Historic Context

Why Were They Constructed?

Advent of the Automobile 

U.S. Border Station, Calexico, CA
U.S. Border Inspection Station
Calexico, CA

Throughout the 1920s, motor vehicles became more economical and reliable, and as a result, their ownership, popularity, and total miles traveled increased steadily. Roads and highways were improved to meet the increased need, including those that crossed the international borders with Canada and Mexico. With the increased popularity of the automobile, for the first time in the history of the U.S., immigrants and other visitors now entered the country primarily over land rather than via water ports-of-entry, such as Ellis Island or San Francisco.

Tighter Immigration Laws
Additionally, the imposition of head taxes and literacy tests upon immigrants from Canada and Mexico, beginning in 1917, “immediately resulted in widespread evasions,” and in 1921, Congress passed the first U.S. law establishing annual immigration quotas, by country, causing “great numbers of determined Europeans” who had failed to gain entry to the U.S. under the quotas to attempt to illegally enter via the Canadian border.


U.S. Border Station, St. John, ND
U.S. Border Inspection Station
St. John, ND

Finally, the passage of the Volstead Act and the ratification of the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages between 1919 and 1933, led to increased smuggling across international boundaries.
Cross-border mobility for bootleggers, alien-smugglers, tourists, and the rest of the population was greatly facilitated by the automobile, the use of which was nurtured not only by manufacturers but also by federal and state programs to improve and, where possible, pave roads with "all weather" hard surfaces. Illegal activities aside, the impact of the automobile on the enforcement of laws along the border grew exponentially during the 1920s. At Highgate, Vermont, for example, customs inspectors examined only about 2,200 automobiles entering the U.S. from Canada during 1919. Within five years, cross-border auto traffic through Highgate had increased tenfold to more than 23,000 vehicles. By 1931, the number of automobiles and trucks passing through customs and immigration at Highgate had risen to over 110,000. While the extent to which such figures are representative of border inspection stations as a whole is not known, it may be assumed that the Highgate experience was shared, to a greater or lesser degree, by officials from other border inspection stations. Indeed, it was noted in 1930 that "almost four times as many [persons] entered the U.S. by highway as by boat, and more than three times as many as the combined number that entered by boat and railroad" (Secretary of the Treasury 1930:172).

Locations were determined through analysis of traffic data and consideration of where paved roads existed or were likely to be developed in the near future. A guiding principle was that new stations should be situated as close to the actual boundary line as possible, "before traffic has an opportunity to scatter and where the officers on duty can have positive knowledge that the traffic coming under their observation has crossed the international line." With these concerns in mind, the Treasury Department publicly solicited offers for possible station sites. Upon receipt of offers, representatives from the Office of the Supervising Architect conducted investigations to determine which of the offered sites would best serve the government’s requirements. Preferred sites were those that were adjacent to the boundary line, on the U.S.-bound side of the road, and of sufficient size to accommodate the proposed facility.

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Last Reviewed 2015-11-25