Saturday, March 30, 2013

Lost Brook Dispatches: The Fate of Charles Brodhead

Erie Canal LockLast week we left Charles C. Brodhead in Indian Pass, he having arrived almost fifty years prior to David Henderson’s well-documented venture.  As he chained through the pass Brodhead was slightly less than halfway through a survey of the line marking the boundary between the Totten and Crossfield Purchase, the Old Military Tract and the Macomb Purchase, the third and largest of the three great early Adirondack Tracts.

We have not previously encountered the Macomb Purchase and we will only touch upon it now.  The Macomb purchase lay to the west of the Military Tract and its southern boundary was supposed to be the northern boundary of Totten Crossfield.  But as we have seen there was no completed northern boundary for Totten Crossfield, thus the extent of the Macomb Purchase could not be properly calculated.  It was Brodhead’s job to rectify that and to connect to Archibald Campbell’s unfinished line.  As we will see, as astonishing as his High Peaks survey was, in the end he failed in this task.  

Having somehow crossed the southern floor of Indian Pass, Brodhead made his way around Wallface to the south, going partially up the back shoulder, then down to a small valley harboring the outlet stream from Wallface Ponds at 19 miles 79 chains.  This he described as a “Creek Southerly,” a significant entry, for having missed Indian Pass Brook he was encountering his first south-running stream.  Thus had he passed from the St. Lawrence watershed to the Hudson watershed.

An even more significant entry followed a mere 66 feet further to a round 80 chains, exactly 20 miles from the beginning of his survey.  As with all surveyors of the time, Brodhead marked “mile trees,” blazed with a mile number, year and his initials.  At this mile tree he recorded the following: ”A Balsom Cord & Markd  M20| C. B. 1797 on the west side of a Beaver brook several trees blaized around this Cor.”  You will recall that the Military Tract was set by law to be 20 miles in width.  Brodhead had therefore arrived at what he calculated to be the Southwest Corner of the Tract.  He blazed several witness trees, memorializing the corner, after which he continued past it on his bearing towards his hoped-for rendezvous with Campbell’s northern line.

Here we encounter our first hint of trouble with this survey.  Brodhead’s distance measurements and line through his amazing twenty-mile route was quite accurate, thus this corner was accurately placed.  However no map I have seen shows it.  Certainly no contemporary map shows it and my 1911 map does not show it either.  Brodhead’s corner, the correct southwestern point for a massive tract of land set by the State of New York,  simply does not exist.

From his marked corner Brodhead continued up over the shoulder of MacNaughton and down, blazing his next two mile trees.  Just past the 22 mile mark we get this sequence of entries:

22 miles 7 chains:   “a Small pond.”

22 miles 11 chains: “Mitchels Line in ye pond which Line I struck 21 chs. South a Cedar Tree mrkd M55 | 1796”

This was a line run the year before by the surveyor Medad Mitchell.  The pond in question was Upper Preston Pond.  Mitchell had been hired to survey the Macomb purchase in 1796 and this line was the eastern boundary of that purchase.  Unfortunately that also made it the western boundary of the Military Tract.  But Brodhead, measuring carefully, had just fixed that boundary more than two miles east!  Not only that, Mitchell’s line terminated 21 chains north of Brodhead’s line, or north a quarter of a mile.  Brodhead’s field notes do not contain his reaction to this problem.  Both surveyors were right in their own measurements. The discrepancy was the inevitable result of trying to fix an exact boundary from two different directions with only a set of inaccurate descriptions of tracts on paper and a couple of inaccurate previous surveys to work with.

Mitchell’s summary of his work describes running this eastern line, then turning west and running the southern line back to Campbell’s line (the details of Mitchell’s survey and the Macomb purchase in general could fill a book and will not be dealt with here).  However his detailed field notes for this part of the survey do not survive.  We know he ran the eastern line because Brodhead found it.  But in fact he never ran the southern line despite the description in his summary, making him yet another surveyor who avoided extending that line past Campbell.  Brodhead knew this, since having been hired to do what Mitchell had not done he was well aware of Mitchell’s survey.  So he made no adjustment at the Preston Ponds and simply continued on with his own bearing.

Brodhead passed through the less formidable Western High Peaks region, south of Duck Hole, through Cold River country, south of the Seward Range, past the northern tip of Long Lake and just south of Duck Lake to a total distance of 42 miles from his starting point.  Here he made the following entry:

a Beech cor’d and Mark’d M42  here could find nothing of the Line or Corner I am in search of run at a L North and South 1 1/2 mile each way, still finding nothing of ye line and our provisions exosted—we returned to Lake Shamplain…

The line for which Brodhead searched in vain was Campbell’s line, his long anticipated target.  Hold on to your hats: modern measurements show that he missed it because he stopped his survey just a mile short of where he needed.  Had he gone but a bit further his attempt to run north to find Campbell’s line would have hit pay dirt in less than 1,500 feet.  Perhaps he stopped where he did because his provisions ran out; perhaps it was a miscalculation.  The reason is unknown, but after the magnitude of the work he’d done, the cruelty of stopping just short makes me wince.

Brodhead did not give up.  After returning to the field to survey some townships near the St. Lawrence River he went to Campbell’s corner and tried from the other direction, following Campbell’s northern line which had been partly resurveyed by Mitchell as part of his Macomb work.  He found that Mitchell had not run the line as far as he’d said and further found Campbell’s original marks, now twenty five years old, exceedingly difficult to follow.  Giving up formal chaining after an assistant fell ill, Brodhead bushwhacked as far as he estimated that he needed, then ran north and south four miles each way in an attempt to find his own line.  This too met with no success; ironically the measurements show that it was because he had once again not gone quite far enough.

Brodhead made a third try, following an offset by Mitchell and chaining east much further than before, so as to have no chance to miss his line.  Then he turned south and finally hit his own survey mark, just past the 38 mile mark.  At last he had made a connection between Campbell’s line and his own, but it was a messy jigsaw puzzle that did not line up and that he was not able to clarify.  This difficulty turned out to cost him dearly.

Brodhead returned from the woods and made his report to the Surveyor General.  In it he gave the southern boundary of the Macomb Purchase, as he had been charged to do, providing acreages for each of the Macomb great lots.  But in his report he made two judgment calls, both of which turned out to be mistakes.

The first mistake was to accept his own corner for the east/west boundary between the Macomb Purchase and the Military Tract in favor of the line run by Mitchell two miles further west.  But Mitchell had actually intersected the Tappen/Fleming line to the north and had run south correctly.  So it is that Brodhead’s corner is lost to history, even though the 20 mile measurement he made was right on.

The second one is a sadder matter if you have been in awe of Brodhead’s work.  His troubles in trying to reconcile his southern line with Campbell’s and Mitchell’s lines made it extremely difficult to finally resolve the boundaries of the Macomb purchase.  Both Campbell’s line and Mitchell’s lines were north of his; not only that, he himself had gone to Campbell’s Corner and accepted it.  Therefore he made a choice to accept their work wholesale even though they had run no actual line east of Coney Mountain.  Brodhead made his calculations for the land acreages based upon a line that did not exist except on paper.  In doing so he threw out the very line we have been celebrating, the result of his magnificent, astonishing survey.

According to a detailed report from Edward Bond, the surveyor who finally fixed this line in 1903, Brodhead’s descriptions of the southern line, in the absence of his actual measurements, contained multiple directions and bearings, leaving it so confusing that it too was not accepted by the proprietors of the Macomb Purchase.  So they sent yet another young man in 1799 who finally pushed Campbell’s line past Coney Mountain all the way to the Preston Ponds and gave the accepted southern boundary for the Macomb purchase.  It turns out that this line was also errant – in fact it was less accurate than Campbell’s, a victim of magnetic compass bearings warped by ore deposits in the interior of the High Peaks. But it became the accepted line nonetheless.

Meanwhile history shows that Brodhead’s 42 mile line had been surveyed quite accurately, despite his having given up on it.  The quarter-mile north-south difference between the his line and the accepted line led to a long gore that among other things defined the famous Cold River no-man’s-land that held the Mayorship of one Noah John Rondeau.

Whatever difficulty Brodhead’s failure gave him it apparently did not ultimately cost him his reputation for being a hard-core, go-to surveyor.  Brodhead’s biography is a little difficult to trace, not the least reason being that the Brodhead clan had produced at least one other Charles C. Brodhead and amateur historians and genealogists have clearly confused the two.  But from a couple of sources, most especially Gerard Koeppel’s wonderfully written book Bond of Union we do know that he became a leading citizen of Utica, was appointed Oneida County sheriff in 1800 and acquired property and wealth.  Apparently he lost most of it in the depression following the War of 1812.  He was trying to rebuild his holdings when his proven skills got him a job, by far his greatest, which brings our story to a dramatic conclusion.

In 1816, with the  State of New York in need of the best surveyors it could get as never before in history, Charles C. Brodhead’s was assigned the responsibility to lead the survey of the eastern third of the Erie Canal.   The idea of building a canal to connect the Hudson River to the Great Lakes and cement New York’s position as the dominant power in American commerce had been in the wind for years.  But it had been deemed impossible due to the tremendous topographical profile though which it would have to run.  No one believed such a lock system could be built.  So eminent a critic as President Thomas Jefferson, himself a skilled surveyor, had judged it not doable in a hundred years.  Yet in 1816 the project began, spurred by bold ambition and economic imperative.  The Erie Canal needed Brodhead and he answered the call.

I know almost nothing of the details of the Erie Canal project, but it is clear from what I have researched that Brodhead was thought of as the guy you picked to do what no one else could do.  Of the three sections into which the Erie Canal project was divided, the Eastern third was by far the most challenging section.  Look at this 1836 map of a profile of the canal (courtesy of Wikipedia), which is clickable:





It is easy to see that Brodhead was given the “impossible” section, ultimately requiring a monumental array of locks and features.  In addition, various anecdotal sources show that Brodhead played a crucial role in suggesting solutions to some of the most daunting technical problems in layng out the overall design.  History clearly should rank him as a preeminent surveyor for this and for his previous work.

But history ranks him hardly at all.  Charles Brodhead did not continue as a leader in the Erie Canal project.  Instead, after completing his portion of the survey he left the project, even as groundbreaking commenced near Rome.  Whether he wanted to leave it or left in disappointment and defeat is unclear.  But when the surveying corps was promoted to an engineering corps following the survey of the canal in 1817, Brodhead alone among the principals was not elevated.  If you peruse accounts of the Erie Canal on line you will see that almost none of them even mention him.

The role of leader of the project fell to the surveyor of the middle section of the Erie Canal, a gentleman named Benjamin Wright.  Wright, whose leadership, intelligence, charisma and fortitude became legend, was promoted to Chief Engineer and oversaw the canal’s construction.

As we know, the Erie Canal was successfully built, despite the daunting challenges.  It was the greatest feat in civil engineering of its time, indeed one of the greatest of all time and it changed the course of American history.  Benjamin Wright went on to great fame and to this day is known as “The Father of American Civil Engineering.”

Charles Brodhead returned to life in Utica and became a recluse, remaining a bachelor for the rest of his life.  For thirty five years he was all but unheard from.  He died in 1852, forgotten almost completely.  Only two references are readily available for him: a Charles Brodhead who first ascended Giant Mountain and a Charles Brodhead who worked on the Erie Canal.  Everything else is hidden in mist.

Brodhead’s abandonment of his Adirondack survey has pathos and drama, but we are not quite done yet.  I will remind you that I promised this tale would end with a terrible irony, not just pathos.  I do not know the real reasons behind the failure of Charles Brodhead to reap the rewards of the Erie Canal.  It may have been his choice to retire, nothing more than that.  But there is something else to know about the circumstances, whatever the ultimate import of this knowledge.

You may recall from the first part of this story published two weeks ago that Brodhead made his reputation by succeeding in the Castorland surveys, replacing an overmatched predecessor who had been fired.  You may also recall that this predecessor was then hired back to work under Brodhead, who by various accounts was a difficult and curmudgeonly boss.  Then from this Dispatch we have yet another surveyor who was hired to fix Brodhead’s problems with the Macomb line and whose line was accepted as the southern boundary after Brodhead’s report left a muddle.  As it happens, these two surveyors, the failed young surveyor of Castorland and the 1799 surveyor hired to fix the Brodhead’s Macomb line, were the same man.

The name of this man, the course of whose early life was changed more than once by the hard successes and failures of Charles Brodhead?  Benjamin Wright.

Photo: Erie Canal Lock, 1839.  Courtesy Wikipedia

As a postscript to this story, I offer the reader this link.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

5 Responses

  1. Eagleye says:

    I just have to say, congratulations. Fantastic.
    Such digging and details and good writing. THANK YOU !
    Truly great to give Charles Brodhead his due.

  2. Gail says:

    Extremely enlightening article and very well written. Many thanks for introducing me to this Charles Brodhead. In addition to the Bond of Union book, your readers may enjoy reading online: pages 104-111 of the 1877 book, The Pioneers of Utica (

    • Pete Nelson says:


      Thanks for this great excerpt. I worked with as many sources as I could find – which were few, all told. To have this more involved description of his nature, especially later in life, is fascinating.

      I note how little knowledge and credit is given to early historical figures for their labors surveying and exploring the Adirondacks. Truly it remained a region unnoticed and unremarkable, for a long time. It is as though the rich history of human experience with the Adirondacks before the 19th century was obscured until Emmons, Murray and Colvin brought the region to life.

      Can you tell me anything more about the author of this book, M.M. Bagg?

  3. Gail says:

    Yes, I agree, that having those descriptions of his personality, especially later in life, is fascinating. They really complement all your great work bringing him to life for current generations. Very important, and truly interesting!

    As for MM Bagg, apparently MM stands for Moses Mears. I checked and discovered Bagg lived from 1779 – 1844 (born and died in Utica). Amazon has the Pioneers book as well as one other (Memorial History of Utica). I’m sure that one can be found online as well since the copyright is long expired.

    I only learned of the Pioneers of Utica book after referring to the Brodhead family history volumes I have on hand (published by Brodhead Family Assn)to try to figure out which Charles this was and how he was related to me (Turns out he was my 5th great grandfather’s nephew).

    So your article was a wonderful discovery! Many thanks again!

  4. Terry Rozycki says:

    Pete: Thank you so much for a most interesting series. You filled in much information for me for the Map Exhibit at the Goodsell Museum in Old Forge. The last, about Brodhead, I could find nothing on. Also, thank you for giving us permission to print your entire series for the public to read when they visit.