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Drought-stricken Georgia, eyeing Tennessee River, revives old border feud

State lawmakers seek to move part of Georgia's border one mile north into Tennessee.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 2008

Dual chiefs: Randy Bowden (left), police chief of Lookout Mountain, Tenn., confers often with Wallace Taylor, chief of Lookout Mountain, Ga.

Patrik Jonsson

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Lookout Mountain, Tenn.

Georgia already owns most of the 88-mile spine of Lookout Mountain, a fabled frontier promontory that overlooks Chattanooga, Tenn.

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But now the Peach State wants more, even the 1.6-square-mile nook that makes up the town of Lookout Mountain, Tenn., just north of the town of Lookout Mountain, Ga. Actually, it's not really this crag that Georgia wants, but access to the Tennessee River that flows below it. Tapping the Tennessee could slake Atlanta's thirst as drought strains the megacity.

But the push to correct what Georgia senators – all 52 of them – call a 190-year-old surveying mistake is forcing a confrontation between two sometimes rival states.

Georgia wants to move the entire border northward by more than a mile along a line from just west of Lookout Mountain to near McCaysville, Ga. That appropriation (or land grab) of more than 50 square miles would transform longstanding relationships along one of America's fuzziest stretches of border.

"If you came up with a deed ... that shows that's really your property, most people would pursue it, especially if there was a little gold mine on it," says Georgia state Rep. John Meadows and member of the legislature's natural resources committee. "I'm not going to lie to you: I want water out of the Tennessee River."

Both Georgia chambers introduced bills Feb. 8 to form a commission to investigate the claim.

Deeds given to veterans of the Revolutionary War indicated that the Tennessee River's "Great Bend" west of Lookout Mountain belonged to Georgia, and no one disputes that the original colonial charter to bring Georgia to the 35th parallel fell short by a mile in 1818. That's when a Georgia mathematician named James Camack, possibly bedeviled by warring Indians and log-and-chain measuring devices, drew the wrong line. Camack admitted his mistake in 1826, but three attempts to move the border have failed.

Georgia's latest move is stirring up old cross-state grudges, which include lawsuits over copper-mine pollution and Georgia's refusal to return a famous Confederate locomotive. Tennesseeans are likely to claim a form of adverse possession, where, even between two sovereigns, unclaimed land eventually goes to the neighbor.

If Georgia wants the land, "what they'll have to do is muster the Georgia militia, feed them black-eyed peas and turnip greens, and send them up to storm Lookout Mountain," says Nashville, Tenn., attorney Justin Wilson, only partly tongue-in-cheek. "The point is, you can't rewrite history."