Celebrating the Stargazer and the Surveyor

A 6.529Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Thomas Pynchon was there it seemed, at least in spirit, as were Benjamin Franklin and Charles Mason themselves. Others who attended this year’s annual Surveyors’ Rendezvous in Philadelphia most certainly shared the sentiment. Pynchon’s prose sets the stage for this report, in colorful passages, respectfully shared here, from his epic novel Mason & Dixon (1997).

A master of majick and mysticism in the printed word, Pynchon captures a moment of dockside Philadelphia 1763, captivating words delight one’s senses with glints of light on balls of cheese and slippery eel skins, musty nets creaking with cargo, boisterous seamen and hawkers of brackish-smelling shell food, bound together with the anticipation found in the postures of 35-year-old Mason and 30-year-old Dixon as they await the precious measuring instruments about to be unloaded:

`Tis the middle of November, though seeming not much different from a late English summer. It is an overcast Evening, rain in the Offing. In a street nearby, oysters from the Delaware shore are being cried by the Waggon-load. The Surveyors stand together at the Quarter-deck, Mason in gray stockings, brown breeches, and a snuff-color’d Coat with pinch-beck buttons,–Dixon in red coat, Breeches, and boots, and a Hat with a severely Military rake to it,–waiting the Instruments,… as all around them Sailors and Dockmen labor, nets lift and sway as if by themselves, bulging with casks of nails and jellied eels, British biscuits and buttons for your waistcoat, Tonicks, Colognes, golden Provolones.
–Thomas Pynchon

August, 2013. Two hundred and fifty years have passed. A large group of surveying enthusiasts entered Philadelphia, each also filled with anticipation as to what the next three days would offer. This year’s Surveyors Historical Society (SHS) annual Rendezvous (held in conjunction with the Mason and Dixon Line Preservation Partnership, as well as the State Surveying Associations of Pennsylvania, District of Columbia, Maryland and New Jersey) did not disappoint. Featuring international speakers and some ground breaking discoveries, this meeting turned out to be certainly one of the Society’s most memorable.

Rendezvous events have traditionally followed the general pattern of classroom instruction punctuated by field exercises. This year’s subjects ranged from Bugs Bunny to the effects of gravity in geodetic surveys. The recurring theme, however, was the remarkable feat of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.

Australian John "Brocky" Brock provided a humourous and entertaining opening session using surveying-related clips from movies, TV and cartoons. SHS Chairman Rich Leu of Iowa followed up with his travelogue of the March surveyors’ trip to London (see The American Surveyor, Vol. 10, No. 7).

Serious study began the next morning. Pennsylvania surveyor Todd Babcock, who is perhaps the primary living authority on "the Line", provided session attendees with an overview of Mason and Dixon’s contribution to American history. Milton Denny of Alabama spoke on instrumentation and methods used in Pennsylvania during the 18th century. Edwin Danson (British author: Running the Line…; Wiley & Sons; 2000), in his presentation "Weighing the World", drew attention to the way different cultures view the world and later attempts to quantify it. Notably, Mason and Dixon, during a lull in their survey, measured a full degree of latitude, contributing to quantification efforts. Concluding the day’s classroom discussions, Todd Babcock detailed an important discovery regarding the famous Stargazer’s Stone.

Jim Shomper, a retired Philadelphia Regulator, opened Friday with the perplexing and unique survey measurements within Philadelphia—­where a hundred feet is not a hundred feet­—hence the need for regulators. From observing the moons of Jupiter to regulating, unlike setting a clock, Dave Ingram of Virginia gave a thorough presentation on many aspects of time and its importance to surveying. Dr. Eric Pyle of James Madison University spoke on gravity and mass within the earth and their effects on plummets and geodetic measurements. He further detailed the other geologic influences on survey instruments including magnetic, geomagnetic and plate tectonics.

Shomper wrapped up the classroom phase with a detailed explanation of locating the southernmost point of Philadelphia. Allow, if you will, a dovetailing of details here from Pynchon’s perspective:

The Southmost Point
…all go trooping down to Cedar Street and the House in Question, to establish its north Wall officially as the southernmost Point of Philadelphia. Fifteen Miles South of this, to the width of a Red Pubick Hair or R.P.H., will the West Line run…The neighbors gather and mutter. "Well ye would think they’d wait a bit." … "Way this Town’s growing, that South Point’ll be across the street and down the Block before the Week’s out." … "Why not use the south Wall?" inquire several of them … "The south Wall lies within private property." replies the Mayor’s Assistant, "– so, as the southernmost Publick Surface, the Parties have agreed upon this north Wall here, facing the Street."
–Thomas Pynchon

This wall could pretty much be considered the P.O.B. for Mason & Dixon’s four long years of labor. Until now, this important location in American history has long been unrecognized.

The problem lay in finding just where the long-gone house once stood within the urban landscape of the fifth most populous city in America. Shomper, Babcock and Janine Black all participated in a thorough search of old town records. It wasn’t until architectural historian Torben Jenks pinpointed the original 1754 deed that the true house location was confirmed (Loxley to Huddell). The location of the observatory could then be calculated from the surveyor’s 1763 notes based on the house location. Unfortunately, both now reside within the travel lanes of the current I-95.

And so it was that a large modern day crowd once more trooped down to Cedar Street to pay tribute to an important event in American survey history. Close by at the eastern end of South (Cedar) Street is a small park by the pedestrian bridge over I-95. There Chas Langelan, Babcock, and Shomper placed an official Pennsylvania blue and gold historic marker commemorating the beginning point of the great survey. Dignitaries and curious onlookers joined in the dedication.

Harland Farm and the Stargazer’s Stone
Playfully swinging at her Husband with the Spade she holds, "Why here, Sirs?" (Mrs. Harland) "Because your farm lies exactly as far south from the Pole as the southernmost point in Philadelphia," Mason informs them. "’Tis the same Latitude,’s what you mean. Then so’s a great Line of farms east and west,–why choose mine? Why not my neighbor Tumbling’s…?" "Exactly fifteen miles due south of here," Dixon gently, " we’ll want to set up another Post. `Twill mark the Zero Point, or Beginning, of the West Line…. "That wasn’t my question." "Mr. Tumbling fir’d his Rifle at us," says Dixon. "And what made you think I wouldn’t?" "We gambl’d," suppose Mason and Dixon.
–Thomas Pynchon

The Stargazer Stone has long been recognized as the place of the observatory on John Harland’s farm, some 31 miles west of Philadelphia. This was the place the survey was to turn due south to strike off the 15 mile
s to the point where the long line west separating Maryland from Pennsylvania was to begin.

The original Harland house still stands and its current owner, Kate Tolly Roby was gracious enough to invite the entire gathering to use her pasture for a huge picnic. This "surveyor’s hallowed ground" was the site of living history by the Department of the Geographer as well as Civil War surveyors. Don Erickson was there displaying his impressive Zenith telescope. A measuring course utilizing four different methods was set up by Milton Denny for friendly competition.

Thanks to Todd Babcock and others that day, a line was drawn between historical fact and historical fiction as to the true location of the famed 1764 observatory. There is a journal reference that cites the site being "by the Harland house", not 700 feet north where the original stone resides. Most important are three crossings of Brandywine Creek immediately encountered on Mason & Dixon’s southward traverse. This creek is not the type to change course over the years. By "backing in" the traverse it became obvious the original stone was not the site of the observations. Plausible speculation, along with Mason’s original notes, "Cloudy (Sunday) By the Pole Star’s transiting the Meridian we placed a mark in the Meridian northward…." would lead one to posit the original Stargazer Stone was a backsight point. Suffice it to say that while there is much more proof assembled by Babcock than can be included in this article, the rectified observatory location rests today in the middle of the northbound lane of Stargazer Road. To commemorate the location, a square-headed hand-wrought spike was driven into the pavement by any Rendezvous participant wishing to swing the sledge. A companion stone of the same quartzite material was placed in the side yard of Ms. Roby’s historic home.

Mason is Remembered
"Ah, you old Quizzer," Franklin tries to beam, Mason continuing to regard him, not pleading, but as if it didn’t matter much what Franklin thinks. "’Tis a Construction," Mason weakly, "… I have all the proofs you may require. Not all the Connexions are made yet, that’s why some of it is still invisible. Day by day the Pioneers and Surveyors go on, more points are being tied in, and soon becoming visible, as above, new Stars are recorded and named and plac’d in Almanacks…."
"You’ve found it, have ye?" (Franklin) Sir, you have encounter’d Deists before, and know that our Bible is Nature, wherein the Pentateuch, is the Sky. I have found there, written ev’ry Night in Astral Gematria, Messages of Great Urgency to our Time, and to your Continent, Sir." … Mary looks in. "Well, young Mary," Mason’s eyes elsewhere, unclaimable, "it turned out to be simple after all. Didn’t it."
–Thomas Pynchon

Ironically, the two English surveyors whose work resulted in the setting of many boundary stones were buried with no stones to mark their graves. Jere Dixon died at Cockfield, England on January 22, 1779 at age of 44, and was buried in Staindrop at Friends’ Burial Ground. Charlie Mason’s returned mysteriously as a pauper from England to Philadelphia in 1786, and passed away on October 25th of that year at the age of 58. Benjamin Franklin paid for the service, but not for a stone.

Both of their graves were given due recognition in 2013. Dixon’s grave was marked in a formal ceremony in July. The marking of Mason’s grave at the Rendezvous was accompanied by a truly moving ceremony with music and modern day prayers as well as those of the 18th century. Under the watch of the 9th Pennsylvania Regiment, Light Infantry Company, a stone marker and plaque were unveiled. But it wasn’t just an ordinary stone­ the marker placed on Mason’s final resting place was most likely touched by and overseen personally by the stargazer himself, one that stood for more than 200 years marking one of the many, many miles of the now famous Maryland/Pennsylvania border. This same stone, being a nuisance to plowing, was long ago discarded into a ravine by a farmer and rescued by the Mason and Dixon Line Preservation Partnership. With the large and solemn crowd paying their last respects, Mr. Mason was finally given the honor he deserves. As I looked out at the crowd that had gathered, I’m sure I saw Thomas Pynchon, having no idea what he looks like. If not in person, he was there in spirit, as well were both Dr. Franklin and Mr. Mason.

The Surveyors Historical Society Rendezvous has matured much over sixteen years of events. It’s been unfairly characterized as a bunch of old men costuming up for Halloween, while in reality, the meetings have become a widely regarded forum for the serious study of the history of surveying. The three enriching days spent in Philadelphia added still more monuments to the many accumulated in this increasingly important series of national meetings for surveying enthusiasts.

Thank you Chas Langelan, Todd Babcock, Jim Shomper and the many others, named and unnamed, for your many months of planning and presenting such a wonderful gathering.

Next year we’ll rendezvous in Mobile, Alabama to study Andrew Ellicott and his survey of the international boundary between Spain and the United States. Come on down! You’ll be glad you did.

C. Barton Crattie is a land surveyor in Tennessee and Georgia. Much of the upcoming winter will find him spending time in the mountains of northeast Georgia and northwestern South Carolina searching for evidence of a different survey conducted by Andrew Ellicott in 1811.

A 6.529Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE