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Letter to My Father, April 1, 2007
All is well here, durn cold though. Had a hard freeze. We’ll be having no pears this year.
I think it was Christmas you said rumor had it the surveyors were drunk on the Tennessee/Kentucky line around the land between the rivers. There’s something I need to tell you. All across this great country, state lines are really, really way off. In every case, from Colorado to Connecticut, local lore universally has it, "the surveyor was drunk". Here’s the true story, as far as I can tell:
Before the 1790s, there were no states of Kentucky and Tennessee. The western boundaries of the colonies of Virginia (Kentucky) and Carolina (Tennessee) at the time were the south seas simply on the King’s word. The grant also called for N 36 degrees, 30 minutes latitude to be the line between the two colonies. So, as with all neighbors, each wanted to know where that line was. Should be a simple task to measure and stob it off.
It all started in March 1728 at Point Comfort on the Atlantic shore. The survey party moved west through murky swamps and dense undergrowth measuring at a phenomenal rate, even taking the summer off because of an "over-abundance" of rattlesnakes. By October of that same year, an astonishing 240 miles of line had been run.
Through time, it became necessary to extend the line. In 1748, Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson (Thomas’s father) carried the line an additional 88 miles over to the Appalachian Mountains. Beyond lay miles of grasslands and timber, sure enticement for settlement
Just three short years following our declaring independence from the crown, the same year Benedict Arnold reaffirmed his allegiance to the crown, gentlemen met to again extend the line. They rendezvoused at what they thought to be the terminus of the Fry/Jefferson line (actually five to six miles too far north) and continued west from August 1779 to July 1780 (please see "Acts of Notice" in the February 2009 American Surveyor). Mistakenly thinking they were being cheated, the Carolinians picked up their compasses and chains and went home early on. Unknown as to the future importance of this occurrence, the Virginians (Kentuckians) were now the sole surveyors of the line.
Pop, have you been up to "Rock Castle" over in Hendersonville, Tennessee? A fellow surveyor named Daniel Smith built that home. Colonel (later General) Smith did most of the surveying on this boundary. Smith kept a detailed diary describing the hardships the men endured traversing some of the most brutal territory in the entire country. Diplomacy with the locals, long stretches without fodder for the pack animals nor decent victuals for the sapian, and miles of line to clear, ever heading west, running a standard compass survey with the periodic astronomic observations as a check. Sadly, a casual look at the present day maps reveals how utterly incorrect their line was in relation to the target latitude.
How far west did they go? The original grant required them to continue to the south seas. A subsequent treaty required the party to cease at the east shore of the Tenasa (Tennessee) River, a boundary with the Chickasaw people. According to Smith’s journal on March 23, 1780 "At about 10 o’clock joyfully surprised with the sight of the Tenasa River . . . Turn’d back and got to the Cumberland that night. These Rivers are but 9 1-4 miles apart, tho so far from their mouth." Task accomplished. Schopenhauer calls that brief moment happiness, just prior to beginning the next task.
Other than a tremendous amount of property being settled as a result of rewarding Revolutionary War Veterans, nothing much really happened for another forty years. A couple of events did occur that jolted this nonchalance. Kentucky became a state in 1792 with Tennessee following in 1796. Each began exhibiting the hubris of sovereignty. The earlier mentioned Chickasaw tract west of the Tennessee River was now available for settlement through the "persuasion" of Andrew Jackson. Someone call a surveyor.
Between 1780 (when industrial and intellectual advancements were impacting the entire world) and the year 1819, survey techniques and equipment improved drastically. In 1819, two fellow surveyors, Alexander and Munsell once again extended the line to the Mississippi River. Modern retracement shows that Alexander and Munsell’s work was remarkably accurate. One small problem: their point of intersection with the aforementioned Tennessee River was about "9 miles" south of the 1780 Walker/Smith terminus.
Kentucky cried foul and challenged the entire line laid down by Walker and Smith. An irony of history: predecessors of Kentucky were the sole surveyors of the line. In 1820, Tennessee sent commissioners to Frankfort, Kentucky to resolve the conflict. Wisdom prevailed, Kentucky acquiesced to the Walker line having been occupied and observed for 40 years. In the bargain, Kentucky would receive all funds through the sale of any of the remaining unceded land.
Pop, there are folks (judges and juries) that think the line is where the mathematical description says it is. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The line is always where it is on the ground and seldomly at the described location. No matter how much in disagreement from the perceived mathematical answer, the location of the line is where the original surveyor placed it. This principal resulted in the state of Kentucky "losing" 2,500 square miles of land. In 1858/1859 both states jointly reestablished the entire precisely incorrect line, marking it periodically with stone monuments. It was one of these stones we visited.
Well Pop, that’s pretty much the story, except why in the world is the line so terribly out of place in your neck of the woods? Remember camping at LBL, even before President Kennedy had torn down the towns and moved everyone out? Remember us boys playing mountain climbers on the iron furnaces? Think back on two telltale signs: the blue "glass" lying on the ground and Hematite Lake. The blue "glass" is a residue of iron production and hematite is the principal ore of iron. Poor old Colonel Daniel Smith had an unseen foe working against him. We surveyors call this phenomena "local attraction". I’d venture to posit that those gentlemen weren’t drunk when they ran those lines and made the decisions they did.
I’d say the vast majority of the work was performed by sober, upright folks. I wouldn’t want to speculate as to what they did in the evenings. Corn liquor is much lighter to carry than corn.
Love always, Bart
Evidence and Conclusions
Pop’s Christmas statement sure did stick with me. I became certain it could definitively be stated that the horrible mislocation of the TN/KY line was not caused by drunkenness on the part of the surveyors. So now, the question was, what could be a definitive reason for this ugly and interesting line of latitude on our nation’s maps?
After that simple letter to my father, a two-year quest of curiosity and knowledge involving memorable excursions with friends and family transpired. Most important, my father experienced one of those moments that makes this profession so enchanting. We shared some valuable time together and I think he finally realized what makes this old surveyor tick.
Dad and I got out on a beautiful fall day in 2007. We were going to cover some of the old stomping grounds of both our lives. Little did we know long ago, while fishing, camping and touri
sting in "Land Between the Lakes" (LBL), that my future career would lead us both back to this idyllic locale of wonderful memories. We set out up the "Trace" and revisited the Great Western Furnace, once the focal point of the now disappeared town of Model, Tennessee. Other than the fence around it, it has not changed at all over the 45 years since we first saw it. That same stone furnace serves as a stark memorial to the iron industry that once dominated this area. Now the town is gone (Uncle Sam hauled it away) and in the National Park System’s version of reality, buffalo roam within their fence and people get paid to pretend living the lives of folks in rural Tennessee during the 1850s.
I enjoyed my father’s eyes realizing state lines can be marked with simple yellow paint on oak and pine trees. I most enjoyed Dad’s realization that the stone we hiked off the road to go see was actually placed in the ground in 1858, not simply some stone marking an event that happened in 1858. Our work of that day, for the most part, was inconclusive, using a handheld GPS, two sight-vane compasses and an old reliable Suunto compass. One valid conclusion was spending a wonderful day neither of us will forget.
Iron played a large role in the region’s development, much as TVA would in the next century. As Burt and others later realized, iron in the ground is not conducive to compass surveying. The obvious explanation of the mislocated line is illustrated in unarguable terms on a memorial sign on the grounds of City Hall in Dover, Stewart County, Tennessee. The sign proclaims the glory of "The Stewart County Iron Industry". Forty years following Smith and Walker running the line, an iron industry began a life that would thrive for another fifty years. At least 23 sites blossomed, producing iron from the very ground upon which the two surveyors’ footprints left their mark.
March 23, 1780
Consistently veering northwardly, Smith and company arrive midmorning on the east bank of the Tennessee River. The day before, Smith confidently records in his diary "After observing again today, and finding the line right, sat off for the Tenasa." At this location on the line, he’s many miles north of where he should be. In the month of March, he records no less than 12 observations for latitude and declination. This consistency leads one to the conclusion that the error is systematic and therefore accumulative. This type error is correctable only if discovered, recorded by a crew that was way out there, hungry, tired and scared of Indians. The error doesn’t appear to be erratic so a faulty ephemeris should probably be ruled out. When Smith got near the Cumberland River (ten miles east of the Tennessee River), also near the hidden iron fields, things really went to hell. Just how badly things went to hell might be determinable and quantified. Was it truly local attraction?
In March of 2009, about two weeks shy of 229 years to the day of Smith’s joyful surprise on sighting the Tennessee River, my wife Beth, my colleague Robert Cagle, and I set out on a journey seeking resolution. Armed with dual frequency GPS equipment, a 1952 Gurley transit with Smith Solar attachment and an abundance of picnic chow, we were, by golly, going to solve the drunken surveyor question.
The proposed method was simple and straightforward. Using the GPS, we would establish a baseline somewhere in the vicinity of the state line. That shouldn’t be too hard because it runs about 10 miles across the Recreation Area from river to river. We would then observe the same line with a transit having a magnetic compass and directly compare the difference. Intentions had us making a solar observation for additional data; the rain had a different idea.
We established our random baseline in an open field located approximately one quarter of a mile north of the state line and a little more than that in a northeasterly direction from the 1858 Mile 85 stone. Using garbage bags secured with vines from the ground for rain protection, we set up our equipment performing a three-hour static session on each end of the line. We then occupied the southern end of our base line with the transit and "zeroed" the gun on due magnetic north. We turned a left angle to the other end of the baseline and directly read a northwest bearing on the vernier as well as recording the compass needle.
The results: we post-processed the GPS data using OPUS. The resulting bearing on the baseline was Northwest 36 degrees, 18 minutes and 23 seconds. Our direct reading with the transit was Northwest 35 degrees and 26 minutes. So, local attraction at that location was only 52 minutes; not a full degree. However, when you input the current magnetic variation for that area, the transit bearing becomes Northwest 33 degrees and 18 minutes, exactly three degrees north of the GPS bearing. Applied on the ground, following the compass, one would veer in a northwesterly direction, much like Smith and Walker did prior to the extraction of the ore.
After Walker and Smith
Many state the terminus at the river is north by 17 miles. In a biography of one of the 1820 Kentucky commissioners, it is noted that if the line were projected to the Mississippi River, the line would be off by 17 miles. Based on lat and long scaled from the quad sheets, the direct distance is about 12.5 miles. Admittedly, they were way off but not nearly as far off as the local lore and librarian would have it.
That should pretty much wrap up that portion of the State Line. Some of the conclusions are based on speculation and assumption, but at least there is some plausible explanation of just how these learned men could commit such a glaring error. One thing that should finally be ruled out is the possibility that they were drunk. By the way, the southern part of the NC/TN line is straight as an arrow because "the surveyors headed straight for a tavern in Georgia".
The sole source for the information contained herein is a marvelous book Four Steps West compiled by James W. Sames, III, originally published in 1971. With little narrative, the book is a compilation of letters, journals, articles, acts and laws related to this boundary. In 1992, both the Kentucky and Tennessee Associations of Professional Surveyors retraced the entire line. The results of this retracement, as well as Mr. Sames original entire text, combined now are found in Four Steps West. The book is available through either association. Mr. Sames passed away in 2007.
Bart Crattie holds a BFA degree from Murray State University and is a licensed surveyor in Georgia and Tennessee. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Surveyors Historical Society.
A 1.906Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE