Walk the Line

Today’s post was written by Alan Walker, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

It’s all well and good to have defined boundaries between countries, but somebody has to go out and make sure that they are accurate. And that’s what survey teams from the Coast and Geodetic Survey did for many years, especially after boundary treaties between the United States and Canada were concluded in 1908 and 1925.

photo of a man looking through a scope on rocky terrain
From the report of Thomas Riggs, 1908 NAID 1411901

The survey parties submitted their final reports to the International Boundary Commission. Here is a box full of them, from surveys of the Alaska-Canada boundary, in the series Reports of Surveyors, 1906-1922 (NAID 1411901):

view of bound volumes in a box
Alaska Boundary Reports from Reports of Surveyors

The survey leaders kept daily diaries of their work. Here is a page from Frank H. Brundage’s diary (from the series Diaries, 1906-1940 NAID 1406970); his party surveyed the Vermont-Canada boundary:

diary page of Thursday September 1 and September 2
Page from F. H. Brundage Diary NAID 1406970

What’s fun about these records is that the survey parties took a lot of photographs on their travels.  Here is a view of Labonte’s Line House, mentioned in Brundage’s diary:

photo of Labont's Line house with a car and horse drawn buggy in front
Labonte’s Line House near North Troy, Vermont, 1927; 76-BS-FHB-1927-90

These line houses straddled the boundary; many survive today, with lines marked along the floors. A great tourist attraction, no matter which country you’re in.
Now you might think that the reports would be dry recitations of distances traveled, triangulation points established, and so on. Well, they do have those in abundance, but they also offer up flavorful accounts of daily life on the trail. Here is an excerpt from the report of O. M. Leland’s survey party in Alaska:

Great quantities of equipment were required for these surveys, which could last for months. The heliotrope, pictured here, was essential for establishing triangulation points on sunny days. These were in use until GPS rendered them obsolete.

Sure-footed companions (of the four-legged variety) were also necessary:

photo of men putting shoes on a horse
Thomas Riggs Report of Alaska-Canada Boundary, 1908 NAID 1411901

Boats were a necessity on many of these trips, and would certainly have been preferable to endless hiking.

photo of survey vessels on the banks of a river
Survey of J. H. can Wagenen, 1914 76-BS-JHvW-1914-17

But boats had their own problems:

text of a note: I had the misfortune to lose a 4x5 camera
D. W. Easton Report of Alaska-Canada Boundary, 1908 NAID 1411901

One advantage of having your own survey party was that you could name your vessels with whatever struck your fancy. This survey party had a hankering for German food:

photo of a raft on water
Thomas Riggs Report of Alaska-Canada Boundary, 1908 NAID 1411901

The party also named one of its triangulation markers “Sauerkraut.”
But even with such lighthearted moments, the parties faced many dangers. The going could be quite treacherous. Would you want to venture along these icy passages?

photos of a survey party on a glacier
W. F. Ratz Report of Alaska-Canada Boundary, 1908 NAID 1411901

Especially in Alaska, with its nearly 1,500 miles of shared border, the parties had to endure seemingly endless hikes over mountains and glaciers.  This surveyor takes a well-earned rest atop one of them. Note the triangulation marks etched into the photograph:

76-N-10863 Loafing on the Mountain - O.M. Leland Party, Coast Mountains of Alaska and Canada
O. M. Leland Party – Coast Mountains of Alaska and Canada, 1908 NAID 519372

Finally, a haunting double exposure. The Idaho Store and Hotel still exists at the border entry station at Eastport, Idaho.  This was taken during a 1936 boundary survey by Thomas Riggs:

76-BS-TR-1936-9 Double Exposure of Idaho Hotel and Store, 1936
Double Exposure of Idaho Hotel and Store, 1936 76-BS-TR-1936-9

The records of these surveys are rich in many kinds of detail, and as you read them you can almost imagine you’re out on the trail with these intrepid souls. I could imagine working on one of these parties for a summer; where do I sign up?

RG 76, PI-170 entry 376, box 21 - G. Clyde Baldwin and Party, 1908 Report
G. Clyde Baldwin Report of Alaska-Canada Boundary, 1908 NAID 1411901

3 thoughts on “Walk the Line

  1. thanks for happenstancially including the page from brundage’s boundary diary and the photo of the labonte house in north troy, vermont. i know the area well, including where the bear mountain is that is mentioned in the diary.

    i am wondering how does one access online other photos and diary pages that cover the north troy, vermont area? your link to https://catalog.archives.gov/id/1406970 does not go any deeper than that page.

    I-) ihor

  2. regarding the labonte line house, it looks like most of it is in canada. one can see the boundary marker – the horse is in the background, behind the granite marker. the ‘house’ was probably a bar or a store. one can see an advertising sign for dow beer on the house. there are two signs for frontenac beer on the building in the left background, as well as what looks like another dow beer sign. one also sees the ‘stop’ sign in front of the house, probably meant for customs.

    i can imagine the survey party stopping there for a refreshing beverage!

    the area discussed in the diary would be along here https://goo.gl/maps/JKKMKyUAYfw

    I-) ihor

  3. Surveying heliotropes are a hobby of mine (I even own a few), so I was excited to see the three photos above a heliotrope in use. The official 1918 report on this survey (readable online at: https://books.google.com/books?id=WsCFAAAAMAAJ ) mentions the heliotropes several times, but has no photos of heliotropes, though it does include a photograph of a heliograph they used for communications.

    The NOAA website has two nice modern color photos of the type of heliotrope shown above – the summary pages (with thumbnail photos and links to higher resolution photos) are:

    The type of heliotrope shown here is often called a “box heliotrope” – some other photos of box heliotropes in action (and otherwise) are here:

    The USCGS used the Coast Survey heliotrope and the Steinheil heliotrope as well as the box heliotropes. The heliotrope was invented by Karl Friedrich Gauss in 1821 – those interested in learning more about heliotropes can read the Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heliotrope_%28instrument%29 and its references.

    Thanks for the article!

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