The Last Tower Standing—Taking Down The Louisiana Bilby

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Guys, I think they do not have any idea what they are getting into… I only hope they do not get anyone hurt. I do not know if you remember when Jack Hankins fell off that 77 section of that 116 in Florida and walked away. Maybe they’ll fall on a pile of trash, sand and beer cans too.
–Jerry Price (Email dated April 29, 2012)

Note: Italicized type provided by Jerry Price. Regular type is by Bart Crattie.

In late April and early May of this year, the nets were buzzing with chatter from AAGS members (American Association of Geodetic Surveyors), folks formerly employed by either the Coast and Geodetic Survey or the National Geodetic Survey. Joining in the chatter were numerous members of the Surveyors Historical Society as well as some gentlemen associated with a non-profit, the Reynolds Foundation out of southern Indiana. What was all the buzz about? The Louisiana Bilby, (see American Surveyor; May, 2011; Vol. 8, Issue 4 ) the last tower standing was coming down the very next day following Price’s ominous note.

The Louisiana Bilby or "Couba" had been erected in 1972. Field party G-19 (one of two crews in the area, G-24 being the other) considered a 64 foot tower a vacation. Crew members Slim Hughes, Greg Smith and Don Ackers had been building 116’s (feet in height) so with 2 S-wrenches in hand they attacked this small chore. In 1972, the crews could drive on a shell road to the ranger’s station occupying the now low lying island. Also, no one can remember why, the anchor plates on this tower were not the standard "hole digging" wooden type, but the base had been set in concrete prior to G-19 arriving. Because the task was fairly simple, relatively speaking, memories of the living crew members of these facts are solid and pleasant.

Forty years later, tower "Couba" had withstood 18 hurricanes, including Katrina (perhaps because of the concrete bases and anchor guy lines). Couba was isolated on a small island far out in a swamp south of New Orleans. Station Couba seems to have been lost to history until a chance discovery in April, 2009. As it happened, Stephen Randall, NGS was escorting personnel from the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources bench mark recovery mission in support of the vertical datum program. They came to a bend in a canal and there was a 64 foot Bilby tower, occupying station Couba, the last tower standing. Photos quickly found their way to the internet. Things simmered for a while.

Whether one calls it C&GS or NGS, the heart of the organization maintaining the national survey control network were the men holding the umbrellas and Invar rods, taking notes in field books, turning angles, building and tearing down towers, sometimes over 130 feet high and manning the lights far atop that tall, lanky tower. With the push of a button and a little time spent on the computer, the endeavors of the heart of the survey became obsolete. Just like Couba, those dedicated C&GS men chose a career unlike any other. Their measuring duties took them and their families all over this great land broadening the network of control and marks that later became the backbone of the surveys growing the country. These men, now in their 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s join Couba, all proud of the sacrifices they made to be a part of the National "survey".

Fast forward to a beautiful spring morning on the fringe of a bayou just south of New Orleans. The plan had been for the SHS representatives to meet up with a boat and Captain as well as a crew contracted to disassemble the tower at 9:00 A.M. It was 9:30… Suddenly, like a whirlwind, in comes a 25 foot aluminum boat provided by Fenstermaker and Associates behind a truck and right behind was another truck bringing 5 hearty gentlemen who immediately began loading tools and equipment on board.

In the water and through the bayou and out onto the open lakes, there was a brief detour nearly all the way to the southern shores of Lake Salvador. Finally we pulled up to the lone island inhabited by a few empty buildings, many alligators and a 64 foot Bilby tower. Go kick an ant hill. That’s what it looked like the moment the boat was moored. The tower crew was out of the boat, scurrying around, gearing up and heading up, up the tower in a fit of excitement. As the crew climbed, each applied a dose of liquid wrench to the bolts and nuts holding Couba together. The fellows could little imagine the rich tradition that accompanied this tower they were about to take down.

Most of the men that went to work with the Coast Survey had no idea either what they were getting themselves into. Prior to 1962, the Party Chiefs did the hiring for the survey. New employees were usually local folks and usually hired in the spring of the year. Most would likely be temporary employees, hiring on in April and working until September of the following year. The plan was to survey in the south in the winter and move on up north in the summer. The new guys were screened by existing crew members before being sent to the field office, a trailer parked in some campground. A number of career surveyors had their families living with them in a trailer probably in the same campground. Between 1955 to 1961, the survey saw a lot of men hired from Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kansas, where the parties were usually located in the spring, getting ready to travel north. A crewman could never be guaranteed where the next leg man came from or how long he’d stay.

"Headache". Piece by piece, Couba fell to the ground and so began the voyage to its new southern Indiana home, right near Jasper Sherman Bilby’s home. SHS had contracted with Stan Elrod of Chattanooga, Tennessee to dismantle the tower. Stan had assembled a team from L.A. (lower Alabama) to take her down. Party Chief Greg Varner took an early interest in Bilbys and the supporting manual published by the C&GS. Greg had prepped his crew with dry runs, each knowing exactly what his task would be long before scaling the 64′ height of Couba. The work was performed text book. Greg maintained a high atmosphere of safety both on the ground and high above. They began by flawlessly removing the entire upper section above the observation platform and winching it safely to the ground. Individual pieces were carefully returned to the surly bonds of earth. Two days had been set aside for the take down. These guys had it down in a pile on the ground by 5:30 pm of day one, just barely hungry for supper.

The old tower guys, Jerry Price, Joe Lindsey, George Leigh, Ray Johnson, Russ Arnold, Charlie Challstrom and Charlie Glover would have been proud of the operation. As soon as the pieces hit the ground, each interior part got a shot of red paint and the exterior tower parts got a shot of blue. Roger Woodfill, Executive Director of the Surveyors Historical Society put himself in charge of carefully arranging and stacking the individual pieces in the lay-down area. Roger, sometimes was working at a quicker pace than the safety man thought advisable. The rest of us busied ourselves sitting in the shade and sipping Gatorade or walking out onto the dock to play with gators. Or, I mean, observing nature.

Funding for the crews, boat and tear down was provided by the Surveyors Historical Society. The next morning safely boated to terra firma, the tower was turne
d over to the Reynolds Foundation. Jeff French (SHS) and Doug Thayer, the President of the Reynold’s Foundation, both from Osgood, Indiana were ready with a huge tandem flatbed trailer. Because of Bilby’s foresight and careful design work, the trailer turned out to be much, much more than necessary. Loaded up and parked in a safe spot, why not spend an evening in New Orleans eating and exploring? In a mild drizzle the next morning, the tower was pointed north, once again hitting the road after 40 years of inaction. It was on its way to a new job, finally doing what it had been originally designed to do. Couba will retire to a public space in Jasper Sherman Bilby’s hometown.

On the survey, you had to love the work. Imagine sitting at an eyepiece of a theodolite, all night long turning angles 100 feet above the ground, searching the horizon for dim lights off in the distance also 100 feet above the ground. Then, you get up in the morning and help tear down the tower you spent the night on. It wasn’t the $250 a month you were paid. After your first move across the country, you were too broke to quit. Jerry, his wife and other folks on the survey felt like they were just one big family, pulling together and pooling resources. It was a different time back then and is now part of our history. For the men on the crews, trust and confidence was earned from the other 3 crew members. That trust and confidence is still present among the guys that worked Bilbys. That’s why so many retirees from the Coast Survey worked so hard over the years to help SHS find a tower.

The tower is being moved to a place of safety, away from the winds along the gulf. It is to be rebuilt once again in the honor and memory of Jasper Sherman Bilby. But, it will also become a monument to the hundreds of men both alive and deceased who spent their careers as members of a steel tower triangulation party on the "survey". The last tower built by NGS was in Connecticut in 1984. Bilby’s prototype tower, the first was erected in Indiana in 1927. The last tower standing was taken down in 2012, forty years after it was put up. At its new home back in Indiana, Couba will become the very last Bilby tower built closing 85 years of service mapping this great nation of ours.

Jerry Price started his career as a Survey Aid with The Coast & Geodetic Survey in June, 1959, and served on both level and triangulation parties until 1970. After he left C&GS he returned to Tennessee where he worked in the private sector and became licensed in five states. He wrote and published Tennessee History of Survey and Landlaw in 1979, was made a Fellow of the American Association of Geodetic Surveyors in 1992, and has remained devoted to control and geodetic surveying for the past 53 years.

Bart Crattie
is a Land Surveyor in Georgia and Tennessee. He is a Certified Floodplain Manager through the Association of State Floodplain Managers and is a Rule 31 General Civil Mediator through the Supreme Court of the State of Tennessee. He has hopes for the economy and would sure like to see folks come out to Council Bluffs, Iowa in September for the Surveyors Historical Society Rendezvous.

A 1.965Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE