Cast Iron Monument of the 6 P.M.

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Hidden from view among the trees on a high bluff along the west side of the Missouri River is a monument on the Kansas/ Nebraska state line that has been overlooked in terms of importance. It was the beginning point for the surveys of the 6th Principal Meridian, yet throughout its 152 year existence, its designation has simply been the "Cast Iron Monument".

On August 24, 1854, General Land Office Commissioner John Wilson sent instructions to the Kansas/Nebraska Territory Surveyor General John Calhoun to have the 40° north latitude surveyed a distance of 108 miles west from the Missouri River as the base line for the 6th Principal Meridian surveys. The temporary terminus of this line would become the Initial Point from which the 6th Principal Meridian would intersect and extend south into Kansas and north into Nebraska. The 108-mile distance was due to the expediency of the surveys because settlement was already taking place in eastern portions of the two territories. The distance was divisible by six, and it was thought to be at the western edge of hostile interruptions from the plains Indians.

The contract for the base line was given to John P. Johnson, a 37-year-old Harvard graduate who had vied for the surveyor general position against Calhoun. To appease Johnson for not getting the position, Calhoun was pressured to give him the contract for the important line despite some misgivings about his competency. Ensuring that Johnson properly started the base line, Thomas J. Lee of the Corps of Topographical Engineers was hired to make the necessary astronomical observations to place a point on the Missouri River bluff precisely at 40° north latitude. Lee was a graduate of West Point Military Academy in 1830 and had developed an expertise in the field of astronomy and geodesy. His work had taken him to various places including surveying the eastern boundary of Texas along the Sabine River, the disputed boundary between Canada and the State of Maine, the boundary between Maryland and Virginia, and the boundary with Mexico. In 1849, Lee determined the eastern terminus of the boundary line between Iowa and Minnesota.

To begin his survey, Lee chose an open area on a great sandbar along the eastern side of the Missouri River where his observations determined his position to be 40°01’10.3" north latitude. From this point, Lee calculated the distance to go south to the parallel which required triangulation to cross the river. Upon reaching 40°00’00", the parallel was then followed west to the top of the bluff. At this point on November 16, 1854, an oak stake was placed in a mound of stones and scribed for the township corner at Range 18 East. Witness stones were placed in the four cardinal directions 10′ from the post and four bearing trees were marked. Johnson and his crew began their survey of the base line and finished 20 days later by setting the Initial Point of the 6th Principal Meridian on December 5, 1854. As far as anyone knew, the beginning point, the first 108 miles of the base line, and the Initial Point had all been established. Calhoun, whose office was still at Springfield, Illinois, approved Johnson’s work on January 12, 1855, without first having examined it for accuracy. Johnson was paid $1,006.32 for his work.

On April 26, 1855, Calhoun contracted with Charles A. Manners and Joseph Ledlie to survey a guide meridian from Johnson’s 60-mile point on the base line north into Nebraska and south into Kansas. This guide meridian would be a true north-south meridian its entire length and serve as a junior principal meridian. Continued settlement in the eastern portions of both territories dictated that these areas be surveyed as quickly as possible. (See The American Surveyor Jan/Feb 2006). Manners and Ledlie were first instructed, however, to place a permanent monument on the bluff of the Missouri River to replace Johnson’s stake and then examine Johnson’s base line to ensure that there were no problems.

The obelisk-shaped cast iron monument, standing 6′ tall, 11" square at the base, and 7" at the top, bears the words 1854, 40° N. Lat., Nebraska, and Kansas on the four faces. It had previously been transported by steamship upriver from St. Louis, but due to low water was stored at St. Joseph. The monument, weighing an estimated 600 lbs., was then transported by wagon up the river to the point where the crossing would be made. The Manners and Ledlie crews, comprised of 24 men, were transported across the river in small groups by an Indian with a large canoe who acted as their ferryman. The final trip across the river included the monument and the last eight men, but the Indian failed to take into account the excess weight. With a stiff side breeze banking the waves against the side of the canoe, barely an inch above the water, the monument was transported to the west side. Several of the men could not swim and each feared the water splashing over the top of the canoe would surely cause them to sink.

At precisely noon on May 8, 1855, Manners and Ledlie replaced Johnson’s stake and set the Cast Iron Monument in place. They then began retracing the base line to verify Johnson’s work. Immediately after retracing Johnson’s line, troubling circumstances were encountered. At 12 miles west from the monument, the base line was found to already be a quarter of a mile too far north of the parallel. Johnson’s line meandered aimlessly with no real indication that any of it had been done with any precision except that it was generally headed in a westerly direction. At the 60 mile location where the guide meridian was to be established, Johnson’s line was three quarters of a mile too far south. Manners and Ledlie had no choice, but to cease their work and consult Calhoun about how to proceed.

Upon hearing the news, Calhoun was furious that Johnson had been allowed to survey the important line. An examination of the solar compass that had been returned to his office by Johnson revealed that it was badly out of adjustment as if it had either been dropped or manipulated by someone. Calhoun wrote to Wilson that Johnson was an ignoramus when it came to using the solar compass. Valuable time was lost by having Manner and Ledlie resurvey the first 60 miles of the base line. Calhoun instructed them to tie in all of Johnson’s monuments by bearing and distance to the true line in order to have proof for possible prosecution. At every half mile location, the erroneous monuments were located and recorded in the notes. Johnson refused to believe that his line was in error. After much consultation as to what to do, the matter was finally dropped since prosecuting Johnson would require Manners and Ledlie to return from the field to testify and cause further delays.

One year later, the remaining 48 miles of the base line were resurveyed and Manners established the correct location of the Initial Point on June 11, 1856. Johnson’s monument for the Initial Point was 174.74 chains (2.18 miles) south of where it should have been placed. A special contract was later awarded to another deputy surveyor to obliterate all of Johnson’s monuments along the entire 108 miles. For more than a year, the surveys of the 6th Principal Meridian had progressed without an Initial Point having been properly set in place.

The Cast Iron Monument atop the bluff along the Missouri River then fell into obscurity until United States Surveyor Leo M. Peterson was assigned to restore the position of the monument in 1924. Peterson found the Cast Iron Monument toppled and partially buried down the slope. Using witness stones from the initial survey, Peterson was able to identify the location where the monument once stood. A 3-inch diameter iron pipe with bronze cap was placed at the location and set into a concrete base. The hollow Cast Iron Monument was then sleeved over the top of the pipe and anchored to the top of the slab.

In 1988, a group of surveyors restored the site of the Cast Iron Monument. The monument was repainted, trees and brush cleared, a fence and benches were installed, and a hiking trail was built up to the monument from the base of the bluff.

On December 6, 2014, a 4 hour-34 minute continuous static GPS observation on the Cast Iron Monument was performed with a Topcon HiPer V receiver. A tall 10′-5" tripod was used to center over the top of the monument. The receiver was centered by using an optical tribrach and checked with a plumb bob. The file was submitted to OPUS for processing. The results were as follows with the horizontal position being NAD83(2011) and the vertical being NAVD88 using Geoid 12A: Latitude 39°59’59.66595", Longitude 95°19’55.47565", Ortho height 976.547 feet (top of monument) and 970.691 feet (base of monument).

Until his death in 1898, John P. Johnson refused to admit that he had incorrectly surveyed the base line and continually stated that it was an attempt to smear his name by those who wanted to take credit for the work. An epitaph on his prominent tombstone in the cemetery at Highland, Kansas, states that he had established the line.

Anyone wishing to view the monument can reach the location by parking along the paved road at the foot of the bluff 2.5 miles northwesterly from White Cloud, Kansas. A historical marker sign with the heading "Point of Beginning of the Public Land Surveys of the Sixth Principal Meridian" is placed at this location.

Jerry Penry is a licensed land surveyor in Nebraska and South Dakota. He is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

A 7.403Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE