Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Survey

I find this picture so evocative:

Well, OK, I just felt that was the artsy thing to say.  But this photo is a favorite of mine.  Taken in south-central Alaska in 1923, it’s a photo of a survey party’s light keeper’s camp after a snow storm.  I don’t know quite what it is that appeals to me so much:  the sepia tint, the solitude, the way it’s framed up, the lone dark figure.  I imagine all of that goes into it, but I also think the picture is one of the best representations of the old Coast and Geodetic Survey I’ve ever seen.

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, when men were men and women let them think they were running things, America was expanding rapidly and President Thomas Jefferson created the Survey of the Coast. It was 1807 and the major method of shipping and transportation was water, but our coasts and waterways were largely unmapped and dangerous.  Shoals, rocks, wrecks – all had the potential for having a negative impact on our economy.  So the mapping began, hiccupped along, began again.  And as America grew the need for geodetic surveying also grew.  It was the Coast and Geodetic Survey’s job to create a surveying framework of the highest accuracy so that any project requiring surveying of any level – state, county, city, private - could hang off of it.

The Coast Survey went through name changes and expanded with U.S. territory, population and commerce, often ahead of it, into new territories.  It was a heck of a job – the survey party had to move itself, its camp gear, and a lot of very delicate and very heavy equipment.

Not always easy, but "You can't get there from here" was not an option.

Getting there was just the beginning - there were marks to set and surveying to be done.

It took weeks to do the work that GPS now does in hours, and camp didn't offer much in the way of room service.  Flour and other basics had to be supplemented with fresher fare.  No mints on the pillow or turn down service, either.

Not to mention that Banana Republic and Gap didn’t have many outlets for the crew to re-outfit in.

But field parties were led by tough, adventure-loving men like Bill Scaife, whose “Git’er done!” philosophy pre-dated Larry the Cable Guy by a couple generations:

That was the life of a Coast Surveyor, whether light keeper, observer, or note taker, surveying mountains and plains, coasts and rivers.  And it was service to be proud of


  1. Wow - I'd not seen those pics. Thanks!

  2. Very interesting pics, that first one, the 'first' thought was he was going to the outhouse... :-)

  3. @Rev - I have a source for hundreds and I should probably give out the URL but I want to blog about the Survey some more so I'd rather keep them "hid". Selfish, I know. :-)

    @NFO - Groan. I never thought about that.