Rendezvous 2015: Surveyors of the Salish Sea and an International Boundary

A 7.853Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Just think of the United States as a big old box or rectangle if you will, at least the United States of the first five years of my life. No Alaska, no Hawaii. Going clockwise from the upper right, Maine. The lower right, sunny Florida. Move to the left and there’s San Diego, California. Now, go up (north) along the left edge of the box and you’ll arrive in Washington state. This is our point of beginning. To go any further north would put you on the other side of the Salish Sea into another country. So, why the location of these lines of the upper left? Recently, the Surveyors Historical Society gathered to discuss and share the stories, facts and foibles behind the historic placement of these northwest lines of International boundary.

At the upper left of the upper left of said box is a place called Cape Flattery. It’s a long and sometimes desolate, but mostly beautiful drive the 40 or so miles off the main road, to the Makah Indian Reservation, Neah Bay and Cape Flattery. Having never heard of it, much less visited it, I envisioned five paved parking spaces, looking out in solitude over a rocky coast of the Pacific Ocean. Nope, instead, it was that same small parking lot but cars lined up for a quarter mile on the side of the narrow road; hundreds of people. You park, then walk down a verdant, Hobbitesque trail a mere half mile or so to the Cape with Tatoosh Island off in the near distance to the west. On the return, you then walk about 3 miles up and up that very same wet and green trail you just came one half mile down. Apparently, Cape Flattery is a haj or sojourn for map geeks and freaks. After all, it’s the northwestern most point of the continental United States. Surprisingly and ironically, this Cape would be mentioned numerous times over the next few days in its historic role involving the boundary between the United States and Canada.

The 19th annual Surveyors Historical Society Rendezvous (2015) was recently celebrated just north of Bellingham, Washington near a small town called Ferndale. Gratefully, little of the gathering was spent viewing power-point slides in a dark room of a convention facility. Yeah, we had some of that, but we trekked outdoors at every opportunity enjoying the beauty of our venue. It was necessary, however, to ply away at the academics requiring traditional classroom teaching. That matters little because whether in the dark or in the light of the day on a bluff restoring a damaged US C&GS triangulation station high above a rocky beach, the knowledge and teaching being offered at an SHS event is exemplary and seldom matched at any other one surveying event worldwide.

Following the obligatory business and Board meetings, renowned map historian and author, Michael Layland ("The Land of Heart’s Delight; Early Maps and Charts of Vancouver Island") opened the classroom sessions. His topic was "Early Maritime Surveyors and Explorers of the Salish Sea", the wide expanse of water surrounding Vancouver Island, Canada and east of Cape Flattery, Washington. Layland’s excellent presentation set the foundation for what would follow. We were fortunate to have the mapping efforts of Spain, France, Russia, Britain and even Austria, as well as the fledgling United States in the waters of our interest presented in such a thorough and interesting way. It opened the gate for what would follow.

Our Australian colleague, international speaker John (Brocky) Brock (19 countries on his CV), in his usual boisterous and "give a damn" manner then told us of the early British explorers, Cook, Vancouver and Puget. Mainly, he spoke of Captain James Cook and the methods used mapping and charting the seas of an entire globe. Much of the mapping was performed long before the chronograph and longitude. An interesting, yet little known fact is that Captain Cook was an accomplished land surveyor prior to becoming a navigator and explorer. Many of the cartouches on his charts are labeled "James Cook, Surveyor". Cook was one of a few naval officers always equipped with a theodolite and Gunter’s chains. The notation on a Cook chart "This is a proper survey" meant that he did an actual ground survey and not an approximated paper chart. In fact, it was Cook, while sailing north, having missed the mouth of the Columbia River in March of 1778, who spotted a "a small opening which flattered us with hopes of finding a harbour". He mistakenly determined the opening (the Salish Sea) was closed by low land. He named the point Cape Flattery. Missing the Sea, yet proceeding north to present Vancouver Island, Cook explored this area just prior to his final and fateful journey to the Sandwich Islands.

Who better to extol the achievements of our country’s pioneering organization in the mapping sciences, the U.S. Coast Survey, but Albert (Skip) Theberge? A frequent contributor to American Surveyor magazine, he currently serves as historian with the NOAA central library. Skip related the joys, hardships and experiences of the men assigned to map the rugged and dangerous, yet important waterways of the northwest. The accuracy of the many maps displayed, using long forgotten methods, rival maps being produced today with the most modern of technology. Our forebears with the Coast Survey were some remarkable individuals.

Don Erickson, Bureau Chief of the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers next offered a well-researched and clearly presented practical session on the nuts and bolts of the tools and techniques used by our brethren mappers of the past. Just how did they do it? His talk covered an entire array of doubly-reflecting instruments, altimeters, lunars, magnetism, and any number of tools too numerous to mention. A primary consideration of our subject boundary (more to follow) was latitude. Don went into great depth the workings and methods of the sextant or like instruments (rough, maritime) and the zenith telescope (precise, terrestrial). The zenith telescope is especially suited for determining latitude by making observations of stars crossing the meridian in the vicinity of the zenith. This instrument was used almost exclusively in establishing a great portion of the US/Canada boundary. Much to the consternation of their superiors in London, the British party purchased and used the Wurdemann zenith telescope, produced in the United States. Don, along with Bob Mergel (Ohio) historically later re-enacted the tent station used to establish the boundary by astronomic observations, just some 200 feet south of the actual international boundary line.

That same line would lead us from the Rocky Mountains west circuitously to Cape Flattery. Telling the story of this line over the following days were our hosts, Denny (Delores) DeMeyer, Tim Kent and John Thalacker, all Washington surveyors and historians in their own right. Over the next few days, via boat, bus, ferry, foot, fork, knife and spoon, we explored the areas west of Bellingham, Washington and east of Vancouver Island, Canada with the hows and whys of lines of boundary. At different times, spanning two countries, our knowledge of the boundary would be enhanced through others such as David Swaile, Deputy Surveyor General for British Columbia as well as the respective Commissioners of the Canadian and United States International Boundary Commission.

Gosh, boundaries can be simple and boundaries can be complicated. When resolved, usually it is a fairly routine retracement. Getting to that point for the most part is where it can get messy. Simply put, our subject boundary, proceeding east to west is a direct line following the 49th degree of north latitude from the Lake of the Woods in Minnesota all the way to that body of water (some 1200+ miles) just northeast of Vancouver Island called the Georgia Strait. It then follows a series of 12 straight lines with bends (this is one of the places in history it got a little messy) in a southerly and westerly course to the Pacific Ocean, there at Cape Flattery. Sounds simple. Here’s my recollections of the story.

Pelts, fur and territory were currency. The young United States had just purchased "Louisiana" from France. Oregon was a big piece of property between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, north of the 42nd parallel (Mexico’s claim) and south of 54 degrees, 40 minutes north parallel (Russia’s claim). Russia, Britain and Spain all had an interest in the Oregon territory. Britain had a great interest in Vancouver Island. Conditions were ripe for a boundary dispute.

Eventually, Russia, Spain and France all quit the game. So, now, where is the boundary? The United States proposed (1804, 1807 and 1818) the 49th parallel of latitude all the way west to the Pacific Ocean, splitting Vancouver Island. The British wished the boundary to be the center of the Columbia River upstream, eastwardly to the 49th. A ghost river, the Caledonia began showing up on maps of the period. This completely non-existent river was proposed on numerous occasions to be the boundary. A convention in 1818 left the boundary unsettled but both sides agreed to "Joint Occupancy". Again 1823/24, 1826/27 and 1842, no settlement. Finally in 1846 both parties agreed to: ". . . the line of boundary between the territories of the United States and those of Her Britannic Majesty shall be continued westward along said 49th parallel of north latitude to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver’s Island; and thence southerly through the middle of that channel and of Fuca’s Straits to the Pacific Ocean."

Clearly a description penned by an attorney and not a surveyor. Unfortunately, there are three main channels. The United States preferred the Haro Strait to the west of the San Juan Islands and the Brits preferred Rosario Strait, the channel east of these same islands. The middle channel was, at times, offered as a compromise. Again, ripe conditions for a boundary dispute.

A pig was killed. A war began. The Pig War. Our present day surveyors ventured west, via ferry, over the waters to San Juan Island to investigate. The British and the Americans had resided on San Juan Island peacefully under the guise of "Joint Occupancy" since the 1846 agreement. 1859, there was an Irish fellow named Charles Griffin who owned some pigs. One of the creatures ventured into the innocent American, Lyman Cutler’s garden and did what pigs do. The pig began rooting. Cutler shot and killed Griffin’s pig. Out of guilt, Cutler offered Griffin $10 compensation. Griffin demanded $100. Keep your pig out of my garden. Keep your garden out of my pig.

Things escalated and an international war ensued. The present day surveyors reconnoitered the barren American Camp and then the idyllic British Camp on the Island. The Americans were led by George Pickett, and as usual for Pickett, he was ridiculously outnumbered in man power and arms. The British raised a garden and large homes. The Governor of Vancouver Island ordered the British Rear Admiral to engage the American soldiers. The reply was "two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig" was foolish. This most bloodless war in world history continued until 1872. A pig was killed.

That was the year our country’s northern boundary was established through a novel legal exercise called binding arbitration. The matter was decided through examination and consideration by Kaiser Wilhelm, the Emperor of Germany in October, 1872. "Most in accordance with the true interpretations of the Treaty concluded on the 15th of June, 1846, between the Governments of Her Britannic Majesty and of the United States of America, is the claim of the Government of the United States that the boundary-line between the territories of Her Britannic Majesty and the United States should be drawn through the Haro Channel." The British left behind their garden and large homes. The San Juan Island chain now belonged to the United States. John and Vicki Thalacker’s home was safe and the present day surveyors enjoyed Dungeness crab and smoked salmon on San Juan Island within the borders of the United States. Barbeque pork was not on the menu.

Prior to boarding the ferry back to the mainland, the group did visit the now safe Thalacker home. John has one of the largest collections of W.&L.E. Gurley instruments in the country. We all ooh’d and ahh’d over transits, levels, compasses and a crazy assortment of obscure surveying tools. Tim Kent, on this a sunny day, displayed and demonstrated a Burt solar attachment on a compass as well as a Smith solar attachment on a transit. Sometimes you stand in the sun, surrounded by the tools and learned brothers of the trade, staring at a charming Salish Sea and say to yourself, this is why I joined the Surveyors Historical Society.

The final day of the meeting meant a visit to the boundary line proper. Where I-5 crosses the border is a magical place. It’s called Peace Arch Park. (To the west, across the railroad tracks and Boundary Bay off in the distance is Point Roberts, U.S.A., an irredenta, accessed only through Canada.) There in the park, one can walk and wander with no regard to boundaries, Homeland Security or borders. There was a great feeling of freedom and friendship between the surveyors of Canada and those of the United States. Over lasagna and slides of the hardships our predecessors endured marking our common line, fellowship abounded.

Denny DeMeyer had arranged an installation of a kiosk display commemorating the survey of the boundary between our two countries. The dedication of the display was presided over by Denny, our host, Richard Leu, President of the Surveyors Historical Society, John Warren, President of the National Society of Professional Surveyors and the Commissioners of the International Boundary Kyle Hipsley (U.S.) and Peter Sullivan (Canada). Now, those visiting this fantastic park can witness the international accomplishments of the surveyor.

Due west, just beyond Point Roberts, out in the Georgia Strait the line makes a very sharp bend to the southeast. It then zigs and zags it’s way southwardly and westwardly to the Pacific Ocean. The waters it crosses provided food for thought for a number of surveyors over a number of days in the fall of 2015. Upon reaching the Pacific, the terminus of the line is a geographic position between Bonilla Point, Canada and the Tatoosh Island lighthouse, Makah Reservation, U.S.A, just off Cape Flattery.

Addendum: Following the official meeting, a group of crazily committed surveyors visited Sucia (think Ricardo Montalbán: Suu-cee-uh) Island. It’s a two hour boat ride from Bellingham. That day, we dedicated a second kiosk to the survey monuments on the island, restored three USC&GS triangulation stations and had a great chicken dinner with roasted potatoes and broccoli salad on the boat ride back to Bellingham. It is great to be a surveyor and even better to honor and enjoy the history of our profession.

C. Barton Crattie continues to survey property, offer flood advice and research the fantastic and rich history of our profession. See you in upstate New York next Fall.

A 7.853Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE