Chamizal National Memorial: Changing River Changes Border

What happens when a river changes course? Think about the Mississippi, Missouri or the Potomac – large rivers that have changed their course over the centuries, resulting in land that was once in one state becoming part of another state. There have been arguments about state lines since George Washington’s time … as the Potomac river shifts, is the land in Maryland or Virginia? The Supreme Court had to decide on that one!

The same thing happened along the Rio Grande river; the border between the US and Mexico. After heavy flooding in 1864, the Rio Grande changed course. This especially created havoc at the border of El Paso in Texas, and Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua, Mexico. Americans found themselves in Mexico and Mexicans found themselves in the US.

This was the start of a 100-year long dispute regarding the exact location of the border between the US and Mexico.

Rio Grande in Texas

What is Chamizal?

At issue specifically was a small section of farmland (called the Chamizal tract), originally located south of the Rio Grande and therefore in Mexico. But when the river changed course, the farmer found his land was now north of the border and his ownership unclear.

A few years later, a flood control project changed the river yet again, detaching a part of land that was in Mexico to create an island positioned north of the Rio Grande – essentially now in the US, but caught in a “no-mans land” by the border dispute. In fact, during prohibition folks used the island as a drinking spot to escape American jurisdiction!

Chamizal Convention

Finally in 1962, President John F. Kennedy started discussions with the Mexican President Lopez Mateos to resolve this long-standing issue. Signed in 1963 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Chamizal Convention created a permanent border by constructing a 4 mile long concrete canal; exchanging land between the two countries and forcibly moving residents.

Some of land that had been on the island was set aside as Chamizal National Memorial, to be managed by the National Park Service.

Chamizal National Memorial

Chamizal National Memorial encompasses 55 acres of land, just north of the international border. Not only does it capture the history, it also celebrates the culture of the community and the long-standing relations between the citizens of Mexico and the US.

Along with the visitor center where you can learn more about the Chamizal Convention, there is an art gallery, indoor and outdoor theaters, and 1 1/2 miles of pathways where you can look out over today’s border and reflect on how it has changed.

Border Marker in Southern Arizona

You won’t spend a lot of time at the National Memorial (unless you attend one of their music festivals or events), but you will learn a part of our history that you may have never though about.

That’s what is so interesting about our national park system… each unit you visit has something unique and different to offer, and there is so much to learn!

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Need Help Planning your Visits?

If you would like to explore this or other National Park Units, but need a bit help in the planning, please give us a call at (480) 609-3978. We are happy to offer customized trip planning.

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