Using the Past to Make the Future Better

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Archaeology at the Top of Nevada:

Geodetic Surveys of 1878-1895


Gregory R. Seymour

Trails Past, Inc.

Nevada Archaeological Association

Ely, Nevada April 2007

Staring in 1878, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey’s expedition of the 39th Parallel began construction of triangulation stations in Nevada.  Twenty-three stations were built between San Francisco and Salt Lake City encompassing 2500 miles of arcs.  Of the “Great Hexagon,” eight sites were on peaks in Nevada.   Wheeler Peak at 13,063 above sea level, Nevada’s highest mountain, was the hexagon’s central point. John Muir acted as guide for the expeditions on both Troy and Wheeler Peaks. We will see some of the remaining trials, roads, and buildings of this great pre-turn of the century expedition resulting in the quadrangle maps we use today.

 In 1978 Alvin McLane wrote a book called Silent Cordilleras, in which he describes 314 mountain ranges in Nevada, some of which he names for the first time (McLane 1978). He dedicated the manuscript to “the mountain men Jedediah Strong Smith and Peter Skene Ogden, who penetrated the Cordillera Incognito.”  Unbeknownst to me, when I first started my research on the geodetic surveys across Nevada, Alvin also had a keen interest these hilltop sites.   I never discussed this topic with him, but perhaps, like me, his interest was sparked by the rugged beauty of the mountains and an interest of maps.

 I have always wondered how the mapping system that we use today was developed.  During surveys and hikes, I have often thought how the surveyors could be so accurate when placing section corners miles from anywhere, more than 100 years ago. Most of the time, they were more accurate than our modern hand held GPS units, today even in the most difficult terrain. This paper discusses how the initial mapping grid was laid across Nevada. Something I find hope to covey today, especially considering the time and the lack of development in our rural state.

Between the late 1860s and the 1890s, the United States sent various surveys into the western half of the continent. Beginning in 1869, George M. Wheeler headed scientific and engineering expeditions into eastern Nevada and western Utah for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This one survey alone crossed more than 25,000 square miles. Their goal was to map certain areas west of the 100th meridian to the scale 8 miles to the inch.   During the summer of that year, Wheeler and some of his men, climbed to the top of the more than 13,000 ft. Jefferson Davis Peak, which is now known as Wheeler Peak (Wheeler 1875). At the end of this survey, he recommended what he called a “general survey of the west.”  By 1871, Congress approved this massive project to survey lands south of the Central Pacific Railroad which includes most of Nevada. These surveys continued until 1879 when the US Congress created the United States Geological Survey.

Another important explorer was John Muir.  During the 1870s, he traveled throughout Nevada and kept journals on the flora and fauna of the region (Muir 1878).  Why are we considering Muir in this paper?  As you will see he was an important part of the geodetic survey along the 39th parallel. But first, back to the government surveys.

The U.S. Survey of the Coast was renamed the U.S. Coastal and Geodetic Survey in June of 1878 (Unrau 1990; Weber 1923).  Beyond dealing with mapping the coastal areas of the continent, now they were also charged with a geodetic survey across the continent to connect each of the three coasts.  From the Pacific coast, the triangulation of the 39th parallel was started. Between 1882 and 1889, the western transcontinental grid was comprised of a base network starting in the San Francisco Bay area.  The two ends were comprised of the Yolo Base Net to the west and the Salt Lake Base Net on the east end. The Nevada portion of the transcontinental grid was called the Nevada Net. The network was comprised of 4 to 6 secondary stations around a primary or central station (Drews 1986; Unrau 1990).

This 2500 mile arc of triangulation was the first of its kind and has been considered a major achievement in the history of geodesy. The survey investigated the size and shape of the earth using a network of triangles, each as much as 200 miles on a side.  At that time, the theodolite was the primary instrument for measuring horizontal and vertical angles. They used mirrors between 3 and 6 inches square and could reflect light up to 200 miles distant.  

Beyond the technical and scientific aspects of constructing a grid, think of the time and the geography. If you can imagine, because of the remoteness and the elevation, getting to the top of each of these peaks was quite difficult. Often trails and roads had to be cut, and more than 10,000 pounds of equipment was needed at the top of the hill.  Food, water, clothing, and surveying equipment had to be hauled up for stays that often lasted several months at a time.    It was reported in the annual government reports that the wagon roads frequently had to be made passable by building bridges across gullies and streams. A lower camp was established and supplies were hauled up a pack trail to the upper camp, usually at a distance of 5 to 10 miles which involved grading, cutting, blasting, and clearing of trees.   The assent was usually between 3000 and 7000 feet (Unrau 1990).

Two or more men lived in canvas tents surrounded by rock walls at the top of the peaks.  They often suffered through high altitude storms well into the fall season.  Often their work was stopped due to storms and lightening.  It was reported: “The violence of the electric discharge, the thunder claps was not infrequently so alarming that the party had to seek safety behind and under ledges of rock below the summit of the peak.” Once, one of the tents was hit, fortunately no one was in it at the time ( U. S. Government 1882).

The two men responsible for coordinating the surveys across Nevada were A.F. Rodgers and William Eimbeck. The survey party pulled together by these two men had been making preparations to set out from Sacramento in June, when John Muir returned from a trip to the headwaters of the north and middle forks of the American River.  Muir decided immediately to accept this invitation to join the party as a guide.  Though Muir never published the account of this trip in any finished form, he did write a series of letters to Miss Louie Wanda Strentzel. She became John Muir's wife in 1880. Muir commented on Troy Peak as … “one of the most interesting mountains I have made in the state with a thick spicy forest to the top of the summit in the Troy Range. At height of about 9500 ft, we passed through a magnificent grove of aspens, through which the mellow sunshine sifted in ravishing splendor, showing every leaf to be as beautiful in color as the wings of a butterfly.” Troy Peak in the Grant Range, or Silver Peak as it was called back then, was one of the most southerly stations in the grid (McCracken and Howerton 1996).

While staying in Pioche, in October of 1878, Muir wrote a paper on his exploits up Wheeler Peak entitled “Nevada’s Timber Belt.” Part of what he said was: “we made the assent of the peak just after the first storm had whitened its summit and brightened the atmosphere. The foot slopes are like those of the Troy range, only more evenly clad with grass. After tracing a long, rugged ridge of exceedingly hard quartzite, said to veined here and there with gold, we came to the summit, a thousand feet above the timber line, its slopes heavily tree-clad.” Of this climb, Muir then wrote another paper called the “Glacial Phenomena in Nevada” (Muir 1878).

During 1878 and 1879, the Coast and Geodetic Survey started operations in Nevada from Lake Tahoe eastward to Utah. From this work, Rodgers and Eimbeck developed the “Great Hexagon” encompassing some 20,730 square miles (U.S. Government 1879).  Three major peaks were chosen as central points in Nevada with nine others situated around these to triangulate to and from. Wheeler Peak was the primary and the highest peak in Nevada at 13,063 ft. and is now in Great Basin National Park, east of Ely.  The other two peaks were Arch Dome in the Toiyabe Range at 11,775 ft., and Mt. Grant just west of Walker Lake at 11, 280 ft. above sea level.  The other peaks and valley stations were scattered across central Nevada and included Silver Peak, and a number of others as seen here. As reported by the superintendent of the U.S Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1882, the Mt Callahan station was currently occupied. Despite being smaller than other peaks, this was the first to be climbed and manned (U.S. Government 1882). This mountain was used to determine horizontal directions and vertical angles to five surrounding peaks, along with a bench mark on the Nevada Central Railroad 10 miles below.  Next, stations were set up in August of 1881 on Wheeler Peak, then called Jefferson Davis Peak, and on Diamond Peak. Eimbeck was to occupy Diamond Peak, while H.J. Davis went to Wheeler.  They were to camp on their summits until December, no matter the conditions.  NO MATTER THE CONDITIONS.  Wheeler was occupied for the next four years, spring through December (U.S. Government 1883).

In order to complete the work, instruments were mounted on masonry or rock at the summit where the observer stood on a raised floor partially surrounded by canvas and masonry walls to buffet the severe winds. The theadoloite stood on its stand and was used to triangulate to the next peak, off in the distance. The men were grouped in pairs at stations numbering from 10 to 12 depending on the configuration of the triangulation. Because of the elevation, this work lasted only about four months before the weather chased them off the mountain. Then, they were back up the mountain in pairs to continue their work. In July of 1882, Embeck climbed Mt Nebo and Beaver Mountain in Utah to extend the triangulation east of the Wasatch Mountains then returned to Jefferson Davis (Wheeler) Peak. He and his crew made it to the top on October 5th where it was 13 degrees and the snow was already 1 foot deep. By November they had recorded temperatures of 20 below 0.  They finally closed operations on Wheeler in early December.

Troy Peak, used as a triangulating station in the Fall of 1882, and may have been one of the more difficult sites to reach.  Right below the summit, there were several hundred feet of shear cliffs to traverse. The trail was blasted 300 to 400 ft from the top in solid rock building steps to carry their heavy equipment without falling to their deaths.  Water was more than 6 miles away and several thousand feet below.

Today, after hiking and climbing for hours, we can see the ruins of the survey teams encampment at the summit of Troy Peak.  The only remains that are visible are low walls making two square rooms of dry-laid rock.   A wooden platform is inside of one of these enclosures. Several leveled earthen tent platforms were also present.  All of these features were constructed below the summit on the south side of the peak.  This may be in part because the west and north slopes of the peak are vertical and did not provide any room to build.

The last observations made from Jefferson Davis or Wheeler Peak continued until 1889 as the party moved east across Utah.  Finally, in 1895 the 2500 mile arc of triangulation was completed along the 39th parallel.

These surveys of the triangulating grids made across Nevada, more than 100 years ago, were the first phase of mapping the curvature of the earth, the location, distance, and exact placement of features in literally “the middle of no where.”  Ultimately, this was the beginning of the grids that is printed on the topographic quadrangle maps that we all use today.  And it was done on the backs of horses and burros.

                    References Cited

Drews, Michael P.

    1986 Archaeological investigations at the Summit of Mt. Callahan, Lander County, Nevada.  Prepared for SRS Technologies. Report on file at Nevada State Museum, Carson City.

McCracken, Robert D. and Jeanne Sharp Howerton

    A History of Railroad Valley, Nevada.  Central Nevada Historical Society, Tonopah, Nevada.

McLane, Alvin R.

     1978 Silent Cordilleras.  Camp Nevada Monographs No. 4. Reno Nv.

Muir, John

    Nevada’s Timber Belt in Steep Trails: California-Utah-Nevada-Washington-Oregon-The Grand Canyon. Ed by William F. Bade, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston.

    1878 Glacial Phenomena in Nevada in Steep Trails: California-Utah-Nevada-Washington-Oregon-The Grand Canyon. Ed by William F. Bade, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston.

Unrau, Harlin D.

    A History of Great Basin National Park, Nevada.  U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service.

U.S Government

    1879 Annual Report of the Superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, 1879.

U.S Government

    1882 Annual Report of the Superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, 1882.

U.S Government

1883 Annual Report of the Superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, 1883.

Weber, Gustavus A.

    1923 The Coast and Geodetic Survey, Its History, Activities, and Organization.  Institute for Government Research.  Service Monographs of the United States Government, No. 16.  The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore.

Wheeler, George M.

    1875 A Preliminary Report Upon a Reconnaissance through Southern and Southeastern Nevada, Made in 1869, by First Lieut. George M. Wheeler, Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, Assisted by First Lieut. D.W. Lockwood, Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army. Washington Printing Office.


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