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This article previously appeared on OBEC Survey Manager Jim Colton’s LinkedIn profile. It is the first entry in a series of stories chronicling some of the personal passion projects of our talented team members.
by Jim Colton, OBEC Survey Manager
For most people, the past feels long ago. And even if it happened ‘here’, it can seem far away.
That’s not true for surveyors.
Surveyors literally recover and retrace history nearly every day, placing our hands on artifacts that we’ve sought out and dug up from beneath our feet. In the Pacific Northwest, the history we consider comprises monuments placed in the ground, documents pulled from archives, the legacy of the United States’ westward expansion, the drifting of magnetic north, and even the movement of tectonic plates.
This immense layering of history, and its real impact on the present, is part of what drew me to become a professional surveyor. With a career that has taken me to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and high into the mountains, surveying is never far from my thoughts and always draws me forward in my life.
I’ve been part of a lot of really amazing transportation projects, but it’s a personal passion project that’s allowed me to slow down and really appreciate something: the tools of the profession have changed, but its tradition and principles have stayed the same. That continuity lets me almost step into history because, in one way, what a surveyor does is meant to be timeless.
During the past year, I’ve joined a former surveying colleague and retired NGS Geodetic Advisor to Oregon, Mark Armstrong, spending weekends recovering survey monuments and benchmarks of the once rich and productive Bohemia Mining District in eastern Lane County. To find those precise locations, we followed the faint footsteps of US Deputy Mineral Surveyor Edward L. Haff deep into the Cascade foothills – nearly 113 years after his original survey.
Monument recovery research has a special quality. When I find the clue that will lead me to the physical place, the boundary between past and present seems to disappear.
I’m excited each time I start a monument recovery effort, especially this one that is so off the beaten path, and in many respects forgotten. It’s a sense of exploration and discovery that takes me bounding back in history decades at a time.
Ultimately we will go out with our instruments and find the exact physical location where the previous surveyor set the monuments, but before that, we have to research historical documents for evidence.
We spent time at the Cottage Grove Historical Society, learning what others already knew about the old mining claims. We found out about local family ties that go back to mining done at the Bohemia claims, but the local research didn’t get us the type of hard evidence that would help us find the monument locations.
It was the Bureau of Land Management’s online database that yielded the details we needed, in the form of dozens of historical documents and records of survey. It is always a special moment when I read the surveyor’s name on an old document.
There’s a connection that comes from the shared dedication to precise measurements, detailed documentation, and the grit it takes to do professional work in austere conditions exposed to the elements. In a way, I gave a nod to Edward L. Haff as if his work and his name is a cordial introduction from the turn of the last century.
The break-through moment came when I was reading the survey notes and found the detailed narrative about where to find one of the most prominent monuments in the survey. With that, we were ready to leave the comfort of the office and paved roads and go off trail.
If a surveyor scribes a mark into a fir tree, will anyone else ever see it?
It’s a cool and partly dry winter day in December 2017 as we made our way through the forest. I took another look at the field notes.
We’re looking for “a prominent point of rocks, and on the apex of the ridge between Judson Rock and Bohemia Creeks, free from timber, and plainly visible from several parts of the property”. It’s pretty impossible to say if we’re actually in the right place.
Pushing through the trees and brush, I wonder if it was raining that day in January 1905, or snowing. Edward Haff and his crew of probably 3-4 others would have had done weeks of painstaking work to accurately measure out distances using 100-foot and 500-foot steel tapes, pulling them straight and tight over the uneven ground.
Piling rocks on a nondescript ridge to mark this monument would have been some of the easier work they did. To help future surveyors, Edward identified a bearing tree near the monument, scribing “B.T. U.S.L.M. 621” into the trunk of the fir tree. It was just the help I would need.
My heart rate was up as we made our way down the ridge – both from the hike and from the adrenaline of the hunt. We stopped on a rock outcrop. We were pretty certain this was it, but finding the nearby bearing tree would be the piece of evidence that would help us make the call.
I took out my compass, adjusted for the declination that would have been here back in 1905, and started pacing off the short distance. I stopped at a stump hole, which was a good sign, but not concrete proof…too much doubt to say this was the spot. It looked like our hunt would come up short.
Finding something that was supposed to be there is one of the most gratifying experiences ever, and it never gets old.
The remains of the fir tree were still next to the stump, and I kicked around in the mostly decomposed wood. I was amazed when I turned over one piece and there it was – 113 years later, in letters and numbers about three inches tall: “BT USLM 621”.
A find like this is a portal back in time.
I imagine that Edward must have paused for a moment after scribing the bearing tree to make sure it was right. Alone with his thoughts and the sounds of the forest, maybe it was then he realized a small error. Instead of “USLM”, it was “USMM”. Someone did their best to scratch over the first “M” and make it into an “L”.
For this work, we had what we needed to confirm we’d recovered the monument, and we re-set it with a brass cap and filed our records – leaving the trail for another explorer to follow another 100 years from now.
Our research and unique discovery is now in the draft of a coffee-table book that Mark is authoring. Once published, the book will be another way of letting others get a glimpse at the tradition of history and discovery that surveyors get to be part of every day. We are also considering giving presentations about the Bohemia Mining District at the 2019 PLSO Conference and possibly the ODOT Survey Training Seminar in 2019.
If you’re a surveyor who feels the same way I do or if you’re thinking of a surveying career, connect with me on LinkedIn.