cutting through the street grid, and even buildings as well, creating an unusual international zone, where behavior is affected in some interesting ways.

In the two-sided town of Derby Line/Stanstead there are two streets that cross the line without any checkpoints. Technically, any time anyone crosses the international line, they are subject to having to report, in person, to a port of entry inspection station for the country they are entering. This makes traffic on the streets that cross the line without a checkpoint, Maple Street/Rue Ball and Pelow Hill/Rue Lee, fairly light, as it is more convenient to cross at Main Street/Rue Dufferin, where checkpoints are often set up for “drive thru” service.

Pedestrians on the sidewalk are also technically required to report as soon as they cross the line. Visiting someone on the other side of the line, even if the building is next door, means walking around to the inspection station first, or risk being an outlaw. Playing catch on Maple Street/Rue Ball would be an international event, and would break no laws presumably, so long as each time the ball was caught, the recipient marched over to customs to declare the ball.

When the international line crosses through a building, a different set of rules applies. Residents of the small apartment building in Derby Line/Stanstead do not need to report if they cross the line inside the building. They only need to report if they leave out the side of the building that opens on to a different country than the one they entered the building from. The building’s interior ends up being an international space, a bubble in the otherwise nearly infinitely thin international line.

The most prominent building on the line is the Haskell Free Library and Opera House. It was built intentionally on the border in 1901, as a gift to the community, and a symbol of international harmony. The entrances, one leading into the library, and the other heading up the stairs to the opera house/theater, however, are in the United States.

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The border continues, dividing the World Book in half, depending on how it is shelved and makes an inquiry at the reception desk an international exchange. © CLUI.

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The border continues, dividing the World Book in half, depending on how it is shelved and makes an inquiry at the reception desk an international exchange. © CLUI.

And though there are no restrictions on movement within the building, the placement on the border can lead to complications. The planning of a recent renovation project at the Library/Opera House took three years due to the conflicting construction, fire safety and historic preservation regulations of the two countries. Some of the public bathrooms, for example, sit on the border that runs diagonally through the building, and plumbers from the US and Canada had to be involved to make sure the work met their respective building codes. A fire escape for the theater was located on the Canadian side, but had to be recognized by the Americans, even though it wasn’t in their jurisdiction. If there were a fire in the opera house, then the evacuees would have to head immediately to the immigration station up the road.

The line painted on the floor inside the library and opera house is more than just a novelty. Apparently, it was required in order to show which portions of the structure and furnishings would be covered by the separate Canadian and American insurance policies.

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Upstairs, the theater has a line running diagonally across the seating area. The stage is in Canada. © CLUI.


Part of an Ongoing Investigation into the Borderlands of the USA. Lay of the Land Newsletter, Winter 2006.