There's a Reason They Call It 'Eastport'

By James Fallows

The Atlantic is all about the uplifting clash of contending ideas. Thus our current print issue -- yes, subscribe! -- carries a "correction" to my article in the January issue, about the beleaguered but plucky little town of Eastport, Maine:

I would like to correct a geographical inaccuracy: the easternmost point in the U.S. is not in Maine at all; it is in Alaska. The 180th meridian of longitude divides east from west and runs through the Aleutian Islands. So, in Alaska, one could stand facing north with one’s left foot on the easternmost point in the U.S. and one’s right foot on the westernmost. The dateline, however, zigzags, to keep political subdivisions in the same time zone. Thus, although Maine is not the easternmost place in the U.S., it sees the sun before Alaska on any given day.

John Godfrey
Beverly, Mass.

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I know that a person as punctilious as this correspondent will be grateful for even further refinement of his point. Toward that end I offer this rejoinder just now from reader David Strip, of New Mexico.

 While John Godfrey is correct that the point in the US with the easternmost longitude lies in Alaska, I find this irrelevant to the notion of finding the extreme point in a given direction.

Most reasonable people would find the easternmost point of a contiguous landmass by a process mathematically equivalent to drawing a line of longitude through the landmass and sweeping it in an easterly direction until it touches a single point. That would be the easternmost point. 

The problem is slightly complicated when the country in not contiguous, though in that case I suspect most people would pick the starting point of their sweep to be either the center of mass of the country (if you're mathematically inclined), or at some point inside the largest component of the country. The fact that Godfrey himself points out that the easternmost point lies to the west of the westernmost points out the absurdity of his claim.

I am with Mr. Strip. If you start at any point in the United States and, contrary to the advice of Horace Greeley, keeping heading east, the coastal reaches of "Down East" Maine are where you'll end up. And the only possible contender to Eastport as the place at which you could make no further progress east would be the neighboring town of Lubec, which is microscopically closer to the watery boundary with Canada. Eastport is in green below, Lubec in red.

A zillion miles to the west, we have the extremities of the Aleutians, where they are so far west that they switch from West to East longitude. Sensibly, the International Date Line swings out at this point to include those in the furthest-west time zone of the United States and for that matter of the world.

Emboldened by the date line, I'm sticking with Eastport for the easternmost crown.

If you'd like to play around with lat-long yourself -- and, as a bonus, if you'd like to explore further the "Tapestry" sociological mapping of every neighborhood in the United States, feel free to dig into the zoomable, searchable, interactive map from Esri, below. It starts out in Eastport but can take you anywhere in the country. 

This is like the one my wife included in her recent "Why We Never Get Over High School" post. As a reminder, you click on the colored segments, which become more refined as you zoom in, to see the pop-up description of the demographics of each area. Some temporary performance problems made the Tapestry segments unavailable for a while, so if you missed it before this is another chance. A standalone full-screen version of the Tapestry map is here.

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