Some Notes From Lieutenant Charles Pierce Part 2: Southwest Desert & Mountain

A 3.100Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

1934­-1935–San Bernardino Mountains to Imperial Valley, California
January–May 1934

Charles Pierce and his triangulation crew had just finished work on the California coast extending from Monterey to the Mexican border when he moved on to the desert and mountains east of the Coast Ranges. Some of his experiences are recounted here.

"The country through which this triangulation arc traversed was typical Western desert. This section being part of the great Colorado desert. The mountain peaks on either side of the desert were used and in many instances called for packs up to six hours. This type of country offers considerable difficulty in executing triangulation due to few roads and the fact that such roads are not proximate to the stations. In general the mountains were very rocky and steep and extreme care was required in packing to and from these peaks. No pack animals were available for this work as few ranches or farms were in this neighborhood…. "

While working in the Imperial Valley, steel Bilby towers were used on the relatively flat ground. Pierce relates: "…it should be considered that we were working in the Imperial Valley, below sea level, the heat intense, and the fact that all building work was started at daylight to avoid the heat of the day… it was possible to erect these 105 foot towers in one day, a necessity if the observing was not to be interfered with. In the early part of May during erection of the steel the heat got so bad that the bolts had to be kept in water in buckets and all steel handled with gloves….

Two things of further note on this project: In late April or May, "A peculiar circumstance occurred while we were observing on station Obsidian, north of the town of Westmoreland in the Imperial Valley. Commencing shortly before sundown a continuous shaking of the ground in the vicinity of the station was noted, and to causing such disturbance that observations varied as much as 20 seconds…." Pierce and his party had experienced a moderate earthquake caused by tectonic activity over the northern extension of the East Pacific Rise. Although little noted at the time, Pierce had also hired on a young hand by the name of Clarence "Pete" Pedersen, one of the great civilians of the Survey and one whose artwork and cartoons gently captured a time gone by. For those interested, see:

Owens Valley and the High Sierra: Late May 1934–Late July 1934
"At the start of the work a packer and train of four animals were hired for packing on this project. Ed Cline of Bishop, California, was the packer and performed a fine piece of work for us during the entire period we were in the valley. Many of the peaks were so steep and rock strewn that horses could not be ridden or lead to the summits but on no station was it impossible to use the animals for part of the pack. Some of the peaks were dangerous for night descent but there were none of them, with the possible exception of Mt. Conness, that would involve danger in day climbing with proper care.

"One of the longest packs was Monarch, directly behind (Northeast) of town of Lone Pine, Calif. This station required a seven hour pack with horses, but was not a dangerous pack, merely a long grind to the summit. One of the longest packs was Lookout, about 10 miles WNW of town of Independence as horses could not be taken up its shortest route, and this pack required about six hours of steep hard climbing. It was on this peak that one of the new light-keepers, James T. Murphy, lost his life. The accident occurred at the end of the project on a reoccupation in this vicinity and the boy was killed on his descent by fall into Sawmill Creek Canyon, on the north side of this peak. It was a clear moonlight night at the time of the accident…."

Salina, Utah to Yuma, Arizona via the Grand Canyon: September 1934­ May 1935
This arc of triangulation was extremely difficult and involved two triangulation parties—­those of Lieutenant Charles Pierce and the other of Lieutenant Frank Johnson. Pierce was placed in overall charge of the project. The work began at Salina, Utah, approximately 50 miles from the western end of present-day Interstate 70, and proceeded due south to Grand Canyon Village, thence followed the Colorado River to Yuma, Arizona. Excerpts from the following report appear to have been written by Frank Johnson although Pierce signed off on the report.

"Pack horses were generally used north of the Utah-Arizona line where available and in those cases where not available, back packing long distances was necessary. One of the isolated sections we had to contend with was the area along the Utah-Arizona line. Here the end of truck travel was at the Paria Ranch, some 50 miles by wagon and horses to the stations along the state boundaries. The water holes were about ten miles apart and the water of seepages in the sand, highly alkaline, but of necessity used by the personnel in this section. In working in this area the observing parties that went in with the wagon train did the building and took their light-keepers along with them.

"… The observing party to obtain three station occupations spent 10 days in this area. The light-keeper at Cedar Mt. spent 24 days at his station Cedar Mt. The only person living in this area was the packer, Mr. Smith, from Henrieville, Utah, who used his ranch at Paria for summer grazing….

"… One of the outstanding stations as far as long driving was concerned was Navajo Mt. which necessitated the observing party on that side of the scheme moving from Pockets [for an] approximately 200 mile drive over terrible roads to a lodge at the base of Navajo Mt. and then a five hour pack to the summit. Station Keam in the Navajo Indian reservation among the sand dunes was rather difficult to find and required the assistance of Indian guides to drive trucks across country in that section."

In November, "The observing party on Mt. Emma on the north side of the river mushed through snow for six hours to reach the summit and were unable to observe due to wind of gale proportions. In the area south of St. George, the roads were made practically impassable and for the 60 mile trip from St. George, Utah southward to Oak Grove Ranch near the North rim, it required 9 hours driving time. Work was therefore discontinued on this section of the arc after warnings by natives of probability of being permanently stuck in this country without trucks until spring unless we got our equipment out while we were able…. In this digging out process many of the trucks were bogged down in roads all but impassable and all personnel moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, to continue the Colorado River arc from here south along the river."

Perhaps in an understatement, the report stated near the end: "The modern truck will go in some surprising country as was proved on this project but undoubtedly the life of the trucks were greatly reduced by the experience."

Hawthorne, Nevada, to Diamond, Oregon: Late May 1935 to early August 1935
Following completion of the Colorado River arc of triangulation, Pierce’s party moved to Hawthorne, Nevada, in order to commence a line northward to Diamond, Oregon. In Pierce’s words, "This project should be classed as a hard desert project, with bases of supplies extremely remote, roads from Lovelock north to end of project poor, slow, but passable, and packs numerous and arduous." Following are some of the observations of working in this area.

"In the area north of Fallon known as Carson Sink, a large alkali and sand deposit, considerable trouble was experienced with dust and sand storms. The wind usually sprung up toward twilight with scattered whirls of dust moving across the basin and with increase in velocity of wind, great sections of this area would be shut out for observing purposes….The party moved to Sulphur, in the Black Rock desert, the third of July, and field work continued. From Sulphur north, the roads should hardly be dignified by the expression, as they were tracks wandering up the sink of the Quinn River north, with dust laying in the tracks to the height of truck hubs. Movement of personnel was slow and extremely disagreeable. The only water available was in tanks at the railroad siding at Sulphur and the season of the year, July, was exceedingly hot. On some of the bad packs in the Jackson Range, the personnel experienced great discomfort packing in the glaring sun up airless canyons.

"In packing in the desert in hot weather men generally experience nausea and tendency to vomiting, and only experienced men should be given this type of work. The head should always be protected from the sun and a slow steady packing gait should be used if sun stroke and extreme fatigue are to be avoided. A 14" leather boot is also a necessity for this desert country abounds in rattlesnakes and the fang of a rattlesnake would probably not penetrate a leather boot and woolen sock. In the hottest part of the day rattlesnakes will not be found in the open sun, but generally under sagebrush or in the shade of boulders. Where climbing in steep country the worst situation seems to be where it is necessary to get hand holds where it is impossible to take a look before grasping the rock. Gila monsters although found in the desert area of Nevada and Arizona, were rarely seen but the chuckwalla and striped desert lizards are very numerous and sometimes mistaken for the Gila monster. Occasional anthills and jack rabbits (usually close to roads) are about all the life one sees in the desert. Infrequently the picturesque figure of the desert prospector is encountered in Arizona and New Mexico, with his plodding long-eared burro or mule, laden with frying pan, pick, shovel, and other accoutrements and the long bearded prospector leading the animal to the next mirage. There is an oft repeated saga of the desert men to the effect that once the desert gets into a man’s blood he can never resist its call, a very similar belief to that held by seamen. Most certainly there is no sight more striking than the twilights in the desert with the typical rugged ranges rearing up from the sandy floors turning gradually into the purples and blues of a magnificent painting and the intense heat of the day changing into the cool and peace of the desert night. The statement concerning the call of the desert seems to have some correctness when one ponders on just why an individual would choose to live where water is scarce and poor, life confined to poisonous reptiles, vegetation almost wholly sagebrush, scattering yuccas, Joshua trees, and cactus and civilization hundreds of miles distant over poor roads.“

Following completion of this project, Charles Pierce moved on to ship duty. First on the USC&GSS Discoverer then on the Westdahl as commanding officer. During World War II he surveyed in Alaskan waters and rescued a B-24 crew that had crash landed on Ilak Island following a bombing mission to Paramushiro Island. Following the war he became the last Coast and Geodetic Survey officer to be the Director of the Philippine Coast Survey prior to turning this function over to the newly independent Republic of the Philippines. His last major ship command was the USC&GSS Pioneer in the mid-1950’s. He was commanding officer during the famous Pioneer Survey which discovered magnetic striping on the seafloor, a key to developing the theory of plate tectonics. Finally after three tours in the Philippines; 12 seasons in Alaska; 16 years of sea duty and 9 years on geodetic field work (interspersed with four years in Washington, D.C.), he was promoted to Rear Admiral as Assistant Director of the Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1957. Admiral Pierce retired in 1961 after 31 years of service, the great majority of which was in field assignments. He should be remembered as one of the great field officers of the Coast and Geodetic Survey.

Albert "Skip" Theberge served as a NOAA Corps officer for 27 years prior to retirement in 1995. During that period he was primarily engaged in nautical charting and seafloor mapping but also served a stint in geodesy working on the Transcontinental Traverse project during the 1970s. For the past 18 years he has worked as a research librarian at the NOAA Central Library and has produced a number of historical works related to the Coast and Geodetic Survey (C&GS) and seafloor mapping. He also produced the NOAA History website (www.history.noaa. gov) and the NOAA Photo Library ( which includes thousands of historic photos related to the work of the C&GS.

A 3.100Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE