How Georgia and Alabama Got Their Shapes

By Marcia Goodrich | Published

Stan Vitton
Stan Vitton

Once upon a time, O Best Beloved, there were no states at all in the United States. There were rivers and oceans and lakes and mountains, but no imaginary lines you could straddle with one foot in Wyoming, the other in Colorado.

Then one by one and two by two, from colonial times until 1959 (practically yesterday, Dear One), people began making states and setting their borders, and sometimes they set very strange borders indeed. (Michigan comes to mind.)

Mark Stein wrote a book about it, a New York Times bestseller called “How the States Got Their Shapes.” If you are attentive and deliberate in your literary habits, O Best Beloved, and read his “Acknowledgements” section from the beginning to the very end, you will discover that Stein is “especially appreciative of insights [he] received from [Michigan Tech’s] Stan Vitton regarding the boundaries of Georgia and Alabama.”

Thus it came to pass that Vitton, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, helped solve a border mystery that goes back nearly 200 years.

“Stein had a theory as to why Georgia is cocked on an angle,” says Vitton. “The idea was that they warped the line to get more coal inside Georgia’s state boundaries.”

Stein consulted Vitton about his theory. “I immediately realized it couldn’t be right,” mainly because there are no coalfields in that part of Georgia, says Vitton, who was once an engineering manager for an Appalachian mining company and knows his coalfields front and back.

Then Vitton got to pondering the question, so he took a ruler up to the third floor of Dillman Hall, to the map of the United States. And he measured across Georgia and Alabama. And lo, they were nearly the same width for much of their length. “Once you took care of the kinks, everything fit within a mile,” he says. The founding fathers were apparently quite concerned that states (if not men) be created equal.

Much more may be said on the subject, but not here. If you would like to delve more deeply into the matter, you may read the book about how it all happened, just so.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.