How long ago was the US/Canada border uncontrolled?

For both of these questions, if the answer differs depending on which way you were going, say so please!

  1. How long ago was it practically simple and tolerated by the authorities for a person to cross the US/Canada border without passing a formal checkpoint (i.e. regardless of the theoretical laws in place, customs/immigration didn’t really mind if you hopped across the border.) I’m guessing that in 1850 there were plenty of people who crossed every day without ever seeing a customs officer or border guard.

  2. How long ago was it perfectly legal to cross the US/Canada border without speaking to customs/immigration? (i.e. was it ever the case that there was no theoretical requirement to check in or report?)

For your #1, that’s still the case now. We share a huge maritime border with Canada, and the vast majority of cross-border boaters either have no requirement to report, have the ability to report by radio, and other means to not have to pass a formal checkpoint. Some description of all of these options described here.

For item #2, I’d like to know the answer to this, too. As a kid in the 1970’s, we never used I-68s or reported in from cross-border boat trips, but I’m not certain of what the actual law was. These days, the tendancy is towards more strictness, 11/9 and all.

I don’t know the answer to this question, but a friend of mine here (in Canada) had a relative who was refused immigration to the US in the 30s. He then emigrated to Canada and then moved to Chicago without any problem.

As recently as the 1970s a crazy mathematician I knew somewhat was able to cross the border with no identification whatever. He had some crazy objection to carrying it and was able to talk his way through. In the 60s you could cross the border by car by showing the car registration. Which they would keep and give it back to you when you left. That must have been a hassle. The one time I came to Canada then, we were entering at Niagara Falls and leaving at Champlain and told them so, and they let us keep the registration card.

It’s still pretty common to be able drive between border towns in the US and Canada that have 6 cops between them, so even if it’s not legal, it’s damn common for people to quickly and regularly transit between the states and canada without checking in with anyone at all.

There are still large sections of the US-Canadian border where, as a practical matter, you can cross without anyone stopping you. It’s a long border, and there aren’t that many border guards. Such a crossing would be completely illegal, but you know. . .

But the first real attempt at border control started in the 1920s, mainly to stop alcohol smuggling into the US, and the border patrol was established in 1924, with 400 people to cover both the US-Mexico and US-Canada borders.

I know that I was in a busload of ninth-grade skiers heading for a daytrip in Vermont from our homes in Montreal in 1977, and we were not checked seriously at the border crossing. The guard came on board, asked the driver if we were all Canadian. He said yes, and the guy waved us through.

Actually, I was, and am, an American citizen – I was an expat in Montreal in those years. But I didn’t want to make a fuss, and as I said the guy didn’t check.

I saw a blip on TV about the border crossing that is actually in the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, that is in Vermont and Quebec.

The people said, before 9-11 they were able to walk back and forth and no one cared, but now it is a huge hassle.

Including emergency vehicles, in at least one example. From Wikipedia:

The Grand Marais/Thunder Bay Border stop was unmanned when I passed through it in the mid 90’s, likewise International Falls.

Still happens.
There are hundreds of miles of Minnesota-Canada border; only a couple of spots have actual border-patrol staffed crossings (and even they aren’t staffed 24/7 any more). The border includes lots of backwoods/farming areas, with trails or minor gravel roads across it. Locals can easily use these to go across the border, with no one the wiser. And they did so commonly, or at least, they did so a few years ago when I was last in that area. Mostly to visit friends; there aren’t a lot of towns in the area.