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Up on Backbone Mountain in northern Tucker County, West Virginia, miles of windmills turn in the high mountain breeze, striking an impressive pose. But something else up there beckons from the past like an ancestral ghost or a quest for "Big Foot." A long unseen monument the West Virginia Affiliate of Surveyors Historical Society meant to find. Our annual summer rendezvous features fellowship and fun, with field activities significant to surveying history, and this time our goal was to find the "Potomac Stone."
Friday, August 17, 2012, was a comfortable overcast afternoon as Pat Roberts and John Green secured three adjacent wooded campsites in Blackwater Falls State Park. Dave Ingram’s tarp went up shortly after 3 p.m., just ahead of the rain, and Don Teter showed up an hour later with dinner fix’ns.
Rick Casteel, president of WVSHS, his co-worker Justin Whitehair, and Marshall Robinson straggled in later. Last to arrive was Rodney Gardner, West Virginia Society of Professional Surveyors president.
Don excitedly produced his work maps and copies of field notes Dave Ingram obtained from the Maryland archives, documenting the work of William McCulloh Brown, who set the Potomac Stone in 1897 to bolster Maryland’s claim to land lying westward of the Fairfax Stone. The notes described his traverse up the Potomac River to his opinion of its headspring, where he set the stone. West Virginia prevailed in the dispute (see below). The Fairfax Stone site is commemorated and preserved and the Potomac Stone was soon forgotten.
Rain cut off perusal of the field notes, so we huddled under the tarp to prepare a modest feast of venison, gravy, potatoes, onions, beans, bread, pickled peppers, carrot cake, etc. We never lack for food at a WVSHS rendezvous. After dinner we adjourned to the campfire to discuss the new information, recall last year’s search and plan the next day’s quest. Of course, a few fermented beverages helped us recall surveying experiences, discuss survey theories and solve all socio-political problems of the day. By bedtime the rain had stopped and a beautiful star-filled sky forecast a great day tomorrow.
In the cool mountain morning we enjoyed a breakfast as sumptuous and varied as the previous night’s dinner. After filling up on good grub Dave Ingram and Don Teter broke out the notes and work maps. Don had plotted Brown’s field notes to overlay on the USGS topo. Dave and Rodney scaled approximate coordinates for the Potomac Stone. The overlay confirmed we had searched the right area last year when we didn’t find the stone; but last year we didn’t have the field notes. The notes are rich with data on springs and streams found by the 1897 surveyors, with detailed descriptions of the Potomac Stone and the nearby witness stone. We settled on a strategy of going back to the same area to use the scaled coordinates and field notes in seeking the Stone.
We were soon parked about a quarter mile below the ridge. Armed with pick and shovel, compass and chain, field notes, maps and cameras we advanced up the mountain. Rodney, with his GPS unit, briskly led us through brushy foliage, with brief pauses to catch our breath, check our maps and inspect the topography.
The path of least resistance led us too far south, so we worked our way back north along the flank of the ridge, soon reaching a relatively deep drain with respectable flow. Rick Casteel took compass readings up each branch at a fork, while Dave and Don checked the field notes. The astronomic bearings looked reasonable, so we crossed the drain and soldiered westward up a small divide between the forks, drawing ever closer to the mountain top.
John Green usually brings up the rear, and as he caught up along the edge of the forest near the ridge top he found the others gathered a few hundred feet east of windmill 39. Dave, Rodney, Pat and Justin were examining a protruding stone just above a spring, believing it might be the witness stone. John asked for its dimensions, and received a response of "Twelve and a half by eighteen inches." The field notes called for the witness stone to be 12" by 12" by 3 ½ feet long with a ½" copper bolt "leaded in". The found stone had two holes drilled about a half inch apart, one with a plug. To test for copper, John and Dave began scraping, and soon the plug was shining like a new penny.
Meanwhile, Rick, Pat and Don jumped into the spring to uncover stones, but none stood out. Heading downstream with compass and tape, they checked the topography against the field notes. After finding several other springs and a fork of the drain as shown in the notes, they followed the survey back up another branch to a spring just north of the first, and pronounced that we were apparently at the Potomac spring.
The others had already come to the same conclusion. Rodney observed "The field notes say the stone was set on the bank about 4 feet from the spring, two feet below station 97, and the witness stone was set eleven feet from station 97." Our steel tape confirmed the stated distances would put us in the spring. Rodney, Marshall and Justin were in the drain just below the spring, and John asked if they saw any likely stones. "Just this one" Justin answered. A large flat stone lay half in and half out of the drain. It had been buried with dirt and leaves, but Rick Casteel uncovered it before joining the party chaining downstream. John asked for dimensions, and wondered "Can we lift it?" Justin muscled it up on edge and Marshall measured. Marshall reported "four feet by two feet by four inches thick," and said, "We should look it over documented our find. Rick sketched both carefully for the inscription." Marshall and Justin started slowly brushing away mud and debris with bare fingers. Marshall produced a bottle of water and poured it over the surface, and quickly began re-filling the bottle and pouring it over the stone as Justin and John rubbed and scrutinized the surface. Soon Justin declared that he could see a “P”, John spotted an “M,” and Marshall announced: “There it is, POTOMAC”. “What about the date, can you see it?” … “I see an 8 –a 9 – and a 7, that’s it 1897.” There it was, faint but unmistakable “POTOMAC 1897”.
Cameras clicked as we examined and documented our find. Rick sketched both stones in his field book, recorded their condition and dimensions, noted our GPS coordinates and listed the names of those present. We enjoyed the thrill of finding buried treasure. This monument had been unseen or unnoticed for a hundred and fifteen years. Passing from common knowledge soon after being set, it had likely tipped over in the spring, and then lain unknown and undisturbed. It had slumbered through timbering, mining, and windmill construction, hidden in the head of that little drain, since September 4, 1897, until we showed up on August 18, 2012.
This was one successful rendezvous and a really good time. We encourage any surveyors with an interest in history to join the Surveyors Historical Society. Our West Virginia SHS Affiliate sometimes seems to be tilting at windmills, failing to find what we seek, but this time we found our goal and a once in a life time experience just below the windmills.
The character and significance of any artifact lies in its story; in what it can teach us about the past and about ourselves. Through our small adventure the SHS and her West Virginia affiliate have become part of the Potomac Stone’s story
and thus will be immortalized along with it.
We are in the process of working to obtain the landowner’s permission to recover the Potomac Stone, and hope to see it displayed and interpreted in the future.
Don Teter is a self-employed surveyor and historian, and is available for continuing education seminars.
John Green is a past-President of the West Virginia Society of Professional Surveyors, and remains actively involved.
The Fairfax Stone and Deakins Line
…Triptolemus Todd’s mind has been…impressed with an extraordinary idea of the wonderful and amazing in regard to the Fairfax stone… He has a confused idea in his mind that this Fairfax stone is the biggest thing of its sort in the state of Virginia; but he has no definite idea about it:. It may be like the Rock of Gibraltar, or the rock of ages; it may be a basaltic pillar, like Lot’s wife, or it may be a great, huge tablet, upon which some boundary hieroglyphics have been carved. Of course, therefore, he has no very definite idea of the sort of thing he’s looking for. Just at this moment something vague looms up before his intent gaze into the distance, and his face is all ablaze with excitement as he exclaims, stretching his long, sinewy arm far before him, with his fingers spread out, and all pointing different ways–"Fellows, yonder’s Fairfax’s stone!" –Philip Pendleton Kennedy, The Blackwater Chronicle, 1853
The Fairfax Stone entered the public’s imagination during its first century. Placed in 1746 by a group of surveyors including Peter Jefferson, whose son Thomas would become President, it monumented the western end of Lord Fairfax’s domain. People knew the stone was significant, even though they didn’t know precisely what or where it was.
The Fairfax Stone about a mile east-southeast of the Potomac Stone also marked the beginning of the "Deakins line", named for surveyor Francis Deakins, and being the commonly accepted boundary of the westernmost end of Maryland bounding Virginia. Maryland disputed the line from its origin in 1788, contending the Fairfax Stone did not mark the true headspring of the Potomac, which they claimed lay further west at the "Potomac Spring". Maryland also wanted the boundary to run astronomic north from the "Potomac Spring", instead of a magnetic line meandering at about N 3 ¾ E from the Fairfax Stone.
The dispute persisted for decades, with talks breaking down in 1824. In 1859, Lt. Nathaniel Michler of the U.S. Topographical Engineers was employed by the states to run a line due north from the Fairfax Stone. He reported the "Deakins line" was "generally adopted by the inhabitants as the boundary line," but actually struck the Mason-Dixon Line about ¾ of a mile further eastward than intended. Michler warned that using the true meridian would "cause great litigation as the patents … call for the boundary as their limits." Discussions bogged down, and war intervened. Both states had more pressing business, including the new state of West Virginia’s takeover of Virginia’s claim to the disputed territory.
West Virginia offered to accept the Michler line in 1887, if Maryland would guarantee the titles of landowners claiming between the Michler and Deakins lines by virtue of Virginia patents. Maryland declined, contending those titles should be voided.
On October 12, 1891, Maryland filed suit against West Virginia before the U.S. Supreme Court, the court of original jurisdiction in state boundary disputes, and the two sides embarked upon ambitious surveys and lawyerly jousting. Final arguments were November 24, 1909, and the Court pronounced its decision on February 21, 1910.
The court held the Fairfax Stone, even if incorrectly set over 150 years earlier, would not be disturbed. The lines as honored by the residents of the area would be the boundary, a magnetic meridian with bends and jogs. Acquiescence and actual possession were apparently the most compelling arguments. Commissioners were appointed and the final boundary was surveyed and monumented with large concrete markers, many of which remain relatively undisturbed today.
The Fairfax Stone itself or its concrete iteration, which is actually the fourth "Fairfax Stone" to occupy the spot, stands today in a four acre West Virginia State Park but not entirely undisturbed. According to the man directing the work crew developing the park in 1957, they found the stone in a poor location and moved it to "a better spot."
A 3.481Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE