Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Mysterious Benchmark At Station 77

Colvin Division of Levels - Measurement of Whiteface MountainIt was late on the afternoon of November 4th, 1875.  A party of men worked feverishly in dense fog and deepening Adirondack frost, chiseling into the hard summit stone of Mount Marcy, New York’s highest point. They had been working since the first hint of daylight without the benefit of food or water, pressing on to finish their work as conditions worsened.  They turned their attention to setting a benchmark – chipping into anorthosite so tough that it had destroyed scores of their drill bits and chisel points.

Their leader Verplanck Colvin had just completed the final rod and level measurement in a series that had begun weeks before, many miles away on the shore of Lake Champlain. At last the height of the mightiest peak in the Empire State was determined with accuracy: 5344.311 feet above mean tide.

The benchmark they laid on Marcy in the growing darkness and cold that afternoon was number 111 in a long sequence rising from Westport.

In the early fall of 2013 a young man named Kyle Kristiansen went metal detecting in the small town of Allamuchy, New Jersey.  Kyle has amassed an interesting collection of artifacts from American history. He began the day by detecting in his cousin’s backyard. He thoroughly swept the area before deciding to try a new spot. “There aren’t a whole lot of properties in the little town,” says Kyle, “only about 20-35 houses I would say. So I picked one that had an old look to it.”

An Adirondack Artifact

After obtaining permission, he went to work, waving his detector back and forth along the rows and sections he had laid out. After four hours his patience was rewarded with a high-pitched signal – a strong target. Digging three or four inches under the soil he found a heavy round metal object with a central stem, about two inches in diameter. It was quite corroded. Whatever it might be was impossible to tell, but it had lettering along the edges.

Only a couple of letters could be made out, and four numbers: 1882. He put it in his pouch, brought it home and added it to his collection, another unidentified curio among many.

For several months the disc-shaped object remained in Kyle’s collection pretty much in the state in which he’d found it. He had rinsed it off with soap and water, but not knowing its value and not wanting to damage it, he elected not clean it with chemicals.

Kyle’s curiosity at the strange nature of the disc with its obscured lettering and numbering finally got the better of him, however. He soaked the disk in vinegar, a mild acid that will remove corrosion. Over several cycles of soaking following by careful light scrubbing with tin foil, he saw the letters begin to emerge with more clarity. He took a few high-resolution photos under different lighting and found a contrast that amplified the etched characters – at last the complete writing emerged.

20140316_151738(1)On the left-center of the disc were two small triangles, one smaller than the other and slightly offset, followed by the letters STA. On the right-center portion of the disc NO. 77 was engraved. Circling the disk, engraved along the edge, were these words: S.N.Y. ADIRONDACK SURVEY: VERPLANCK COLVIN SUPT. 1882

The nature of the etching and the year suggested that it might be historical and valuable. But Kyle had no idea what it might be. So like all enterprising young people, he Googled it. His web search of the etched text produced a link to the Adirondack Almanack (where else?).  Kyle made contact with Almanack editor John Warren who passed the story on to me.

I recognized the disc as a permanent benchmark placed by Colvin or a member of his crew during his landmark, decades-long survey of the Adirondacks.  It was essentially the same as the Colvin survey markers that can be found to this day on the summits of some Adirondack peaks.  Therefore it was likely an important piece of Adirondack history, wrenched from its rightful place at some point in the past.

I explained the marker’s significance to Kyle and explained that as an official survey marker it remained the property of New York State.  I asked him to send it to me so that I could research it and return it to the appropriate authority.  I sent him a prepaid shipping box and a book about Colvin and to his estimable credit he promptly mailed it to me.

I opened the box with excitement and examined the contents.  It was a Colvin benchmark, that was for sure.  It was a highly-corroded nickel-plated copper bolt with a stem that Colvin’s crew had sunk into a hole drilled into rock.  The stem was bent well off-center as though someone had exerted considerable force in order to pry it free.  The lettering was still hard to read but the station number, No. 77, was crystal clear.  I wrote a couple of experts who know far more about Colvin than I do and attached the Kyle’s high-resolution photo.  Their opinions confirmed my own.

Colvin and crew established thousands of benchmarks in the Adirondacks using a variety of techniques: chain survey, rod and level, barometer and chronometer.  But the cornerstone of Colvin’s work was triangulation: establishing a network of triangles, beginning from the shore of Lake Champlain and extending into the mountains using theodolite and transit, that ultimately mapped the entire region.

Of the thousands of benchmarks Colvin placed, only a few hundred of the most important ones were memorialized with copper bolts.  Kyle’s benchmark with its engraved triangles was clearly a triangulation bolt, one of the critical permanent markers anchoring Colvin’s entire survey.

I set out to find where in the Adirondacks it had actually been located and how it had ended up in a field in New Jersey.

Photo: Above, drawing of Colvin’s Rod and Level Determination of  the Elevation of Whiteface Mountain; and below, one of the photos Kyle sent to the Almanack of his object.

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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.

12 Responses

  1. laurie says:

    No fair leaving us hanging like that!

  2. Phil Terrie says:

    I’m confused, Pete. You begin this piece with the story of how VC established the accurate height of Marcy, in 1875, and note that the final station in that event was numbered 111. Then you make the transition to the found benchmark, which is numbered 77 but is dated 1882. Are these two things connected, other than through the fact that VC was the surveyor in both cases? The article seems to suggest that the found marker was in the sequence that ended on Marcy, but the dates suggest otherwise. If they are not somehow connected, why lead with the Marcy account? Please clarify.

    • Pete Nelson says:


      In short, I do not know for sure if they are connected, but I suspect they are, as the next article will describe. Otherwise I would not have led with the vignette on Marcy. You are quite right to notice that the dates don’t jibe. However, earlier benchmarks were revisited and used for multiple purposes…

      Stay tuned.


  3. scottvanlaer says:

    I know the BM on Marcy is missing also.

  4. Karl says:

    Who has it now and will it be put on museum display? Quite a story!

    • Pete Nelson says:

      I still have it. It will be offered to the State first – it’s their property. But I will ask to allow it to be given to a surveying museum in Wanakena.


      • John says:

        Pete, would you please tell more of this survey museum? Seems like the ideal depository for that disc and like others I found the dates confusing/mystifying. Look forward to the next installment.

  5. Bill Quinlivan says:

    Very interesting, Pete. Don’t mind being left hanging and look forward to the sequel.

    By the way, in your 4th paragraph, I think you meant the date to be 2013, unless you have more surprises in store. Sorry, kicked around the publishing business so long, I just have an affinity for finding typos.

  6. Charles Herr says:

    Three comments:
    It would seem that somewhere in the state’s archives there would be a listing or table of Colvin’s marker numbers and where installed. I skimmed through the McMartin/Rosevear Colvin Chronology, while not mentioning bolt nos., most of his and his team’s travels were in the Fulton Chain/ Raquette Lake/ Eckford chain region, including climbs of Blue, West , Bald and other mountains in the region.
    It is not the first Adirondack artifact found by Kyle and I again thank his efforts. In my history of the Fulton Chain and Raquette Lake Steamboat Company article: During the summer of 2014, on the lawn at the Goodsell Museum in Old Forge, Kyle Kristiansen, using a metal detector, discovered a metal object. Digging it up, he uncovered a buried metal luggage tag containing the initials “F.C & R.L.S.B.CO.”These letters stand for the Fulton Chain and Raquette Lake Steamboat Company, a short-lived and relatively unknown concern established for carrying passengers and cargo from Fourth Lake to Raquette Lake in the days before automobiles connected the region.
    Additional importance of the quality of Farrand Benedict’s work is Colvin’s confirmation of Benedict’s calculation of Mt. Marcy’s height determined some 35 years earlier as mentioned in the Inlet history article:In 1837, Ebenezer Emmons climbed Mt. Marcy (newly named for the governor) and published its height as 5,487 feet using barometric means and was quickly questioned by Edwin Johnson, a noted engineer, who claimed a figure under 5,000 feet using triangulation methods. Emmons called upon Benedict, labeled by some the “mathematician of his age” for an independent measurement. Benedict traveled to Mt. Marcy twice in 1838 and calculated 5,344 feet, a figure confirmed by Verplanck Colvin in 1874.

    Finding true artifacts such as the bolt brings us back to original moments of history and the people who were part of it.

    • Pete Nelson says:


      1. One would think so! To my knowledge no such list exists. I’ll be talking about that more in the next column.

      2. Actually Station 77 is indeed the first Adirondack artifact found by Kyle. Kyle was at the Goodsell in the summer of 2014 in order to attend my lecture there on Station 77. It was his first trip to the Adirondacks. Kate Lewis and I both suggested a few places he could detect and he found a few artifacts.

      3. I couldn’t agree more. Benedict was astoundingly accurate, as were most of the pioneer surveyors who preceeded him. John Richards was remarkably good at his work. His survey of Military Tract lots was mostly spot on even by contemporary standards.

      Charles I always enjoy your history writing. Keep it up and thanks for commenting.


  7. Kyle Kristiansen says:

    Beautiful job pete. It was my pleasure finding it and brings me great satisfaction to know i at least saved a real piece of history.

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