April 11, 2014

New monument on Bodie Island honors the
amazing work of early surveyors and mappers


At the gateway to Cape Hatteras National Seashore, in the middle of woods inhabited mostly by ticks and deer, there is now a monument honoring the only remaining original baseline for surveying on the East Coast.  

Among all the intriguing history on the Outer Banks, there may be none that seems so prosaic.
“We all know this may not mean a lot to very many people, ” Charles Brown, a state Department of Transportation location and surveys engineer, acknowledged during brief comments at the monument unveiling on Friday, “but it means a lot to us surveyors.”

What at first blush sounds duller than watching something measured – that is, people talking about measuring – turned out to be a fascinating American can-do story inspired by Lewis and Clark and carried out by visionary Thomas Jefferson.  

Created in 1807 at Jefferson’s behest, the U.S. Coast Survey was the nation’s first agency dedicated to a scientific project, according to a press release from the N.C. Society of Surveyors.  The agency’s mission was to survey the coast. Ultimately, the work led to the nation’s first accurate maps.

The men did their calculations with a surveying instrument and comparisons of astronomical observations with the time.

When a team of North Carolina surveyors located and re-measured the 6 -mile baseline -- small granite blocks marking each mile - at Bodie Island in 2002, they found it to be remarkably accurate.

“The fact that they were out there with the tools that they had, and what they were able to accomplish,” said director of the National Geodetic Survey Juliana Blackwell, “I think it’s just phenomenal. I’m thankful that I didn’t have to do it that way.”

Once the baselines were established, they were used to triangulate to extend further out, eventually connecting to other baselines. They enabled mapmakers to create navigational charts and topographical maps.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Bodie Island leg of the project, which was the second, behind Fire Island, was hindered by a huge storm in 1846 -- the one that carved out Oregon Inlet – and tragic losses at sea.  One of the casualties was the brother of the agency’s then superintendent, Alexander Bache, who was the great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin.

Bache’s brother, George, was the commander of a Navy ship that had been out in the Gulf Stream. He and 10 other men were washed overboard, but the ship survived the storm.  The baseline, however, was separated by the new inlet, forcing it to be shortened almost two miles, stretching just north of the new inlet to below Nags Head.

Bobby Stalls, a retired DOT surveyor, standing by a block of granite marked “Base No. 4” and another flat block with a center stake, said that it took 10 days to do the measuring of mile markers, using two metal bars fastened together.

Stalls, who in 2000 helped discover the first marker, said that work done by the coast surveyors served as the backbone of all the future mapping and surveying.  And the Bodie site, known formally as “Bache North,” is so valuable because it preserves the work of the agency, now the National Geodetic Survey, and stands as a record of their precision.

The Bodie baseline is the only one along the East Coast with all its original markers. The plaque unveiled on Friday recognizing the agency’s contribution was donated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“This had to be the best that they could do because everything else depended on it,” Stalls said. “These other bases, they’ve all been compromised. They’ve all been victims of erosion and development.”

Gary Thompson, chief of the North Carolina Geodetic Survey, said that it says a lot about the skill of the early surveyors that GPS is essentially doing just what they did.

“Instead of looking at the stars, GPS is looking at the satellites,” he said after the event. “This was the foundation for what we have now. It built the framework for the navigational maps of the shoreline in the 1850s.

“This was the reference line for all that work.,” he said. “That’s why we’re so proud of this.” 

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