photos by Nate Sohn and Gerry Tetzlaff
Carter Lake is an island of Iowa, surrounded by a sea of Nebraska.
Head east from North Omaha. After six miles you’ll come to a ridge. Below it sits the town of Carter Lake, Iowa. The town’s boundaries mark where the Missouri River used to flow and pass partially through the town’s namesake. The horseshoe-shaped body of water was all that the mighty Missouri left behind when it decided to change course a century and a half ago.
The city council building in Carter Lake, Iowa is nothing out of the ordinary, beyond the fact that it’s surrounded by Nebraska.
I ask a receptionist if there is anyone I could talk to about the town’s geographic situation. She walks over to an office and says “Jerry, do have a second to speak with someone?” Next thing I know, I’m having a conversation with the mayor.
“In 1877, there was an ice jam in July,” Mayor Jerry Waltrip says. “They had considered blowing up the ice jam, the Corps of Engineers. They decided to hold off for whatever reason. During the night, it broke through itself and that formed Carter Lake.”
The town of 3,750 started as a 600-acre piece of land on the outskirts of Council Bluffs, Iowa, nestled on the east side of one of the Missouri River’s many oxbows. There was no debate about which state it belonged to — land on the west side of the river was Nebraska and land on the east was Iowa. But after the flood that created Carter Lake (the lake, not the town) retreated, the Missouri River’s course had shifted too.
The once looping river straightened out, effectively cutting off a chunk of mainland Iowa. When Omaha tried to claim it, the settlers who were already there claimed they were in Iowa. The fight over the land worked its way up to the Supreme Court. There it was decided that an act of God cannot change boundary lines.
The precedent set by Carter Lake was established and later played a role on the international scale. Similar to the Missouri River, the Rio Grande changed its course some years later and land that had belonged to Mexico ended up in Texas. In true Texas fashion, the Lone Star State immediately claimed the land as their own. But President Lyndon Johnson used The Carter Lake Precedent to say that the land still belonged to Mexico.
Precedent or no precedent, Waltrip has always come home to Carter Lake. Jobs driving Greyhound buses, working in factories and traveling as an entertainer have been nothing more than slight diversions. Throughout his life, Waltrip has worked to make Carter Lake a better place to live. His reasoning for serving the city’s government for 51 years is simple: “I’d get pissed off and run.”
Waltrip tells me that I caught him just in time. He’d been recently voted out of office after serving the town on and off for 51 years. When I ask if he’s sorry about being forced to retire, he replies, “I’m not.” Then he starts telling me about Carter Lake, where he’s lived his whole life.
“I’m just an eighth grade-educated guy who lives in Carter Lake. I’ve been here all my life,” Waltrip says. “My granddaughters asked me a year ago, ‘If you could go any place on earth and live, where would you go?’ I said I’m already here.”
As the fascinatingly colorful interview comes to an end, I tell the mayor I am going to get some photos of the town. Instead, he invites me to his house on the lake. From the end of the dock he built himself, Waltrip points across the water to the Omaha airport, where construction of a new parking garage is taking place. When it’s finished, Waltrip’s view of mainland Iowa will be just as cut off as the town is.
“Omaha would pay whatever it took to have Carter Lake be Omaha, but that’ll never happen,” Waltrip says. “That’ll never happen.”