Walk the Line

I keep my eyes wide open all the time …
You’ve got a way to keep me on your side …
I walk the line.

—Johnny Cash

As part of our travel series, we have been writing about some of our discoveries in and around the places we temporarily call home. (If you missed our “Love Letter to a Mountain” article on September 7, 2017, you can check it out here.)

Among our happy discoveries as part of this grand exploration is that a wealth of hidden and not-so-hidden gems can be found in some of the most unexpected places. Such is the case with the Haskell Free Library and Opera House in the towns of Derby Line, Vermont (in the United States, approximate population: 629) and Stanstead, Québec (in Canada, approximate population: 2,800), which we explored in September before we moved to Maine.

In many ways, it is unsurprising that this public space was created and deliberately placed on the international border, located at both 93 Caswell Avenue on the United States side and 1 rue Church on the Canadian side. This is currently the only library in the world that exists and operates in two countries at once.

The international border runs right through it!​ On the left side of the line is the United States; on the right side is Canada.
Look closely (it’s a bit tricky to see); the black line inside lines up with the granite international marker out the window, as well as the flowerpots that mark the boundary between the two countries. The international line also bisects the apartment building visible beyond the flowerpots, more or less in line with the building’s chimney.
Chris straddles the border inside the library.
Sara stands in the United States, and Chris stands in Canada.
Look closely! Here, the same book is presented in two languages—French and English—to accommodate francophones and anglophones who use this library together.
​Ticket booth for the opera house.
Nearly everything in the opera house is original though the building opened to the public well over a century ago.
​Here is a view from the balcony; note the black line dividing the countries (which bisects several chairs, thus making it possible to watch a live performance in two countries simultaneously). This is not simply for fun or as a curiosity; this is required by the two discrete insurance companies—one in each country—with which the building must legally have policies. This way, the respective insurance companies will know which one is responsible for disbursement if damage or an incident leading to a claim occurs exclusively on one side. Coordinating any sort of maintenance to the property is often a logistical nightmare since the contractors must either have dual citizenship to conduct the work or have a work visa for both countries. The elevator installation several years ago—required to maintain the building’s code compliance—nearly proved disastrous when American elevator technicians were not allowed to install the elevator car purchased from an American company because the elevator shaft itself was on the Canadian side of the building. If small- and large-scale maintenance projects seem challenging to coordinate even under typical circumstances, imagine the strategy involved in orchestrating building-wide electrical, plumbing, or aesthetic renovations with the obligation to adhere to the legal and permitting requirements and codes for two countries?
The majority of the seating in this opera house is in the United States, while the stage is in Canada. This photograph showcases more of the detailing.
The structure remains in remarkable condition, testament to the diligent care it has received over generations.

This library and opera house—as well as several other buildings in this community through which the international border runs—is a fascinating curiosity, and likewise, so are the towns themselves. The border runs right through the center of what has been for centuries considered one happy, international community. Until fairly recently, residents—including those who lived on the three streets that cross the border—came and went more or less as they pleased with only the slightest of formality. After all, the two sides share a drinking water and wastewater system, and their fire departments frequently collaborate in property- and lifesaving efforts. Babies born to Stanstead families are often born in the United States since it offers the closest hospital. Residents of both countries team up for curling. It wasn’t that long ago that the residents—many of whom are linked by intermarriage and dual citizenship—shared schools, places of worship, physicians, and more, and they could just nod and wave at the border patrol agents when crossing back and forth because the community is small and just about everyone knew everyone else.

Sadly, though, the world in which we live now is creating significant problems for the townspeople who for so long all but existed without concern for the border. Local resistance to the increasing security in recent years has included, among other things, maintaining an international border marked with a charming row of potted flowers. But this lovely floral border is now the only one left; all the rest are locked down with iron gates, and all of them—even the flowerpot crossing—are equipped with cameras and weight sensors. Border patrol agents are everywhere—on foot, in SUVs, at border stations; in fact, there are more than four times the number of agents in this tiny community than there were in the late 1990s.

One of the streets that crosses the border is called Canusa Avenue—clever!—where the border runs essentially right down the middle of the street, east to west. Drivers on the north side of the line, heading west, are in Canada, and those driving east are in the United States. Because the houses lining the south side of it are in the United States, under the new rules, whenever Canusa Avenue’s American residents pull out of their driveways, they have technically left the United States and therefore must report to a border station! (For a more in-depth description of the Canusa Avenue situation, check out this article.)

Even a simple game of toss-and-catch can become a complicated matter: people playing on either side of the line—which could easily happen in neighborhoods bisected by the border—would have to go to customs to declare the ball every time they caught it. There are places where neighbors are separated only by a grassy lawn, but to visit one another, they must first report to customs.

When standing on a street on the US side of the line and looking at the next street over, one can observe that all the street signs are written in French. This is very different from many other borders, particularly in this part of the country; in most of those cases, one is often driving through rolling farmland or along an interstate from which the imposing border crossing stations are clearly visible upon approach. In these towns, one can simply unknowingly wander across a bit of lawn, cross a sidewalk on the wrong side, or even just enter a building from one side and exit from the other and end up accidentally border-jumping—thus becoming subject to detention and/or fines courtesy of the ubiquitous customs agents—so one must be very attentive and vigilant. Aimless, curious meandering around this pretty little area to see what might be at the end of one charming street or another is not at all recommended.

Despite some of the logistical concerns and extra qui vive involved with visiting this unique community, it is well worth the visit, and we indeed recommend it. (Just please be careful where you park and where you walk!) Spend an afternoon cozied up with a good book in front of a fireplace within the library or take in a performance in the opera house. You’ll have an intriguing story to share with others later!