Surveyors Rendezvous `99

Just to be there, in the sun-drenched wilds of the Blue Ridge in Glory Autumn, was to understand, instantly, why first the red man then gray-clad thousands fought so hard against invaders. And to actually survey, with compass, pole and chain (and plenty of modern machetes), up the steep, boulder-strewn headwaters of the River Rappahannock, was to come away with new-found respect for our surveyor ancestors, and amazement at what they accomplished.

Counting spouses, of which there were many, about 150 people made the pilgrimage to Luray, Virginia for Surveyors Historical Society's "Rendezvous ‘99," this past September. Ralph and Adele Donnelly of Maryland were there, along with Marc and Jackie Cheves, Curt Sumner of ACSM, and NSPS Director Bill Coleman with wife Miriam . Willi Schmidt and Randall Myers made the trip from Pennsylvania. Gary Thompson came up from Carolina. The Rendezvous was sponsored in part by both the Virginia and West Virginia state associations, and meetings were held as part of the program by both VALS and NSPS. One of the key organizers of the whole event was David Ingram of Mt. Crawford, Virginia (who deserves enormous credit). We had northerners, southerners, westerners, New Englanders. People came in from all over. Luray hadn't seen anything like it since the last time Mosby came through.

As always with SHS, the assembled expertise was impressive. Silvio Bedini and Dr. Deborah Werner were there from the Smithsonian, along with former Library of Congress map curator Dr. Richard Stephenson, author and instrument expert Dale Beeks, surveyor-writer Milton Denny (who makes old-time Gunter's chains), Dr. Richard Elgin from Missouri, and surveyor-historian Norman Brown, who claims, most believably, to have been present on the original 1746 survey crew. Quite a group it was then, that came to Old Virginia for a stone.

 

But not just any stone…
On September 25, 1746, eight years before the French and Indian War, a survey party of 40 set out from Bearfence Mountain in the Blue Ridge on one of the legendary land surveys in American history. They had already spent two weeks charting various wild rivers to find the true "Headspring of the Rappahannock," their Point of Beginning as decreed by King George. Among the party were axemen, chainmen, compassmen, note keepers, mathematicians, astronomers, hunters, cooks, and "gentleman commissioners" whose job it was to make "lawyerly" decisions as needed and to purchase provisions (somehow) along the way, keeping the party supplied. They were hand-picked, every one, the best men and minds in Virginia. Thomas Jefferson's colonel-father, the strongest man in Rockingham County, was one of the leaders. Their task? Carve and measure a straight line 80 miles long through the wilderness, connecting the sources of the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers … to survey the "Fairfax Line."

They ended up going 170 miles, not 80, through the most impossible country east of the Rocky Mountains. Picking a starting bearing as best they could, based on maps of their day, they departed the source of the Rappahannock and surveyed 76 miles straight out, struck the Potomac River 6 miles north of its headspring, surveyed the 6 miles over to the correct spot, set a stone marker, calculated a proper return bearing and then surveyed 76.4 miles back to the place of beginning, chopping across to their original outbound line numerous times for checks. They missed their original starting point by 100 yards—an error of closure about 1 in 3000—and (leaving it unclosed) carved "FX" on a stone at their ending point November 13, 1746 … the "Fairfax Stone."

They did it all with compass and chain—and fortitude untold—in 50 days.

You think you've done tough field work in your life? No doubt you have, but it was nothing, nothing, compared to what these 1746 surveyors went through. Consider the following few entries from the "Journal" of Thomas Lewis, surveyor and mathematician, who left behind one of the two sets of surviving field notes from this survey:

"Friday, October 3rd … Thence 604 poles to the top of Devil's Backbone, alias North Mountain, to a Chestnut Oak we marked 31 miles. This day several of the horses had like to been killed, tumbling over rocks and precipices, and we ourselves were often in utmost danger. This terrible place we called Purgatory …"

"Sunday, October 5th … Horses were starving, provisions not being sufficient … 1380 poles to the top of a very steep mountain. Being almost dark, our [equipment] had gone down the mountain before. We knew not where they had pitched our tents, nor how to get down the mountain, it being extremely high and rocky, and [by] now quite dark and we had our horses to take down! Setting off, we fell into a [canyon] that had precipices on either [side, very narrow, full of ledges and brush, and exceedingly rocky. A very great descent. We all like to been killed with repeated falls, and our horses were in a miserable condition. The loose rocks were so [dangerous] as to prove fatal. We at length got to the bottom, [which was] not much better, there being a large water course with banks extremely steep that obliged us to cross at places almost [vertical]. After great despair, we at length got to camp about 10 o'clock, hardly anyone without broken [bones] or other misfortune …"

"Monday, October 13th … It was with the greatest difficulty we could get along the mountains, being full of fallen timber and ivy so interwoven that horse nor man could hardly force through … Very difficult access to the top, where was a precipice about 16 feet high … When we had gained the summit, it was marshy on top of the highest mountain I ever saw …"

"Tuesday, October 14th … 406 poles, crossed the River Styx. This river we called Styx from the dismal appearance of the place, being sufficient to strike terror into any human creature. Laurels, ivy and spruce-pine so thick in the swamp through which this river runs that one cannot [see anything] except by looking up. The water of the river is dark brown and hardly moves. Depth about 4 feet, bottom muddy and banks high, which made it extremely difficult for most of the horses. When they attempted to ascend the bank, tumbled with their loads back into the river. We were obliged to camp on the bank where we could find not a place big enough for one man to lie [down]. No place for horses to feed, and to prevent their eating laurel, tied them all up lest they be poisoned …"

"Wednesday, October 15th … The swamp is full of rocks and cavities covered over with a kind of moss [to] considerable depth. The laurel and ivy are so woven together that without cutting it is impossible to force through. In what danger must we be, all [treacherous] places being obscured by a cloak of moss! Such thickets of laurel to struggle through, whose branches are composed of iron! Our horses and [we] ourselves fell into clefts and cavities without seeing the danger before we [fell]. No one was of much [use] to others, for in striving to evade a dangerous place, often fell into a worse. Frequently we had roots to cut and rocks to break to free our horses, of whom four or five [would be in trouble] at a time …"

Later, much later, still in the same swamp …

"Never was any poor creatures in such a condition as we! Nor ever was a criminal more glad of having escaped from prison as we were to Get Rid of those Accursed Laurels! From the Beginning of Time, when we entered this swamp, I did not see a [dry] place big enough for a man to lie nor a horse to stand! Our difficulties in this swamp [cannot] e conceived [or] expressed. If any place can be twice as bad as the Swamp at Styx, yet possible for men to struggle through, this was the place. Our horses tumbled into [underwater] holes, [completely] out of sight! Mr. Brook was taken very ill with dizziness in his head, fainting in the middle of the swamp, which we had reason to fear would be his [grave] …"

How many land surveyors today have field notes like that in their files? It just got worse and worse. Unexplored trackless wilderness, huge mountain ranges, endless swamps, dangers of every kind, and starvation for man and beast as the "gentleman commissioners," ranging far and wide on horseback, found no end of trouble keeping the party supplied. Along this route there were no towns, much less marketplaces, for anyone to acquire anything. All told, the expedition crossed 14 large mountain ranges, 20 rivers and more than 50 smaller streams, not including the awful swamps and marshes. Because they were running the line itself, they couldn't go around things—they had to go straight through.

The wonder is that a single person came back alive. Yet not only did they survive the nightmare, they surveyed 170 miles through all of it and closed out 1 in 3000! Amazing. Just amazing.

A Modern Day Survey
In contrast to that experience, Surveyor's Historical Society spent a beautiful three-day fall weekend surveying and searching Bearfence Mountain for the stone marked "FX." It was just a tiny taste (thank God!) of the hardships endured by that original crew. True, the mountain was still very steep, the woods were thick, rugged, filled with rocks and boulders. But we were able to get a few of our air-conditioned 4-wheel-drives down Park Service fire roads to within fairly easy reach of the site. We also had a modern hotel to return to at night, a catered picnic in one of the park's recreation areas, and a fine banquet at the end. Really roughing it, we were.
Apparently the Fairfax Stone, marked "FX," was never again seen nor surveyed after 1746. At least there is no known record of it ever being recovered by anyone. Trying to figure out exactly where to search, Dave Ingram of Mt. Crawford, Virginia worked for a year with a 3-state team of SHS volunteers, GPS-ing 80 miles of existing monuments along the Fairfax Line.
Doug Richmond pitched in with his firm, Geometrics GPS, as did Trimble rep Bill Moore with EVS Associates and Marshall Robinson with Allegheny Surveys. Bob Gochenour and the National Park Service staff provided invaluable assistance. WVALS members Don Teter, Debbie Teter, Dave Jopling and Rick Casteel put in many hours, together with Ingram-Hagan employees Dennis Grogg, Ron Harsh and Nick Scaboo. Everybody's time was donated to the cause. After much hard work and computation, SHS was able to determine, with pretty good accuracy, where the old stone ought to be. Sure enough, at the predicted spot was the head of a rocky creek that eventually (with lots of other creeks) becomes the Rappahannock. Also at that spot … about 300,000 stones.

Retracing Ancient Footsteps
On Thursday the 23rd of September, chief-of-party Milton Denny, using compass, pole and chain, led a survey team of SHS volunteers (including plenty of much-needed "machete-men") up the headwaters of the Rappahannock, following the exact courses and distances in Thomas Lewis' original 1746 field notes. His crew surveyed right up to the predicted area, and then worked hard clearing out brush. But no one could spot "The Stone."

Friday, every able-bodied man, woman and child in Surveyors Historical Society descended on Bearfence Mountain to search for the stone marked "FX." We went over the area like the FBI Crime Lab. Fanning out in all directions, we actually found not one, but two "possibles." Rick Casteel, past-president of WVALS, found a 24-inch, vertically-set field stone, firm and upright, very much like an old farm corner. It looked about in the right place—100 yards from the headspring—and if you imagined hard enough, might have had a faint "F" (maybe), but no "X."
Chas Langelan of Maryland found a 6-inch square-cut, with a couple of curious extended lines, on a large boulder right at the headspring—very old and man-made looking. The original Point of Beginning, perhaps? No matter how we turned our heads, we couldn't make "FX" out of it. And a group of surveyors later found an enormous boulder high up the mountainside, impossibly out of position but sporting a huge, uneven "IX" of natural fissures. The experts (including the finders) unanimously dismissed this last one as not being "The Stone," but were pretty evenly divided about the merits of the other two.

A Taste of What the Weather Was Like
SHS returned afterward to GPS them all, and compared their positions with the other evidence. Archaeology teams were also brought in from James Madison University to sift for 18th Century artifacts at the stones. The result? Dave Ingram says SHS is "80 percent certain" that the stone Rick Casteel found is the Fairfax Stone. After climbing on the mountain for hours, it was a tired and hungry group of surveyors who gathered at (appropriately-named) "Pinnacles" recreation area for the annual SHS picnic. There we were treated to another little glimpse of what the original surveyors experienced. (No, not starvation!) The sun went down, the wind roared up, the temperature dropped until it felt like 30. Night time on the mountaintop! Colder and blacker than an assassin's heart, and most of us were still in tee-shirts from working hard all day. It quickly became clear that even in our times, being caught in darkness on the mountain is no joking matter, but unlike the 1746 crew we didn't have to extricate ourselves and our horses by blundering off a cliff in the blackness. We had our heated 4-wheel drives, with headlights, and Skyline Drive (thank you, Mr. Roosevelt) all the way back to the hotel.

Many Treasures to Behold
Not all the action was on Bearfence Mountain. SHS also had a number of fine talks and seminars, most notably by Dr. Richard Stephenson (on 18th Century Virginia mapping), David Ingram (on retracing the 1746 Fairfax Line), Norman Brown (on running the line himself, in person), by Dr. Deborah Werner (on the Smithsonian's world-class instrument collection) and by Marc Cheves of Professional Surveyor Magazine (on Internet resources for surveyors). Mary Root and John Bartenstein gave a talk using the "vernacular of the region" (for which no translation guide could ever be written). All were interesting and informative.

Dr. Richard Elgin of Missouri, an expert on antique instruments (and owner of a collection that rivals the Smithsonian's) gave a great talk on the Chandlee family of colonial clock and compass makers, who were from Winchester, Virginia but got their start in Maryland. SHS put out a special call earlier in the year for folks to bring their Chandlee compasses to Luray, and the response was outstanding. Of 19 Chandlee compasses known to exist, ten found their way to Luray for SHS Rendezvous ‘99, probably the largest assembly of Chandlee compasses in one place in two hundred years.

Forget the stock market, boys! Put your money in survey compasses! The last Chandlee compass that sold at public auction went for $24,100 at Sotheby's in 1997, making the ten we had at Luray potentially worth a cool quarter million.

It was a fine, fine rendezvous, low-key and informal as SHS always is, with everything done (beautifully) by volunteers from the membership. It was a celebration from beginning to end. What makes the SHS events so much fun is their unique combination of learned talks, coupled with fairly authentic old-time field work. You just don't find that anywhere else. This year, October 5 through 7, 2000, SHS will rendezvous in Springfield, Illinois, where we will take up compass and chain to follow the footsteps of an obscure County Surveyor named Abraham Lincoln.

At the hotel bar Saturday night, just before our farewell banquet, we all hoisted a tall cold one, and drank a hearty toast, after 253 years, to Thomas Lewis, Joshua Fry, Peter Jefferson and their indomitable companions on the great Fairfax Survey of 1746 …


 

Chas Langelan, vice-president of the Maryland Society of Surveyors and a member of Surveyors Historical Society, volunteers his time as editor of The Maryland Surveyor newsletter for M.S.S., from which this article was adapted .

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