Most of this chapter deals with attempts to extend to all of New York the type of “scientific mapping” pioneered by the U.S. Coast Survey and described in Chapter 10. The whole process was intensely political, and involved much intrigue in and around the State Legislature. These efforts made little progress until after the Civil War, and New York was not completely triangulated and mapped at a large scale until well into the twentieth century. While these efforts were going on, scientific-minded cartographers also produced quantities of specialized thematic maps of New York, including geological maps, soil maps, and demographic maps.
Early Attempts to Extend Triangular Survey
The desirability of obtaining improved mapping of New York had long been recognized by many of New York’s political leaders, and by much of its cultural elite. In 1827, Dewitt Clinton in his Annual Message to the legislature remarked: “An authentic and official map of the state is a desideratum which ought to be supplied, and this is suggested without any disparagement of the laudable attempts which have been made by individuals for that purpose.” It would be interesting to know exactly what kind of map Clinton had in mind. By this time, there was a widespread consensus among those concerned with map-making that surveys based on triangulation were the best way to create accurate maps, but I have been unable to locate any discussion in the late 1820s about conducting such a survey of New York. The only upshot of Clinton’s proposal seems to have been the law passed in October of that year, which authorized the creation of David Burr’s map and atlas of the state.
Only a few years later, in1830, the first state survey based on triangulation was authorized—Simeon Borden’s survey of Massachusetts. This survey was highly regarded in the first part of the nineteenth century, and it had considerable influence on the course of events in New York. The Massachusetts triangulation was reportedly carried out quite well, and it led to the production of a map of the state in 1844. But few detailed maps based on this triangulation were made. The idea behind the Borden survey was that individual counties and private surveyors would use the results of the triangulation to construct more detailed local maps. Prior to 1850, only a few maps of individual Massachusetts counties took advantage of this triangulation. Only in the 1850s, did Henry Francis Walling, who was also associated with the French-Smith project in New York, use Borden’s triangulation to create maps of many Massachusetts counties, and an updated state map. As we will see, this idea of relying on private mapmakers to produce county maps using a state sponsored triangulation as a geodetic framework, was influential in New York until about 1890.
In the 1850s, serious efforts were finally made to undertake a triangulation-based survey of the State of New York. By this time, Long Island and much of southern New York had been triangulated by the U.S. Coast Survey, and a few maps based on Coast Survey data had been published. In 1851, a full-fledged “Proposal for a Trigonometrical Survey of New-York” was presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science by Edward B. Hunt of the Army Engineer Corps.. This proposal was modeled on the mapping of the U.S. Coast Survey (for which Hunt had worked), as is clearly revealed by his description:
The idea of which I have conceived of what a survey of New-York should be, is about the following: Let a base be measured in Western New-York, and made the starting line for a system of primary, secondary and tertiary triangulation, extending towards Pennsylvania and New-England. A connection will be obtained in the Hudson valley with the Coast Survey triangulation, giving the desired verification. Plane tabling should extend, first, over the ground around the cities and large villages, so as soon to furnish good maps of the principle cities and villages, and their vicinities, throughout the State, excepting such as are already covered by the Coast Survey operations. The work should then be extended so as to obtain the elements for complete county maps, to be published in the general order of the population of counties, or per square mile…. In point of accuracy and style, the work should not fall essentially below that of the Coast Survey,… 
The arguments that Hunt used to justify this survey are less than overwhelming. He began by asserting that: “The importance of obtaining accurate delineations of the leading geographical features of this country is so obvious, and so generally conceded, that it would be superfluous here to elaborate arguments in its proof.” A few paragraphs later, he gave one concrete example of the usefulness of good maps: “How much accurate maps are needed, every one must have felt who has traveled through the common roads of the country…. Millions of miles are needlessly traveled, for the want of proper maps.”  This may be true, but it is not self-evident that an elaborate survey based on triangulation and plane tabling was necessary to produce satisfactory road maps. Hunt’s most heartfelt justification was based on national prestige and patriotism: “Geodesy, topography, hydrography are indispensable handmaids to any geography worthy of a civilized nation.” And again: “It is certain that if we are among those nations alive to the power and benefits of the sciences characterizing civilized society, the States of this Union must in turn be surveyed with that nice accuracy which geodesy now demands and furnishes.”
Hunt’s proposal was backed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which appointed a seven-person committee—which included Hunt, and was chaired by none other than Alexander D. Bache (head of the Coast Survey)—to draw up a memorial to submit to the State Legislature. In 1852, the Committee’s proposal was duly submitted to the legislature by Governor Washington Hunt (conveniently E.B. Hunt’s elder brother). The legislature took no action, and the proposal was resubmitted in 1853 by Governor Hunt’s successor, Governor Seymour—again without success. The legislature balked at the expense of the proposal, and some legislators may have been hoping that the federal government would eventually pay to survey the state. This failure to take action provided the opening for Robert Pearsall Smith’s project, which was described in the previous chapter. The Smith project was privately funded, but the resulting maps seemed inadequate to Hunt and those who thought like him. There is an interesting parallel between Governor Clinton’s 1827 proposal for an accurate map of the state, which was quickly followed by the production of the Burr map and atlas, and the Hunt proposal, which preceded the French-Smith project.
In 1857, a similar proposal was put forward by a committee of the American Geographical and Statistical Society (later American Geographical Society). This report, which was drafted by a committee chaired by Egbert L. Viele (of whom more later), was also brief and mostly restricted to generalities. It pointed particularly to the need for accurate maps to assess the natural resources of the state. Singling out the New York State Natural History Survey begun in the 1836, it maintained: “While these examinations and explorations have in many instances exhibited extraordinary results, they have failed in a great measure to make those results of practical value, for the want of correct topographical maps, upon which to delineate the geographical formations and mineral deposits.” This report led to another memorial to the legislature, which also went nowhere. As we have seen, even efforts to fortify the French-Smith project with accurate measurements of longitudes and latitudes of major cities in the state failed to pass the legislature, although this proposal was endorsed by both the State Engineer and Surveyor, and by the head of the U.S. Coast Survey.
So matters stood until 1875. In the intervening years, nothing was done—first because of the Civil War put all non-military mapping activities on hold, and later in part because the cartographic efforts of the federal government were focused on mapping the western states. (This was the period of the famous Wheeler, King, Powell and Hayden surveys.) In addition, after the death of Simeon De Witt in 1834, there was no strong leadership in the New York Surveyor General’s office. In 1846, the office of Surveyor General was abolished, and it was replaced by the position of “State Engineer and Surveyor,” whose responsibilities included the construction of canals and other activities in addition to mapping. Verplanck Colvin later remarked: “A stupor seems to have fallen upon the surveys of the State from the time of this amalgamation of offices down to the time of the close of the War of the Rebellion.” One reason for this “stupor” is that the position of State Surveyor and Engineer was an elected one, and it was occupied by a rapid succession of individuals who were often more adept at politics than at engineering or surveying.
The New York State Survey
Finally, in 1876, the American Geographical Society once again appointed a committee to consider a topographical survey of New York and report back to the Society. This committee was chaired by James Terry Gardiner (1842-1912), a graduate of Yale and of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Gardiner (who, to the confusion of librarians and researchers, spelled his name Gardner for much of his life) was to become a major player in the events of the following decade. Trained as a civil engineer, he had already participated in the California Survey, and had served on the 40th Parallel Survey with his friend Clarence King. Gardiner’s achievements in the western states included the creation of the first map of Yosemite Valley.
The report of this committee is a particularly complete and detailed statement of the case for a statewide topographic mapping program. This report was issued under Gardiner’s name, and judging from its date of publication (less than two weeks after the constitution of the committee), it must have been substantially completed before the committee was created—probably for the purpose of rubber stamping a document prepared by Gardiner. Although Gardiner’s overall proposal is similar to those made in the 1850s, it is much more convincingly stated. Gardiner maintained that the reason of “primary and pressing importance” for detailed topographic mapping of the state was the need for accurate land assessment as a basis for taxation, and he gave several pages of illustrations to prove his point. His report breathes the attitude of nascent professionalism that was coming to dominate cartography and other aspects of American society at the end of the nineteenth century: “That a survey to be accurate over so large an area must be made by the trigonometric method, is evident to all competent engineers. When this is done, and each property, town, and county is mapped on a perfectly accurate method by disinterested State officers, whose high scientific position, attainments and experience entitle their results to absolute confidence, then, and then only, can each know whether they are paying their proper proportion of taxes.”
Gardiner also mentioned the importance of having accurate land boundaries to prevent and settle legal disputes. Here, too, he gave numerous illustrations, and concluded: “We are buying and selling, with solemn form of s, acres that were never owned, and defining them by objects that perished with our ancestors.” His final major justification for a mapping program was public health. This line of argument responded to the increasingly widespread concern about municipal sanitation and water, which became more pronounced after the 1850s, partially in response to growing urbanization. Citing—among other things—reports of the New York City Board of Health, he made the case for topographic mapping as essential for planning public works, such as sewage and water supply.
This report prompted the passage of a law in 1876 establishing the New York Survey. An unpaid commission was established to oversee it, which consisted of a number of eminent New Yorkers: Ex-Governor Horatio Seymour, Vice President William A. Wheeler, Lieutenant Governor William Dorsheimer, John V.L. Pruyn, Robert S. Hayle, Francis A. Stout, and Frederick L.Olmstead (who soon resigned and was replaced by the surveyor George Geddes). These commissioners promptly chose Gardiner as the Survey’s first director..
The new survey had an ambiguous mandate: the law which established it was a two-paragraph item in the appropriations bill of 1876, which allotted $20,000 “for making an accurate trigonometric and topographical survey of the State for the determination of State and county lines,” and to locate at least one point in each county for the guidance of local surveyors. This could be interpreted as either authorizing a comprehensive topographic survey of the state, or as authorizing a triangulation similar to the Borden Survey in Massachusetts, which could then be used by local surveyors to construct more accurate maps. Differences in interpretation of this mandate helped create a bizarrely complex situation—replete with personal, institutional, and political rivalries—which lasted until the early 1890s. During this period, as we will see, there were three competing state agencies involved in surveying New York. In addition to the State Survey, these were Verplanck Colvin’s Adirondack Survey, and the office of the State Engineer and Surveyor. (The activities of the last two of these agencies will be examined below.) There were also three federal agencies active in surveying New York during parts of this period—the U.S. Coast Survey, the U.S. Lake Survey, and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Predictably, the situation turned into a circus.
The previously cited 1877 preliminary report of the State Survey castigated existing maps, and asserted the need for triangulation and topographic mapping. The tenor of the report was accurately summarized by a headline in The New York Times: “THE STATE SURVEY. FIRST REPORT OF THE BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS—FORTY MILLIONS OF DOLLARS LOST THROUGH IGNORANCE OF THE TOPOGRAPHY OF THE STATE—THE MAPS OF NEW YORK WORSE THAT THOSE OF ANY OTHER CIVILIZED COUNTRY.”
Not surprisingly, this report echoed most of the themes of Gardiner’s 1876 pamphlet. It emphasized the importance of detailed surveying for railroad and cadastral mapping. It asserted that the best existing maps of the state misplaced towns from one to three miles from their actual locations, and that the location of boundaries and landmarks was uncertain. In his appendix to the report of the commissioners, Gardiner wrote: “If the purpose of maps is to describe truthfully boundary-lines, towns, and topographical features as they actually exist on the earth’s surface, then the maps of this state are proved to be false witnesses; and the sooner their character is known and condemned, the earlier may improvement be looked for.” The answer to these problems was, at least for Gardiner and the Commissioners of the Survey, obvious: “For these evils we propose the same remedy that other governments have tried with perfect success—a trigonometrical survey.” Clearly, they were thinking in terms of triangulation as a preliminary to a state-sponsored program of systematic topographic mapping.
Gardiner’s report was widely reported and favorably commented on in such publications as Science, the Scientific American, the New York Times, and The North American Review. Reading these periodicals, it is easy to see why Gardiner and other surveyors thought that their arguments for a topographical survey were obvious and generally accepted.
But, in spite of the favorable reviews, even at this early date the State Survey was already in serious political trouble. The events of the 1850s had shown that there was a strong undercurrent of opposition in the State Legislature to funding projects for surveying and mapping, and the legislation of 1876 involved a compromise with these forces. In spite of the widespread and vocal support for the State Survey among the educated elite, many in the legislature did not share this enthusiasm, which helps account for the ambiguous wording of the act constituting the survey.
The storm broke over the State Survey almost immediately. The original authorization of the survey was through an item placed into a general appropriations bill, which had been strongly opposed by the State Controller, one Lucius Robinson, who withheld payment for the survey. Unfortunately for the survey, Robinson was elected governor at the end of 1876. Robinson, a Democrat, was elected on a platform of cutting government expenses to a bare minimum, and he proceeded to take aim at the survey in his message to the legislature on January 2, 1877. Not mincing words, he said:
Without any application by the people, with no appreciable evil to remedy, with no practical inconvenience in the experience of a hundred years, and at a period of great pecuniary embarrassment, a plan is enacted in an appropriation bill for embarking the State, against the wishes of its people, in a work which promises to run through half a century, and to cost an unlimited amount of money. The mode and matter of the enactment are alike objectionable, and I recommend the prompt repeal of that portion of the supply bill.
Governor Robinson’s remarks are intriguing, since they apparently articulated attitudes that must have been widespread, although they almost never made it into print. He put into words the thoughts of those in the legislature (and presumably many of their constituents) who did not see the need for a comprehensive survey of the state, and regarded it as a wasteful and expensive project designed to benefit an administrative elite and their wealthy patrons.
In response to the governor’s message, the supporters of the survey mustered their forces. The New York Times editorialized in its favor, and The Faculty of Columbia College passed a resolution in its support. Most of the other colleges in New York also sent memorials to the State Senate advocating the continuance of the survey. Judging from the editorial in The New York Times, the advocates of the survey seem to have done some backtracking around this time, and accepted the interpretation that the law for a “trigonometric and topographical survey of the State” authorized only a triangulation of the state, leaving it to local surveyors to draw the detailed maps. Gardiner himself later conceded that the original mandate of the survey was ambiguous, and agreed (doubtless reluctantly) to carry out this narrower interpretation of his responsibilities.
On the basis of this compromise, efforts to repeal the survey were beaten back, and Governor Robinson finally agreed to sign an appropriations bill for the survey with the understanding that its tasks were to be cut down to a minimum. He explained his views in a memorandum he issued on signing the bill:
The State survey, as originally proposed, contemplated a work of immense magnitude, of unlimited expense, and of little, if any, practical value to the people who were to pay for it. So long as it presented this appearance, I embraced every proper opportunity of placing upon record my earnest disapproval of it. I am now informed that the visionary and objectionable views originally entertained have been wholly abandoned, and that instead of surveying the whole State, it is proposed simply to fix at small expense a few points which may hereafter be used by any counties, towns or individuals desiring to make surveys for themselves in accordance with the new system. The bill is approved for the reason that it is in harmony with this greatly modified and unobjectionable plan. 
Gardiner accepted this limited interpretation of his mandate, although he clearly would have preferred to carry out a full-fledged topographic mapping program. In his annual report for 1879, Gardiner lamented how little he had been able to accomplish because of lack of adequate funding, but nonetheless went on to describe the work he had done in carrying out triangulation in central New York and along the Hudson River. He reported that he had determined by triangulation the location of fifty-two points in fifteen townships, and added that the “elevations of many important points were determined with precision, in order that they may be used for future leveling.” He reiterated “the principle to which I have so often called attention, that a trigonometrical survey of a thick settled country should be made once and for all, in such a manner as to be readily used base for local surveys of every kind.”
By this time, the State Survey was becoming something of a political football. A newspaper article dated April 10, 1877, lamented that, in spite of Governor Robinson’s acquiescence to the existence of the Survey, certain unnamed politicians were allegedly plotting to subvert it:
So long as its existence hung on a thread the politicians, with one or two exceptions, did not concern themselves much about its management. But now that this thread has thickened to a cable, and it appears that a considerable number of assistants must be employed by the director, half a dozen of the most scandalous wirepullers in the Legislature have combined in a scheme to control these appointments in their own interest. Their notion is that the Commissioners and directors must be forced to name subordinates by their dictation or they will break up the whole concern.
Political changes seem to have played a role in enabling Gardiner to continue his work. Robinson was defeated in his bid for reelection in 1879, and was replaced by Republican Alonzo Cornell, who held office from 1880-1882. Cornell appears at least not to have been actively hostile to the survey.
In 1882, another cost-cutting Democrat, Grover Cleveland, was elected governor. Cleveland prided himself on being a watchdog of the public’s money—an attitude he carried over to his presidency, where he vetoed more bills than any other U.S. president. Cleveland explained his concerns about the State Survey in a veto message for an item in an 1883 appropriation bill. He began by quoting Governor Robinson’s memorandum supporting a minimal Survey. Picking up on this theme, Cleveland remarked:
That the promoters of this scheme have disappointed the expectations of my predecessor is shown by the fact that since it was made $76,700 have been appropriated, and the item of this year carries it to $92,500, making an aggregate cost of $118,300, while in half the counties of the State nothing has been done. I have approved the appropriation of $15,800 in the bill under consideration with great reluctance, and only for the purpose of providing means to enable the accurate fixing, as was originally proposed, of some point or line in each county for the guidance of local surveyors. With this sum and the remainder of last year’s appropriation, I shall insist that this work shall be fully completed.
As will be seen in the next section, Cleveland’s wrath extended as well to the Adirondack Survey. Rubbing salt into wounds, he added: “the cost of printing the reports of these surveys has been scandalously large,” and summed up that he would not approve of any “similar scheme of indefinite duration and unknown expense.” The remark about printing costs was probably aimed primarily at the Adirondack Survey, several of the volumes of which were heavily illustrated with engravings of various subjects, including some that had nothing to do with surveying.
Cleveland’s opposition to the State Survey elicited a strong defense. Gardiner himself sent Cleveland a nineteen page typewritten letter defending the Survey and describing its history. Gardiner enclosed with this letter “memorials from many of the great corporations who are particularly interested in the security of boundaries, and the accuracy of surveys of real estate; from a large number of prominent lawyers of New York, and from the Faculties of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Union University, the faculty of Columbia College, the Cornell University, Hamilton College, the University of Rochester, and Vassar College, as well as a resolution of the New York Chamber of Commerce.” In addition, the commissioners of the State Survey submitted to Cleveland a six page evaluation and endorsement of Gardiner’s work from C.O. Boutell of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.
In spite of this impressive outpouring of support, Cleveland was not persuaded. In his annual message on January 1, 1884, he reiterated his opposition to both the Adirondack Survey and the State Survey, and suggested that their duties be transferred to the State Engineer and Surveyor. Later in 1884, Cleveland vetoed all funding for the State Survey. This caused field work to cease, but it did not kill the survey itself. Because the act passed by the legislature constituting the survey said nothing about its duration, the survey could be disbanded only by another legislative act, which did not happen.
Matters did not improve for the State Survey under Cleveland’s successor, Governor Hill. In early 1885, a special committee was set up by the State Assembly to investigate the State Survey and the Adirondack Survey, and to report on the advisability of transferring their responsibilities to the office of the State Engineer and Surveyor. This committee, which relied on the testimony of two experts from Columbia College and Union College, issued a report highly favorable to the State Survey, and opposed to increasing the responsibilities of the State Engineer and Surveyor. The report encouraged the legislature to fund the Survey, but Governor Hill vetoed the bill, much to the indignation of Gardiner’s numerous supporters, including The New York Times and the American Geographical Society.
By this time, the future of the Survey had clearly become a matter of partisan politics, with the Democrats favoring discontinuing the Survey and transferring its functions to the State Engineer and Surveyor. The Democrats claimed that it would be more economical to consolidate the surveys, but their opponents maintained that this transfer was designed to increase the Democrats’ opportunities for patronage by moving the survey to an elected office. The only vocal support outside of the state government for this transfer seems to have come from Democratic newspapers, such as The Brooklyn Eagle.
The unfunded survey continued to exist on paper, and a final report was published in 1887 (see below). Gardiner and other advocates of the Survey continued to lobby hard to keep it in existence. They called for an investigation of the survey by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, and received a “full endorsement” from its director (at that time Julius Erasmus Hilgard). Thus armed, they called for a resumption of the survey and funding for the production of detailed topographic maps, but to no avail. Eventually, as we will see, the Democrats had their way, and the functions of the State Survey were assigned to the office of the State Engineer and Surveyor, which later worked in cooperation with the USGS to carry out a topographic mapping program for the state.
In spite of political opposition and under funding, the embattled State Survey did achieve significant results. It extended the primary triangulation of New York to include 30 additional counties, ascertained the location of several hundred points, and established the location of a number of meridian lines for the use of local surveyors. The triangulation done by the State Survey was later used by the USGS in its mapping program. The only maps actually published by the Survey are a few sheets showing its triangulation network. The most interesting of these, first published in 1879, bears the title: The State of New York: Sheet No. 1, Eastern and Central New York. This map displays Gardiner’s ambition to produce high-quality maps of the state. Along with the triangulation network, it includes some place names, boundaries, and topographical features. It was to some extent designed as a work of propaganda for Gardiner’s mapping program, as is shown by this revealing note: “This Map represents only those boundaries, points and topographical features whose geographical positions are precisely known by trigonometrical measurement. Locations of lines, towns and topography not found by this method are omitted because they are too uncertain to be accurately shown.”
The State Survey also played a significant role in the creation of the State Reservation at Niagara Falls. With some appearance of inconsistency, (given their opposition to the State Survey), Democratic Governors Robinson, Cleveland, and Hill were strong advocates of this reservation, and Republican Governor Cornell opposed it. Robinson called on Gardiner to carry out the surveying and mapping for this project. In 1879, Gardiner worked with Frederick Law Olmstead on the preparation of a Special Report of the New York State Survey on the Preservation of the Scenery of Niagara Falls, which accompanied the fourth annual report of the survey. This report was accompanied by several maps, the most interesting of which shows the recession of Niagara Falls between 1842 and 1875. The report was the most important single document leading to the creation of the Niagara Falls Reservation, which was finally established in 1885.
Between 1880 and 1885 Gardiner also played an important role on the New York State Board of Health, which was created in 1880. He was widely consulted by municipalities throughout the state about such matters as water supply, sewage and the drainage of swamps. Although this work does not seem to have led to the production of maps, his knowledge of topography enabled him to make important contributions to these fields of urban planning.
By 1886, Gardiner was finished with his work on the State Survey and the State Board of Health. By this time, both agencies were unfunded because of vetoes by Governor Hill. In spite of his strong qualifications and the backing of “the best and the brightest,” Gardiner was unable to muster enough political support to continue his work. On June 16, 1885, he resigned his position, accompanying his resignation with a bitter recapitulation of his political travails. The New-York Daily Tribune editorialized on Gardiner’s resignation: “Of course every one who understands the subject—and the Governor—knows that his real objection to the survey is that hitherto it has had no connection with politics, and has paid no tribute to the machine. If it had been in the hands of a Democratic State Engineer and Surveyor the bill would have been signed with many thanks to the legislature for doubling its appropriation.”
The Tribune’s judgment was echoed by most other newspapers, although several Democratic papers, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, bid Gardiner good riddance. It is worth quoting an excerpt from a vituperative article, probably published in the Eagle, if only to show the strength of the political passions surrounding the State Survey:
It has been both the comedy and reproach of legislation at Albany, for many Winters, that this bureau has begged or schemed its way into appropriation bills, and has exhausted the resources of sycophancy and press and social and quasi theological bulldozing to blandish or coerce Governors into approving of its expensive, interminable and practically useless work….
The position taken by Governors Cleveland and Hill can well be submitted to citizens who read the evasive, abusive and insolent letter of the retiring director printed to-day…. He has the effrontery to talk about the State Engineers and Surveyors of the State as political persons, and of Robinson, Cleveland and Hill, who favored the transfer of this work to those officers, as desirous of putting this work into politics, when his own arts of crawling and other maneuvers to continue himself on the treasury have exceeded all the record in that line known at the State Capital….
The action of Cleveland and Hill in suspending a fancy job finds its vindication in honesty and reason. The State survey which should be taken will be taken, now that the person whose relation to it has been its bane with taxpayers and reformers has gone out from it to an oblivion from which he should never have been raised.
Who would have thought that surveying and map making could arouse so much political controversy? All in all, the termination of the State Survey constituted a stunning setback for the elite professional values represented by Gardiner and his many supporters in the academic and business communities.
Disgusted with politics and institutional rivalries, Gardiner spent the rest of his career in the healthier atmosphere of Gilded Age business, becoming (according to his obituary in the New York Times): “Vice President of the coal companies of the Erie Railroad and President of the Mexican Coal and Coke Company, Randolph-Macon Coal Company, and West Kentucky Coal Company.”
Gardiner appears not to have contributed to the writing of the final report of the State Survey. This report was published in 1887 by the Board of Commissioners, and it was accompanied by a detailed summary of the survey’s activities prepared by Gardiner’s assistant, O.S. Wilson. From this we learn that the primary triangulation of the state was about two-thirds completed—in itself the most important single accomplishment of the survey. The extent of this triangulation is shown in maps accompanying the report.
The commissioners obtained for their final report an endorsement from John Wesley Powell, Director of the United States Geological Survey, who pronounced Gardiner’s triangulation work “admirably executed.” Powell also proposed that future topographic mapping of New York be carried out jointly on a cost-sharing basis between the USGS and the state. He made one important condition concerning this arrangement—namely that the USGS should have “exclusive control” of the topographic mapping, since he thought that only personnel employed by the USGS had adequate training to carry out work that measured up to the highest standards. We shall see that a similar cost-sharing proposal was adopted in 1892 (although the State Survey was not resurrected to take part in it), and that it has been continued to the present. But before considering these later developments and the resulting maps, we should examine two other surveys that contributed to the topographic mapping of New York in the last half of the nineteenth century.
Verplanck Colvin and the Adirondack Survey.
The Adirondack Survey may be the most unusual mapping activity ever funded by New York State. It was basically the creation of Verplanck Colvin (1847-1920), an Albany patrician, who began his career as an attorney in his father’s law office. He was an outdoor enthusiast with a strong interest in natural science. Starting around the conclusion of the Civil War, he became involved in exploring and mapping the Adirondacks. Colvin’s achievements as an explorer in these mountains include the discovery of the source of the Hudson River in Lake Tear of the Clouds. He still has many admirers today—mainly because of his eloquent campaign to preserve the mountains, which played an important part in the establishment of the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
The Adirondack Survey overlapped the State Survey, and shared with it similar problems, and had a similar fate. But it was a much more idiosyncratic production, being almost entirely the work of one man. Although Colvin shared political enemies with the State Survey, he did not have the same widespread academic and professional support.
In 1872, Colvin and his friends managed to convince the legislature to award him $1000 “to aid in completing a survey of the Adirondack wilderness of New York, and a map thereof.” This single paragraph inserted in an appropriations bill became the legal basis for the survey, which continued until 1900. Later activities of the survey were partially funded by the state, but Colvin paid many of its expenses out of his own pocket.
Between 1872 and 1885, Colvin made respectable progress in mapping the Adirondacks. Although he was self-taught, he based his surveys on triangulation, leveling, and other up-to-date methods. He measured the elevations of numerous mountains, and claimed to have discovered over 30 previously unmapped lakes. He carried out a preliminary triangulation of about half of the Adirondacks, and created a large number of reconnaissance maps, many of which went unpublished. The most important results of his work were included in his heavily illustrated annual reports, which were published by the New York State Legislature. They were unusually well written, and in them Colvin described his adventures in the mountains, and promoted the conservation of the Adirondack watershed, along with conveying the results of his surveying.
12.1. Colvin’s crew at work on Whiteface Mountain. Adirondack Survey Seventh Annual Report (1879). Wikipedia Commons.
12.2. Verplanck Colvin, Reconnaissance Map of the Upper Ausable Lake. Adirondack Survey Seventh Annual Report (1879). New York State Library.
Colvin’s early efforts met with widespread support, and were summarized or favorably reported upon in such periodicals as The New York Times, Scientific American, Harper’s Monthly Magazine, American Naturalist, and Forest and Stream.
After these initial successes, Colvin’s Adirondack Survey gradually lost credibility and momentum. As with the State Survey, the crisis came to a head in the middle of the 1880s. As we have seen, both surveys were opposed by Governors Robinson, Cleveland, and Hill—mainly because of their expense and their alleged lack of concrete accomplishments. The funding for the Adirondack Survey was completely cut off by Cleveland in 1884, although the survey continued to exist on paper until 1900, and received some occasional funding from the state.
In spite of opposition by Democratic governors, Colvin continued to enjoy considerable political support. In 1883, the Adirondack Survey was given by the legislature the additional responsibility of surveying state lands in the Adirondacks, for which it appropriated $15,000. This was no small matter, since it was not at all clear what lands in the Adirondacks were actually owned by the state. Surveys had been made in the Adirondacks going back to colonial times, but they were often very inaccurate, and boundary markers (which often consisted of slashed trees) were difficult or impossible to locate. This led to a situation in which it was virtually impossible to determine who owned much of the land in the Adirondacks.
Colvin devoted a great deal of effort to straightening out this confused situation. He was remarkably successful in locating old survey lines, and in monumenting them with new markers. Colvin’s work resurveying old property boundaries is still used to evaluate and establish land claims in the Adirondacks, and it is probably his most important cartographic legacy to the people of New York.
Thenceforth, Colvin took to calling himself head of the “State Land Survey” (although this title is not mentioned in the enabling legislation), as well as head of the Adirondack Survey. The expansion of the Adirondack Survey to include the State Land Survey (not to be confused with the State Survey) did nothing to increase Colvin’s appropriations. In vetoing a bill to pay for printing of the annual report of these agencies in 1885, Governor Hill denied that these entities even existed: “There is no such department in the laws of the State as the State Land Survey, and there is no such official as Superintendent of said Land Survey. If, by this item, it is intended to appropriate money to be expended by the so-called Superintendent of the Adirondack Survey, it is not deemed a wise expenditure.” Like Cleveland, Hill favored having the State Engineer and Surveyor take over both the Colvin surveys and the State Survey.
Unlike the State Survey, Colvin’s work received little support from professional surveyors or organizations like the American Geographical Association. It seems clear that Colvin’s surveying was not highly regarded by either the Coast Survey or the USGS. When Grover Cleveland cut off the funding of both the Adirondack Survey and the State Survey, James T. Gardiner, Director of the State Survey, grumbled to J.W. Powell (head of the USGS) that Cleveland had “a great and well founded prejudice against the Adirondack Survey, … and he is too ignorant to discriminate.” The fairly comprehensive overview of surveying activities in New York published by the commissioners of the State Survey in 1887 pointedly made no mention of Colvin’s work in the Adirondacks. Neither the State Survey nor (later) the USGS incorporated Colvin’s triangulation of the Adirondacks into the maps they published showing the progress of triangulation in New York. Writing in 1895, Henry Gannett of the USGS remarked concerning the Adirondack Survey: “The positions of a few points, numerous elevations, and a few local sketch maps are, so far as the writer is aware, the only contributions which this Survey has made to a knowledge of the geography of the State. It is understood, however, that there is much matter collected by this organization awaiting publication.” This coolness toward Colvin’s activities does not appear to be simply the result of snobbishness or of professional animosity, since the USGS at this time was able to work quite well with the best self-taught commercial surveyors, including Robert P. Smith and Henry F. Walling.
By 1885, the New York Times was editorializing that the Adirondack Survey was “an anomalous and expensive superfluity”—adding that: “The money it costs would be much more usefully spent if added to the fund at the disposal of the director of the State survey, whose competency and efficiency are not disputed.”
Nonetheless, Colvin’s work should not be dismissed lightly. The best (and apparently only) formal evaluation of his work by professional surveyors is a report on state mapping activities made for the Assembly in 1885. This report—which was prepared by W.P. Trowbridge of Columbia College and W.S. Chaplin of Union College— purported to “have examined critically and in detail the methods employed in the Adirondack survey.” Its authors remarked that: “these examinations were begun with strong prejudices, on our part, against what may be termed the scientific integrity of this survey—prejudices which were produced by an examination of Mr. Colvin’s several annual reports.” They concluded, however, that the triangulation and other technical work done by Colvin was of high caliber: “it is doubtful whether the survey is excelled in accuracy and detail by any survey of a similar character conducted under similar circumstances.”
Balancing these words of praise , Trowbridge and Chaplin complained about the failure of the Adirondack survey to publish many maps, and especially to produce detailed topographic maps. They concluded by recommending “the creation of a commission of not less than three technical experts to advise with Mr. Colvin with reference to the execution of final maps, the publication of the results, and the work necessary to complete the survey of the region already covered by his trigonometrical survey; and also as to the best course to be adopted for extending the work into the dense forest region further to the westward of his present operations.”
The support that this report gave to the Adirondack Survey was considerably more equivocal than that which it gave to the State Survey. The consultants were almost certainly right in pointing out some major weaknesses in Colvin’s work—his failure to publish topographic maps, and his inability to synthesize his detailed surveys to produce publishable maps of large areas. As early as 1875, Colvin had complained about the difficulty of topographic surveying in forested areas, and this continued to be a problem for him. Colvin almost certainly would have benefited from expert help with such matters. The proposed commission of experts never came into being, which suggests that Colvin’s most serious problem was not so much technical incompetence as an inability to work with colleagues or under the direction of others.
To give Colden his due, it should be acknowledged that he was quite good at analyzing his situation in writing. Probably as an indirect response to the criticisms of this legislative commission, his annual report for 1885 contained a very clear exposition of his methods and of the problems he faced as a surveyor, along with a well thought-out short history of land surveying in New York.
Opposition to Colvin’s work became increasingly widespread outside of narrow political and professional circles. This is evident from a flippant (and very unfair) review of Colvin’s 1886 annual report in Forest and Stream, a publication that earlier had enthusiastically supported Colvin:
The most unique report of the many that have come to the Legislature this season and been printed at the expense of the State is Verplanck Colvin’s Adirondack State Land Survey. This is a sort of perennial state institution that started in 1872 with an appropriation of $1000, has been going on ever since, and is not finished yet, another appropriation being asked from the present Legislature to continue it. The total cost so far has been $71,775. It is the oldest of the State commissions. The maximum amount expended was $17,500 in 1880, and it has been tapering off since, though $15,000 is now asked for.
The report itself is prettily got up and has a lot of pictures of lakes and mountains and Verplanck Colvin surveying them in it. It is about ten inches by six, and two inches thick, bound in blue cloth, and well printed. On the outside of the cover is stamped a picture of Verplanck Colvin on the top of a frame observation tower. The name of Verplanck Colvin appears at the top of every other page, and “Verplanck Colvin, superintendent” is printed at the top of pictures of lakes and mountains. Colvin is a handsome young man with a fascinating look that any girl would take to at once. His hair is black and curly, his complexion is dark, his moustache curly, and his black eyes have a sad, yearning expression. He is the whole survey, and the report is a sort of annual story of how he spent the last year in the Adirondacks. Here is a sample of a few days’ experiences….
There is more like this. At one place the report tells of the red snow that fell. In another chapter he tells of climbing the mountain and camping out. Interspersed as illustrations are photographs of Indians, tripods, signal stations, and rural inhabitants. There has been a big demand for the book, and no wonder, for it is a story of Adirondack adventure printed at State expense. It is hard to see just where the surveying and official part of it comes in, but, the children of all the farming constituents, to whom country Assemblymen send their copies, read it like a real story book..
In spite of ridicule and opposition, the Adirondack Survey sputtered on for decades. Colvin continued to enjoy substantial support from the legislature, and (unlike Gardiner) he did not give up in disgust. He continued the survey at least on a minimal basis in those years when he could get no funding. In 1887, he published a brief but spirited defense of his activities against the criticisms of Governor Hill.
After 1888, attempts were made to enter into a cooperative agreement between State Land Survey under Colvin and the USGS for the purpose of mapping New York. This proposal was delayed for four years—largely because of the unwillingness of Powell and Gannett to accept conditions that Colvin and his legislative allies wanted to impose. Colden still had considerable support in the legislature, and in 1891 he was backed by the Republican Party for the position of State Engineer and Surveyor, although he was defeated by the Democratic Candidate, Martin Schenck. When a cooperative agreement was finally signed in 1893, it was between the USGS and the State Engineer and Surveyor, who was still Schenck.
An attempt was made by the legislature in 1894 to revive the Adirondack Survey, but it was vetoed by Governor Flower (another Democrat), who tartly noted “the strenuous opposition to the character of the work and the manner of its carrying on.” The minimally funded Adirondack Survey continued to exist on paper until 1900, when Governor Roosevelt finally put an end to Colvin’s work for the state. Colvin bitterly withdrew from the scene—taking most of his maps and papers with him, which he claimed were his personal property. Many (but not all) of these were later retrieved (or arguably stolen) from Colvin’s back porch by an official from the Forest, Fish, and Game Commission, and now repose in the archives of the Department of Environmental Conservation. In 1901, Colvin unsuccessfully filed a claim against the state for $375,241, which he thought was owed for past services.
In spite of the controversies surrounding Colvin’s career, he did make important contributions to the mapping of the Adirondacks. He carried out a triangulation of about two-thirds of the Adirondack area, and his published reports contain many maps of specific places within the Adirondacks, some of which are fairly extensive. He listed in his reports numerous positions he had fixed and elevations he had measured. Many of these locations were identified with bench marks. He also determined the boundaries of old colonial land tracts in the Adirondack area, as well as the boundaries of towns and counties. What he did not do is produce a detailed map of the Adirondack region as a whole. As early as 1875, he had announced his intention to produce a topographic map of the entire region at a scale of 1:63,360, but he never came anywhere near to accomplishing that goal.
Colvin’s surveys did contribute—to an extent that has never adequately been investigated—to the many detailed maps of the Adirondack region published by others between 1870 and 1900. Some of these were drafted by private individuals, such as William Watson Ely (d. 1879) and Seneca Ray Stoddard (1843-1917), who were responding to the demand for maps for the tourist trade, which was fast becoming a mainstay of the Adirondack economy. It has been asserted by one qualified observer that Stoddard “quickly adopted the revised information gleaned from Colvin’s surveys of the 1870s.” In the 1881 edition of his Adirondacks Illustrated, Stoddard gave explicit thanks to Colvin for information on “portions of the Lower Saranac Lake, the Mud Pond region, Beaver Lake and a section of Beaver River and for valuable table of altitudes.” Aside from his purely cartographic contributions to such maps, Colvin contributed indirectly to their very existence because of the publicity he gave to the Adirondack Region as a tourist destination, and through his annual reports, his public lectures, and the articles he wrote for popular journals.
Colvin played an even less visible role in the production of maps of the Adirondack region by state agencies. Colvin played an important part—which was acknowledged by both contemporary and recent observers—in raising support for the creation of both the New York State Forest Reserve in 1885, and for the creation of the Adirondack Park in 1892. The agencies administering these lands needed detailed land use and land ownership maps, which they created from various sources. None of these maps explicitly acknowledged Colvin as a source of geographic information, although a few of them contained vague statements, such as that they were “compiled from the official maps and field notes on file in the state departments at Albany.” It is nonetheless certain that Colvin’s maps were used extensively in creating these works, since (prior to the involvement of the USGS in this area in the 1ate 1890s) no one else had produced detailed surveys of most of the Adirondacks. Rivalry between the Adirondack Survey and other state agencies (especially the office of the State Engineer and Surveyor) explains the lack of an explicit acknowledgement of Colvin’s contribution to the creation of these maps.
The first of this important series of Adirondack maps published by the state appeared in 1884. The most detailed of them was prepared for Forest Commission by the office of the State Engineer and Surveyor, and covered the Adirondack Region in twenty sheets at a scale of one mile to an inch. A rare and little known map, it bears the title Map of the Adirondack Wilderness and Adjoining Territory. In the same year, the Forest Commission published a reduced-scale version of this map (which appeared in its annual report), and a Map of the Adirondack Plateau Showing the Position & Condition of Existing Forests. These served as prototypes for a whole sequence of maps of the Adirondack region. The 1890 edition was the first official map to use the famous “blue line” to show the boundaries of the proposed Adirondack State Park, although Colvin had produced maps marking the Forest Reserve with a blue line much earlier. A series of large-scale wall maps showing the Adirondack Park commenced in 1893 with a: Map of the Adirondack Forest and Adjoining Territory Compiled from the Official Maps and Field Notes on File in the State Departments in Albany. The most recent (1993) version of this map is available online.
It is difficult to determine why the Adirondack Survey failed to produce detailed maps covering larger areas, or why Colvin’s work came under so much criticism. Lack of funding from the state and professional rivalries are doubtless part of the explanation. There can be no doubt that over the years the Adirondack Survey did an immense amount of work. In addition to published works, Colvin left behind a quantity of unpublished field books and manuscript maps, most of which are now in the possession of the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation. These records include more than 500 unpublished maps—many of which include contour lines and show triangulation stations. They reflect careful surveying of numerous specific areas, and they were certainly much more accurate than anything which preceded them. The map shown in 12.3 is typical of these unpublished works. It is a pity that Colvin was unable to synthesize this material to produce a more substantial legacy of printed maps.
12.3. Verplanck Colvin, “Survey of the Hudson River, Sheet 1” (manuscript map, ca. 1880). New York State Archives.
The Adirondack Survey was so much a personal creation that it reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of Colvin’s personality. It probably owed its long existence to Colvin’s abilities as a writer and a lobbyist, and to his (and his family’s) legislative connections, as well as to his considerable skills as a surveyor and mapmaker. But he seems to have lacked judgment, the ability to set priorities, to work with superiors and colleagues, and to synthesize his work in a usable form. Probably these personal weaknesses, more than under funding or political opposition, account for his failure to produce a more impressive collection of published maps.
The U.S. Lake Survey.
Another organization that contributed to the surveying of New York in the last half of the nineteenth century was the little-known U.S. Lake Survey. The Lake Survey was established by Congress in 1841 specifically to survey the Great Lakes. This task would seem to have fallen within the purview of the U.S. Coast Survey, but it will be recalled that the head of the Coast Survey at that time, F.R. Hassler, was under constant attack in Congress. Evidently as a way of expressing its displeasure with Hassler, Congress created this new agency and put it under the jurisdiction of the rival U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. The Lake Survey carried out its mission using triangulation and other techniques very similar to those used by the Coast Survey, and it can be credited with producing the first reliable charts of the Great Lakes. It continued in existence until 1970, when (along with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey) it was brought under the jurisdiction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Most of the initial activities of the Lake Survey took place on the western portion of the Great Lakes. In 1853, the Corps published its first chart of Lake Erie. Only after the Civil War did it begin comprehensive surveying of the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario, the Niagara River, and the eastern end of Lake Erie. The agency completed its survey of Lake Ontario in 1875 and of Lake Erie in 1877. The resulting charts show shorelines, but little inland detail. Of particular importance for the mapping of New York, the Lake Survey extended its triangulation network along the shores of lakes Erie and Ontario—thereby making an important contribution to constructing the framework for the future detailed mapping of New York. Henry Gannett, who was so critical of Colvin, remarked that “the character of the geodetic work of this organization [the Lake Survey] is high.
Revival of the Office of State Engineer and Surveyor and Its Cooperation with the USGS
The Office of the State Engineer and Surveyor showed little interest in being involved with trigonometric surveying or detailed mapping projects prior to about 1880. Its primary activities in the decades immediately following the Civil War involved the construction and regulation of canals and railroads. As late as 1879, the incumbent State Engineer (Horatio Seymour) recommended that the State Survey, rather than his own agency, should conduct a survey by triangulation to remeasure the boundary between New York and Pennsylvania.
After 1880, with both the State Survey and the Adirondack Survey under fire, interest revived in transferring their functions to the Office of the State Engineer and Surveyor. Seymour proposed in his annual report for 1883 that this be done, and the idea was taken up by Governor Cleveland in his message to the legislature the following January. This proposal was successfully resisted by Gardiner’s allies in the legislature and the press. The New York Times, summarized the case against the transfer as follows:
The trouble is that, as the official existence of Mr. Seymour himself demonstrates, the election of a State Engineer and Surveyor on a general ticket tends to put into the office a man who knows more about conventions than he does about surveying. When any work is undertaken, like the State Survey, which calls for a high degree of scientific exactness and professional skill, the official skill is unequal to it, and the better way to get it done is to appoint scientific engineers to do it, instead of letting the official engineers supervise what they are presumably incompetent to conduct.
The position of State Engineer and Surveyor remained an elected one (with two year terms) until 1924, but the office nonetheless gradually became more involved in mapping. In 1883 the State Engineer’s office produced a map of the Niagara Reservation (poaching on Gardiner’s territory), and in 1884 (as previously noted) it became involved in producing maps of the Adirondacks for the Forest Commission. In 1885, Governor Hill again proposed to abolish the State Survey and the Adirondack Survey, and have their functions performed by the Office of State Engineer and Surveyor. This idea was considered by a committee of the State Assembly, which recommended against it. But it was revived by the State Controller Chapin in 1887 as part of a plan to save the state money by consolidating offices—a proposal which this time was supported by The New York Times.
The struggle struggle over control of the state’s mapping activities took a new turn with the entry of the USGS onto the scene in 1888.
The early years of USGS mapping in New York are described very well in the article published in 1895 by Henry Gannett (1846-1914), which as already been cited. Gannett was a major in the USGS, which was organized in 1879, mainly through the consolidation of the various federal surveys active in the West. Gannett had lobbied for the creation of the USGS, and he was appointed by John Wesley Powell as its Chief Geographer. Beginning in 1882, the USGS under Powell and Gannett undertook an ambitious program to map the entire nation in scales of 1:125,000 and 1:62:500. From the beginning, there had been some discussion about a cooperative program between the USGS and a state agency (initially the State Survey) to map New York State, but because of the rivalries and turbulent politics surrounding mapping in New York, it was a number of years before anything was done.
The way Gannett presented the matter, virtually nothing had been done to create scientific maps of New York until the USGS came onto the scene:
Prior to 1888 there were no maps of any part of the state which were worthy the name. The only map of the State in existence, known as the French map, was made by private parties, was compiled mainly from subdivisional [sic] surveys made a century ago, and from traverses of the roads and railroads. It is little more than a diagram of roads. This was published on a scale of 1:300,000, that is, about 4 3/4 miles to an inch, and practically represents all that was known of the State.
Gannett’s harsh judgment resembles that of James Gardiner and other professional cartographers, but it ignores or downplays the contributions of the Coast Survey, the State Survey, the Adirondack Survey, and even J.H. French. In evaluating such statements, it should be kept in mind that Gannett had a vested interest in the promotion of his own agency, and in the production of topographic maps. It is true that his judgment has been mostly vindicated by time, and few today would deny that detailed topographic maps are useful and worth the expense. But this does not mean that the opponents of Gannett and those who thought like him were fools, or that maps like the French Map were not useful in their time. Much of the history of cartography of America has been written by professional surveyors and mapmakers who favored “scientific mapping,” or by scholars sympathetic to their viewpoint. This is cartographic history written by the victors, and its celebration of science and progress sometimes obscures what actually happened and why.
In 1888, the USGS began mapping quadrangles in New York at a scale of 1:62:500 (or one mile to an inch). Maps at this scale are often referred to as “fifteen minute maps,” because each side covers 15 minutes (or one fourth of a degree) of the earth’s surface. They are also referred to as “topographic maps,” since they were the first widely available maps in the United States to show topography by means of contour lines. USGS topographic mapping of New York began in the vicinity of New York City, and between 1888 and1891, some 4,159 square miles were covered—mostly in the metropolitan area and in the lower Hudson Valley. 12.4 shows a portion of one of these early fifteen minute maps.
12.4. Detail of USGS 15′ Carmel Sheet (1893). Courtesy David Rumsey Collection.
The creation of topographic maps of New York received a considerable boost when, in 1893, a cooperative agreement was finally signed between the USGS and the New York State Engineer and Surveyor. Under this arrangement, the state and the federal governments agreed to split the cost of surveying and mapping in New York. This idea was not a new one. As early as 1880, Clarence King (then head of the USGS) had corresponded with New York State geologist James Hall about the possibility of a cooperative mapping program. As previously noted, this agreement came about only after considerable negotiation between Powell and Colvin. Powell found himself unable to work with Colvin and his allies in the legislature. It seems that both Powell and Colvin basically wanted to control the operation, and Powell finally found the State Engineer and Surveyor to be more compliant.
Both Colvin and Gardiner must have been mortified by this arrangement, which each had sought for the agency under his direction. After the agreement with the office of the State Engineer and Surveyor was concluded, Gardiner placed an undated clipping from the Albany Argus announcing the agreement in his scrapbook, scribbling on it: “Such is fame! Keep this!”
The new arrangement was successful, and surprisingly uncontroversial. A reading of the cooperative agreement shows that the USGS was left in almost complete control of the actual process of surveying and mapping—thus laying to rest concerns about the ability of the State Engineer and Surveyor to carry out the work. New York’s role was restricted mainly to helping to set priorities for areas to be mapped, and to making corrections of the work done by USGS surveyors. New York benefited by paying only half of the cost of surveying the maps, and the USGS took care of their publication. This cost sharing arrangement has continued in one form or another to the present day. By 1903, detailed topographic mapping covered about 64 percent of the state. It was not until the end of the 1920s that New York completely mapped at a scale of 1:62,500.
We know a good deal about how these 15 minute maps were constructed, thanks in part to Gannett, who also wrote the first Manual of Topographic Methods for the USGS. The methods employed were similar to those of the Coast Survey. After the initial primary triangulation, draft quadrangle maps were made using a plane table. A great deal of emphasis was placed on finding the exact location of numerous points, such as hill tops, church steeples, and cross roads. Some of these were marked by the well-known “bench marks,” which are still used in many state and federal surveys today. Bench marks answered the need for property surveyors and others to be able to locate the precise location of the lines of their own surveys.
The most characteristic feature of these maps is the use of elevation contour lines, which were generally spaced at twenty feet apart. Users of early topographic maps should be aware that the contour lines only approximate the actual topography. As described by Gannett, there is a certain lack of precision in the way the lines were drawn. As Gannett put it: “Heights for the location of contour lines are measured by a variety of means dependent upon the accuracy with which they are desired.” The means for measuring elevations included the use of an instrument called the Wye level, vertical triangulation, and the use of barometers. Here is how Gannett describes the final stage of drawing a map using a plane table:
When the locations and height measurements upon a sheet have been completed, all these data are assembled upon one sheet, and then taken in hand by the most experienced sketcher in the party, usually its chief, who goes over the sheet, occupying all points which seem desirable, and sketches the natural and artificial features, referring them for position, size and shape to these located points and height measurements. Since the positions are scattered over the sheet, usually with a dozen or more on each square inch, there is little room for error in the sketching.
Several things can be said about the procedures described by Gannett. The first is that undoubtedly they did succeed in giving a more faithful, detailed, and reliable portrait of the land than anything done by previous map makers. The second is that these maps by no means provide a mirror image or a replica of the landscape in miniature, in spite of some of the rhetoric used by Gannett and other advocates of topographic mapping. It is clear, even from Gannett’s description, that there was a considerable amount of subjectivity involved in the creation of these maps. Items were included or excluded by the mapmaker depending on his personal judgment of their importance, which may or may not be the same as our own. The desire to produce quick results led to the introduction of various types of errors on some maps. The sketching of contour lines, probably more than other operation, involved a good deal of estimation and guesswork. Often, considerable differences can be detected when one compares the contour lines on one of these old fifteen minute maps with those on a modern USGS map, although it should be noted that the accuracy of contour mapping gradually improved after 1890.
In spite of their limitations, the old fifteen minute maps are much used for historical research. They show roads, houses (but not the names of their owners), streams, rivers, mines, and various other features, including (of course) topography. Their detail and relative accuracy accounts for much of their appeal and use. Researchers wanting to know the location of old roads or houses can be reasonably certain that they were actually located where they were shown on these maps. They are popular with those who want to locate old mines or railroads, or to get some idea of the layout of a town 100 years ago. Some of the uses of these maps are less obvious. For example, geologists use them to locate streams and hills that have been bulldozed or covered up by recent development.
Maps in the fifteen minute series can be found in many large libraries and historical societies. Almost all of them are also available online.
Mapping for Specialized Purposes
In chapter 10, the origins of thematic mapping were briefly reviewed, and some of the few thematic maps of New York that were published prior to the Civil War were described. In the second half of the nineteenth century, thematic mapping became more widespread—both in New York and throughout the nation. Advances in such areas as geology, soil science, public health, and demographyas well as in statisticswent hand in the hand with the creation of increasingly sophisticated and numerous thematic maps. Generally speaking, thematic mapping in New York, as elsewhere in the United States, still reflected developments in Europe.
The decades immediately following 1890 saw the extensive publication of geological maps by both state and federal agencies. Detailed geological mapping requires reasonably good topographic mapping to use as a base, and the increasing production of 15 minute maps made this available. The production of geological maps was part of the mandate of the USGS, and actually preceded the decision to produce topographic maps by that agency.
The best known geological map product begun by the USGS in the decades before the First World War is the Geologic Atlas of the United States, which is a set of 227 folios published between 1894 and 1945. The maps in this series are at a scale of 1:62,500, and are based on the USGS topographic maps produced at that scale. These portfolios are available in many large research libraries, and online from Texas A&M University. Only a small number of the folios in this series cover parts of New York State, with individual folios for Niagara (1913), Watkins Glen – Catatonk (1909), New York City (1902), and several areas on New York’s borders with New Jersey and Pennsylvania. An example of this type of map is shown as 12.5. Many more geologic maps covering parts of New York State were produced by the New York State Geological Survey, and are listed in online catalogs and databases.