Saturday, December 20, 2014

Where Was the Mysterious Station 77?

Colvin-Survey-Disk-Best-PictureThanks to the good faith and honesty of Kyle Kristiansen, the young man who unearthed a benchmark disk from Verplanck Colvin’s 1882 Adirondack Survey in a New Jersey field, I had in my possession a triangulation survey bolt marked Station 77.

Colvin and his crew placed thousands of benchmarks, but only about three hundred of these nickel-plated copper triangulation bolts, which I was told were numbered roughly from 1 to 299.

I assumed it would be a simple matter to find records that would positively identify it. I was mistaken.

My examination of online records and reports by Colvin turned up little, but offered a single lead. It was a table from his 1879 Report to the NYS Legislature that showed benchmarks for his 1875 Division of Rods and Levels from Westport to the summit of Mount Marcy. Benchmark 15, located about a mile east of Elizabethtown, was also listed as Station 77. Several of the benchmarks were listed that way, doing double duty as leveling benchmarks but also as triangulation stations. I already knew that Colvin often reused numbers, but while I found other references to benchmarks numbered 77 I could find no reference to a Station numbered 77.

At first I was excited – after all, this was the definitive series of measurements to Marcy’s summit from known elevations in Westport, and these constituted an very important and historic series of benchmarks. Not only that, Colvin described Station 77 as situated “on a large rock on the north side of the road” along the course of present Route 9N. So, this was a disk located not in the back country or on a remote summit but presumably in plain sight, a prize glinting in the sun, waiting to be pried out by some enterprising vandal.

As astute readers will have already gathered, there was a big problem with this theory. Colvin’s Rod and Level determination of Marcy’s elevation occurred in 1875 and Station 77 was unmistakably dated 1882. So, tempting as this explanation was, I abandoned it.

So, still assuming there must be a complete, ordered list of triangulation stations somewhere, I made inquires to the Colvin Crew, the Adirondack Museum and New York State among others. The Colvin Crew was helpful (being intimately familiar with the nature of the issue) but still, no dice.

Ultimately a researcher knows there is no substitute for primary sources, so I had the New York State Archives ship the microfilm of Colvin’s complete field notes for 1882 to Wisconsin and I went to work. I scanned thousands of darkened, fuzzy hand-written pages looking for clues and induced not a few throbbing headaches along the way.

Examination of Colvin’s field notes showed that my previous assumption that he did’t reuse station numbers was incorrect. The various journals show inconsistent use of terminology and taught me that I could not rely on the word station in any way.

But I could rely upon the method of his work. There was a listing of a Station 77 in a rod a level measurement up the Hudson, but this work did not involve triangulation. An extensive survey of Raquette Lake also included a Station 77 but that mark was found in place by the Colvin Crew. Colvin Crew Superintendent Jim Vianna, with whom I corresponded several times, confirmed that the bolt in question was a traverse station mark, not a triangulation bolt. There was extensive triangulation work in the Moose River area, near Wells and in the Macomb Purchase, but no recording of a Station 77. From what I had learned before, given that the triangulation stations themselves were sequentially numbered, this work would have involved higher numbers than 77.

I kept looking, but the reels of 1882 film were running out. I continued to note every reference in the microfilm I thought might be useful, but was still no closer to an answer.

Then at last I found something. In 1882, Colvin had sent an assistant (not named, but likely C.R. Hawkins) to the area of the southern border of the Old Miltary Tract, the Town of Moriah and further south to Lake George to “monument” previous benchmarks and tie them into the triangulation system which Colvin had begun from the shore of Lake Champlain. The specific instructions would more accurately situate and permanently monument critical stations that had been established, but not permanently marked. Permanent markers were nickel-plated copper bolts marked with the year they were verified and the bolt was placed, not the year they were originally identified.

Given where the assistant was sent and where the network of triangles lay in that region, I was returned to Benchmark 15 and Station 77 on the road from Westport. The difference in dates had a plausible explanation!

Do I have a definitive answer? Certainly not. It’s only a best guess. But it’s an exciting one for me. Colvin’s line from Westport to Marcy is one of the great lines in New York surveying history. Not surprisingly DEC has confirmed to me that they want the disk back. They shall have it, with my next trip to the Adirondacks. They are looking at their records to see if they can shed any further light. There is more work I could do as well (such as seeing if other triangulation bolts from the area of Hawkins’ work also bear the date 1882). But I have learned a lot more about Verplanck Colvin and his great Adirondack Survey from his primary materials. That has been a joy and a privilege.

As to how Station 77 ended up in New Jersey, who knows? But I did discover a possible Adirondack connection. The address of the listed owner of a former Christian Girl’s camp, is just a couple of miles from the field in which it was found.

Photo: the Station 77 Triangulation Bolt

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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.

9 Responses

  1. Smitty says:

    Great research work Pete. But how do you find the time to write all these interesting articles AND commute back and forth between Madison and the Adirondacks? Regardless, thanks for doing it.

  2. David says:

    So, any further zeroing in on the location of the Route 9N boulder?I drive that road weekly and my curiosity is piqued!

  3. Tony Goodwin says:

    I would seriously doubt that one could find that boulder today. Remember that this was placed on a boulder next to the road as it existed in 1882, but Rt. 9N is now four or five times wider than it was then. In widening the road, roadside boulders had to be removed. Once the boulder was removed, the benchmark ceased to have any value to surveyors. Sometimes in highway improvements benchmarks are reset nearby, but i believe that would be the exception.

    So, the boulder has just been blasted apart to make way for the improved road and there is an interesting piece of historic, but no longer useful, metal lying around. It’s therefore not surprising that someone claimed it and took a little piece of the Adirondacks back to New Jersey.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      I agree with Tony. We know for certain there was a benchmark in a boulder along present-day 9N. Whether my theory is right and it was a copper bolt or whether it was merely the original mark chiseled into the stone, it definitely existed. But wherever it was it is likely long gone.

      However, there are a couple interesting things to consider.

      The first question is when the road was widened to the extent that the boulder would have to have been removed. The second question is whether the benchmark was already gone by then. I have no answer to the former – but someone reading this must! So write in! Therefore I can only speculate as to the latter, though, as I wrote, the condition of the disk indicated it had been buried for many years.

      The interesting evidence to support the speculation that the disk was already removed by the time the road was widened is that while there is no deformation at all in the circularity of the disk, nor scars or marks on the surface beyond expected scratches, the stem by which it was anchored in the rock is considerably bent off center, at an angle and in the manner one would expect if the disk had been pried out.

      There is also the small possibility the boulder still exists. After all, we do not know how close it was to the road, nor do we know if the road was rerouted in that section. If someone wanted to go looking for the location for fun, it would be possible.

      There are two ways one could seek the boulder. The precise way would be to recreate Colvin’s triangulation. That would require his field notes and calculations, buried in records from between 1871 and 1881 (when, at different times, he did extensive triangulation work in the area). These calculations being made before 1882 were not part of the records I reviewed. Doing actual triangulation work would be no small task (likely impossible to physically recreate as necessary view lines would almost certainly require illegal cutting, but it could be done digitally on a map system if one had Colvin’s numbers).

      The second way would be to deduce a general vicinity and go hunting. This is doable because even without the field calculations Colvin left enough clues. His actual description of the benchmark is disappointingly vague: “On a large rock on the north side of the road, and about one mile east of Eizabethtown.” But, crucially, his table includes elevations, plus other benchmarks in the series for comparison. Regrading of the road to its modern state may have altered its elevation, but probably not by much, and it would not change the overall topographic profile of the road.

      From the table, the third previous benchmark is opposite a burial ground, elevation 554 feet. So that distance could be determined. The next benchmark is “at entrance to the Raven pass,” elevation 624 feet. This is the crest of a hill because our benchmark, the next in the series, is at 598 and the next two benchmarks descend to 509, last one being according to Colvin about one quarter mile further west from our benchmark.

      These indicators set clear parameters and topographhy that would allow an earnest explorer with a good topographic map and perhaps an altimeter to likely define and area a hundred or so yards each way roughly east-west – maybe even better than that – and probably twenty or so yards north-south, given we know the boulder was near the road. That’s a doable search. The bolt may be gone but the circular drill hole, on a high and flat section, would be unmistakable.

      All that said, this presupposes that my theory about the disk is right and that’s a big leap. Even if it is right, Tony Goodwin is likely correct: there’s nothing to go hunting for any more.

      I’ll leave it to someone else to do this hunting, if ever such hunting is to be done. But I have learned that there are just such crazy types among the readership. So who knows?

  4. Tony Goodwin says:

    There is a piece of older road about one mile east of Elizabethtown. It goes to the north of the current highway and between two little ponds to provide access to two houses. It appears to be a bit lower than the highest point in “Ravens Pass, but before the road descends more steeply to the level of the Boquet River. If the boulder still exists, I would imagine it would have to be on that short stretch of old road.

    • Nature says:

      Its been a while since I passed by that way. But I remember seeing what looks to be an old road bed just north of Route 9N in portions of “Ravens pass”. Maybe Pete will get lucky and find a boulder with a large drill hole in it?

  5. Having received numerous e-mails on this article, I thought I should write a short reply.

    As Pete has pointed out, the disk in question is a “primary triangulation” station marker. Of this type, it is assumed there are roughly 300 scattered over the Adirondacks. One of the last ones set was in 1895 (no. 296). Most were on prominent peaks but not all. Some reside on lake shores as well as the sides of highways. I have a picture from a summit I won’t name showing the same style to Pete’s from 1880 (sta. 55). We call that style of disk a “type 2”.

    Rarely in dealing with Colvin markers is a conclusive answer found. In particular, the term “bench-mark” is most often mis-construed. In it’s purist form and as used by Colvin it applies strictly to a “vertical” point established with a known elevation and would have no correlation to trigonometric or boundary work. Most of Colvin’s benchmarks were “knob and circle” cuts in rock with the BM number and elevation painted in white. With that said, it is entirely possible that Colvin re-marked an existing vertical BM with a primary triangulation disk and incorporated it into his geodetic network. In later years, Colvin transferred elevations via trigonometrically methods rather than with rod and level.

    The Colvin Crew did an extensive recovery of “level branch C” from the Marcy BM run Pete mentions. A description of such can be found on our “past recoveries” page under “Lake Tear of the clouds”

    On a side note, the Colvin Crew in conjunction with numerous state and national surveying associations will be holding the most comprehensive and detailed tribute to Verplanck Colvin to date in September of 2016 in Lake George, NY. This three day conference is open to all and will involve field excursions.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Thanks Jim, for the informative comment.

      I note from your opening paragraph Station 55 that was monumented in 1880. Given that it’s a summit, do you know what year that station was originally measured? If it was originally measured prior to 1880 then I’m thinking maybe I’ll go back to the microfilm to look for triangulation work that placed Station 77 in 1879 (because of Colvin’s table entry I referenced in the article and because of its sequential number in comparison to other benchmarks).

      If I ever do that and actually find the specific work I will attempt a digital calculation and go look for it.

      Thanks again,


      • Pete,
        No, I have never researched the history of sta. 55. I believe it to be of an early date though and as you have pointed out it may have been used prior to having a disk installed.