GEOGRAPHIC CENTER OF THE UNITED STATES
A point in Smith County, Kansas, north of U.S. 36 on Kansas 281, one mile west of the junction of Kansas 281 and Kansas 191 near Lebanon, is the geographic center of the forty-eight contiguous states. (Once simply called the geographic center of the United States, its title was changed with the statehood of Alaska and Hawaii to specify the forty-eight contiguous states.) This point, halfway between San Francisco and Boston, saw the Pony Express gallop past. Later, the Chicago, Rhode Island, and Pacific Railroad chugged by. About forty-five miles south of the geographic center in southeast Osborne County, five miles east of Kansas 281, is the geodetic center of the North American continent (Luray in Russell County is the closest town). Other places in Kansas also note their "center" status. Kinsley, at the junction of U.S. 56 and U.S. 50, calls itself "Halfway and a Place to Stay," and signage proclaims New York City and San Francisco to each be 1,526 miles away.
Milton Eisenhower thought Kansas was at the heart, geographically and spiritually, of the nation. Kansas remains middle ground, as a mixture of town and country, agriculture and industry, conservative and progressive. William Least Heat-Moon claimed Kansas as archetypal, at the center of what it is, politically and socially, for good and evil, to be American.
Travelers to these centers find themselves in the Great Plains. They become aware of both the centrality of their position and, as the signs proclaim, the distance to places by which many Americans measure their lives. Like many Great Plains symbols, the geographical center is ambiguous: precisely pinpointed, celebrated as representative, but at a great distance, literally and figuratively, from the rest of the United States.
Thomas Fox Averill Washburn University
Eisenhower, Milton. "The Strength of Kansas." In What Kansas Means to Me: Twentieth-Century Writers on the Sunflower State, edited by Thomas Fox Averill. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991: 105–21.
Least Heat Moon, William. "The Great Kansas Passage." In What Kansas Means to Me: Twentieth-Century Writers on the Sunflower State, edited by Thomas Fox Averill. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991: 194–206.