The readers of the Arkansas Times are a curious lot, and have a lot of questions. So here’s Ask the Times, where we will, to the best of our ability, try to bring light to the darkness. (Question? Send to email@example.com.)
Where’s the geographic center of Arkansas?
If ever you have driven west down Highway 5 from Little Rock, chances are that you have seen a nondescript brown sign on the side of the road with the words, “Historical Marker Ahead,” within Bryant city limits. And if you were driving fast, as people are wont to do on that stretch of highway, then the chances are that your eyes barely registered the chunk of concrete on the right-hand side of the road, lying on the edge of a cemetery, before you sped past.
That marker you missed signifies the Geographic Center of Arkansas. At least, it’s the spot the state highway department designated the center of the state back in 1936, during the state’s centennial, when a variety of historic markers were going up all around Arkansas. The inscription on the marker reads: “The Geographical Center of Arkansas is a Few Steps North of this Highway / Erected by the Arkansas Society Daughters of American Colonists / Arkansas Centennial 1936.”
But can an irregularly shaped state like Arkansas have an actual geographic center?
None of Arkansas’s four sides follows anything like a straight line. The eastern boundary follows the path of the Mississippi River (although, thanks to changes in the course of the river over time, some of what is legally Arkansas actually lies across the river adjacent to Tennessee and Mississippi, and vice versa). The southern boundary forms a relatively straight line until it hits the Red River. The western boundary runs straight north until it hits the Arkansas River, when it leans into Oklahoma a little. Likewise, the northern boundary is a straight line until it comes upon the St. Francis River, when it dips to the south a bit, creating what is now the Missouri Bootheel.
You cannot simply draw lines between the four(-ish) corners of Arkansas and plot the center on a map, X marks the spot. So how can this marker within Bryant city limits claim to be the center of the state?
The key lies in the modifier “geographic.” Those spots that are called “geographic centers” are actually centroids. A centroid, or geometric center, is the arithmetic mean position of all the points on a plane figure. It is the point upon which you could balance a cutout of the shape in question. However, the term “centroid” can also apply to three-dimensional objects, denoting the center of mass. (If you want to know how to find the centroid of an object, you can dig a little deeper at this link.)
And this is what complicates the idea that the Geographic Center of Arkansas marker there in Bryant’s suburbs actually constitutes even the state’s centroid. Sure, you can do a paper cutout of the state and maybe balance it on a pin located at that marker, but the state is no mere two-dimensional abstraction, as you can experience by traveling in most any direction from the ostensible geographic center. Wander your way east a bit, and you’ll encounter the sprawling Mississippi Alluvial Plain, more commonly known as the Delta, where the geography might feel a little more two-dimensional, but the marker itself lies in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains spread out to the west, an area not so conveniently planar. Arkansas is much more three-dimensional than it appears on the map or in the media.
In fact, the abstract to a 1964 U.S. Geological Survey pamphlet titled “Geographical Centers of the United States” states rather bluntly: “There is no generally accepted definition of geographic center, and no completely satisfactory method for determining it. Because of this, there may be as many geographic centers of a State or country as there are definitions of the term.”
So while that Geographic Center of Arkansas marker constitutes an interesting bit of trivia, it is no more the center of Arkansas than Earth is the center of our universe. (But do observe the speed limit when you drive by. Folks go way too fast on that stretch of road.)