Online Exclusive: Surveying D.C. Sites (full version)

April 1, 2002
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Washington offers a glimpse of surveying's past.



Hassler Park, NOAA Headquarters

Nestled about a quarter mile northeast off the northern tip of our nations political cornerstone, Washington D.C. is the Silver Spring Metro Center. This complex houses the headquarters of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Geodetic Survey (NGS).

In front of the Metro Center along the northerly side of East-West highway is Hassler Park. The park is dedicated to Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler, the first Superintendent of the “Survey of the Coast”, as it was called at its inception in 1807. Although very small in area, Hassler Park offers a quiet interlude for a busy day about the city; perhaps a good place to eat lunch and discuss the day’s activities.

Hassler’s tasks were formidable. Not only did he propose the “triangulation” method of survey (accepted by President Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Congress), he also set the specifications for the theodolites and astronomical clocks necessary for such geodetic endeavors, and traveled to England several times to procure them.

The book The Chequered Career of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler by Florian Cajori, originally published in 1929 gives good detail of Hassler’s life and the political situations that arose during the fledgling years of the Survey, minus mathematics and theory.

Stones in the Congressional Cemetary.

The Congressional Cemetery

I first visited the Congressional Cemetery in 1995. I had read a book about Alexander Dallas Bache, the second Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey. Bache is an old Philadelphia name pronounced like Bate-ch (long e), only in one syllable, sounding almost like the surname Bates.

The last line of the book, Alexander Dallas Bache, Scientist and Educator, Pennsylvania Lives series, University of Philadelphia Press, 1947 intrigued me. It read simply, “On Sunday, February 24th, 1967, they placed what was mortal of him in the Congressional Cemetery.” I wrote the Congressional Cemetery whereupon John Hanley, then Director of the Cemetery, provided me the location of the Bache lot in the cemetery. Having become so familiar with Bache, I had to stop for a visit the next time I was in Washington.

The Congressional Cemetery was purchased with private funds and burials began in 1807. Five years later the cemetery was deeded to Christ Church. It bore the name Washington Parish Burial Ground until 1846 when the vestry changed the name to Washington Cemetery. Originally the grounds consisted of 4 1/2 acres about where the gatehouse is located. Over the years it grew until the current acreage of 32 1/2 acres was reached in 1875.

Periodic federal appropriations were made to erect the wall, iron fence, the original gate keeper’s house, the public vault, landscaping and other improvements. The name evolved when Congress added it’s own name to the appropriation legislation for “Congressional Cemetery.” A military report of 1939 stated that “in reality, the Congressional cemetery was the first national cemetery created by the government” although it was, and is, privately owned. Anyone may be buried in the Congressional Cemetery, as it is supported by private funds.

Among the more colorful figures buried in the cemetery are thousands of lesser-known visitors and residents of the Capital city. Among the 60,000 graves are privates and generals of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, Union and Confederate soldiers of the Civil War, craftsmen and architects of the Capitol, Indian Chiefs, foreign diplomats and victims of mass tragedies, each with interesting stories mostly known only to their families.

The more notable ‘residents’ of the cemetery are John Philip Sousa, America‘s ‘March King’, Matthew Brady, the photographer who brought the images of the Civil War to the nation, and J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The Congressional Cemetery fell on hard times in the 1970’s. In order to rescue this once proud ground from further deterioration and possible abandonment, a group of ambitious, civic-minded citizens formed the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery. Since 1976, this tax-exempt organization has worked to repair, restore and maintain the cemetery. Thanks to donations of it’s many friends and supporters, the Congressional Cemetery is taking its place, once again, as a landmark of which the city and the nation can be proud.

Regretfully, I did not have much time to wander the cemetery’s paths, other than visiting the Alexander Dallas Bache lot. My wife, Deborah did wander around the cemetery with our wire-haired Fox Terrier, Ginger and the kids. They got to see more if it than I did, including many of the above ground vaults that you could ‘peer’ into and sometimes see coffins. My step-son, Gavin was most intrigued by stones bearing the names John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, as he had studied about the U.S. Senators in Social Studies. We had to take a photo of him next to the stones so he could give one to his teacher.

In reality, Clay and Calhoun are not really buried there. Their stones are “cenotaphs,” which literally means “empty tomb,” and are among many similar stones erected to honor Congressmen who died while in office but are interred elsewhere. There are some 80 Congressmen buried on the lots with their cenotaphs.

Alexander Dallas Bache's stone.

Alexander Dallas Bache

Bache holds a special place in my heart as a Maine native. In 1843 Bache pushed the Survey into southern Maine. Bache was at all of the First Order stations in Maine until 1859 as the survey extended to the border with British North America (now New Brunswick, Canada). In 1860 Bache was at Coast Survey stations WACHUSETT in Massachusetts, GUNSTOCK and UNKONOOUC in New Hampshire, the latter station where he observed a great Solar Eclipse.

Bache left behind in Maine the EPPING BASELINE, which he personally measured with his Assistants in 1857. The monuments for EAST and WEST BASE and the “5 Milestones” are still intact on an expansive blueberry ground. The National Geodetic Survey included both base stations in their 1992 Northeast HARN Campaign, and EAST BASE was included in the 2000 Height Modernization Campaign as a Federal Base Network station, of which I was a Cooperative Basenet Observer.

Bache took over the Coast Survey in 1843 after Hassler’s death. Under Bache’s Superintendence the Coast Survey grew greatly to meet the needs of our expanding continent, and he set forth a plan to divide the Survey into “Sections” in order to keep track of the expanding work. The childless Bache ran the Survey as a gentle but strict grandfather and was known to his close subordinates as “The Chief“, and his wife (Nancy Clark Bache) was “The Chiefess.”

That Bache regarded those in the Coast Survey as an extended family was no secret. Dallas and Nancy adopted young CS “aide” Henry Wood. Henry Wood Bache accompanied Dallas to many of the First Order triangulation stations where Dallas and another “assistant” would measure the horizontal angles with Great Theodolite No. 1. Henry and other members of the Bache Party would be engaged in duties at the stations also, recording magnetic readings, meteorological observations, or transcribing the recorded data into a duplicate set of books, which would be shipped back to Washington by a different means from the originals.

Bache attended West Point Academy, where he made fast and lifelong friend, Jefferson Davis. In the summer of 1858, Davis, his wife Varina, and their two children visited Bache at station HUMPBACK, near Aurora, Maine. The ensuing Civil War years took a toll on these two men, as Davis became the President of the Confederate States of America, and Bache returned to Washington to “make safe” all the maps and charts that the Coast Survey had created over the many years, and to make available to the Union, all the resources of the Survey. Shortly after the war ended, Bache took ill and was bedridden until his death in February 1867, and was interred in the Congressional Cemetery.

In the book Centennial Celebration of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey April 5th and 6th 1916, published in 1916, former Superintendent Dr. Thomas Corwin Mendenhall spoke of the Coast Survey: “...The splendid superstructure which Bache erected upon Hassler’s foundation has received the highest praise from competent judges in all parts of the world.”

Mendenhall also quotes Professor Benjamin Pierce (who served as the Survey’s third Superintendent): “What it is, Bache has made it. It will never cease to be the admiration of the scientific world. It is only necessary conscientiously and faithfully to follow in his footsteps, imitate his example, and develop his plans.”

Monument to George Mifflin Bache and his crew members lost at sea.

George Mifflin Bache

The giant Alexander Dallas Bache monument is most impressive, but situated next to it, in the form of a broken ships mast carved from white marble, is a monument to Dallas’ brother, George Mifflin Bache, and 10 of the crewmembers of the Brig Peter G. Washington, who was lost at sea.

It would be a couple of years later while researching more Coast Survey history that I came across an account of what lead to the death of G. M. Bache in the 1846, from one of the earliest published Annual Reports of the Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey. I knew then that I had to revisit the cemetery to photograph the other monument that I had not been as interested in before.

By 1999, Gavin had entered the U.S. Army and was due to graduate basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. Deb and I decided to make the long trip to Georgia by car for the ceremony, and to see more of the nation south of Washington that we had never seen. We built into the timetable for the trip to visit the National Geodetic Survey, the National Archives in College Park, MD (where the old records of the Coast Survey are located), the Naval Observatory (to photograph a Kessel Astronomical Clock), and of course the Congressional Cemetery.

We arrived on a Sunday afternoon in September 1999 and sought out the hotel and routes to travel to get to these destinations on Monday. It was getting quite late and darkness was ensuing when we arrived at the Congressional Cemetery. The gates were open, and when we entered found a most unexpected surprise. In the dusk, the cemetery was teeming with people, and their dogs!

In talking to one of the “dog walkers” we found that they were there evenings to walk their dogs and patrol the cemetery, thereby protecting if from vandalism. While some people might find this disrespectful, we found it very comforting, and I am sure that the “dog walkers” benefited the cemetery. I had just enough light to make the necessary photographs for this article.

The Brig Washington had been in the news before, while under the Command of Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney, USN. On August 26th 1839, Gedney was involved in soundings off the East Coast of Long Island New York. Gedney and the crew made a shocking discovery; the slave ship Amistad. The slaves had mutinied, killed the captain and one of the Amistad’s crew and had taken over the ship. Fortunately for the slaves, the ship drifted aimlessly toward Long Island. The ship had been in route from Africa to Cuba. The slaves were arrested and charged with murder. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where President John Quincy Adams argued their case. Eventually the slaves were returned to Africa as Free Men.

Lieutenant George Mifflin Bache had command of the Brig Washington in 1846, and had charted several “sections” radiating perpendicular of the Atlantic Coast. The work had begun by others off the coast of Cape Cod. These “sections” were not ordinary soundings for depth and obstacles. Bache was charting the “Atlantic Cold Wall” and the Gulf Stream and began his thermal sections in July off the coast of Sandy Hook. Work then progressed southward.

In a letter to his brother Dallas in charge of the Coast Survey, George writes, “I would like to be with you when you look at and admire this section, as admire it you must, and speculate on it together. Here on the left we have the main current of the (gulf) stream turned to the eastward, by Cape Hatteras, and butting up against a bank of cold water, which it overflows on the right mingling with a vast reservoir of warm water, which is probably brought up there by the eddies from the stream itself.’

Bache continues, “The tracing of the Cold Wall from Hatteras up will be highly interesting and will lead to useful practical results, if it is permanent, (and can it be otherwise?)...Your affectionate brother, G. M. Bache.

The brig Washington in hurricane.
On August 29th, 1846, at approximately Lat 31-40 North and Long 69-15 West George Mifflin Bache and the Brig Washington began the temperature soundings of Section No. 3, and his countdown to destiny. Observations are listed on a plot as August 29, 30, 31, September 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, the 7th.

The following details are from Appendix No. 5 of the 1846 Coast Survey Annual Report, entitled ‘Copy of the log-book of the United States brig Washington.” The details are so exacting that the reads like a script for a Hollywood movie.

September 8, 1846, ‘Commenced with a fresh breeze from the ENE and cloudy with thick and squally weather; at 12h 20m (am) Smith’s Island light bore NW 1/2 degree W; lost sight of it immediately afterwards...From 4 to 8 (am) heavy gales from northward and eastward....both starboard boats filled and tore away from the davits...’ The crew all the while kept busy trying to control the ship as best they could, varying the sails.

‘...at 10, “blowing a hurricane”, the water above the lee rail most of the time; hove overboard both of the lee guns, and cut away the mainmast, which brought the foretopmast, the fore yard, and the head of the foremast with it, leaving them hanging up and down the mast; got her before the wind, and hove overboard the two larboard guns; sounded in eight fathoms of water, not able to see a cable’s length ahead; the tops of the seas blowing completely over and on board of us, the men clinging to keep from being washed or blown overboard. At 11, let go the main steam anchor, with a 6 and 1/2 inch Manilla hawser, 180 fathoms in length, bent to it, in order to bring her head to the wind, for the purpose of anchoring. At 11h 10m, while in the act of letting go the starboard anchor, shipped a heavy sea amidships and on the quarter, sweeping the deck fore and aft, and carrying with it the poop cabin, and nearly all the officers and men. She partly righted; all succeeded in getting on board again, with the exception of George M. Bache, lieutenant commanding, James Dorsey, Benjamin Dolloff, and John Fishbourne, quartermasters, Henry Schroeder, sailmakers mate, Francis Butler, Lewis Maynard, Thomas Stamford, and William Wright, seamen, and Peter Hanson and Edward Grennin, ordinary seamen. On regaining the wreck, manned the pumps, cut away the foremast, and let go the starboard anchor, which brought her head to the wind; found the tanks, chains, kentledge, and everything in the hold, had shifted, ripping up the berth deck; cleared away the chain and run it out to the better end; at the same time employing heaving overboard the kentledge and shot. The brig partly righted; the gale abating, she rode to her anchors....

To this we add Mr. Ricketson’s (Pilot of the Washington) account:
...‘the three quartermasters were at the wheel with the Captain (Bache) who was conning the ship;...Wheel stanchion and every thing carried away. The three quartermasters lost. One of them said “Take care of yourselves, shipmates, John Fishbourne overboard, holding on to fragment of wreck. Captain holding on to part of cabin, apparently as if stunned; did not speak or make sign; thinks he saw the pilot, who was trying to get some moveable ...article to throw overboard‘. Another sea came up and that was the last they saw of Bache and the quartermasters.

Ricketson continues...’Crew obedient--not noisy. They appeared terrified; Lewis, wardroom waiter, was so frightened that he walked overboard after he had regained the deck. Last order given by Captain was to “let go the anchor and give her whole length of chain” in a normal tone of voice--seemed perfectly cool, just the same as he always gave orders....Cannot say if results are lost. Thinks bodies will drive ashore; Captain’s oil-cloth coat yellow, below his knees; no uniform; no one had uniform; light blue pants; blue and white speckled woolen slippers; oil cloth coat buttoned round him; whiskers coming below neck; no beard on lips; hair long, black.

Several vessels provided aid and helped the Washington as the seas subsided and helped her get near Cape Henry. She was then taken in tow by the U.S. Frigate Constitution and on September 24, 1846 was docked at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia. The Brig Washington survived the storm and continued service for many years. The last known record of her service was when she was docked in New Orleans at the outbreak of the Civil War.

In at twist of fate, Captain Bache, and 10 of his crewmen perished off Cape Hatteras on September 8th, 1846. For it was their task of charting the Atlantic Coast to make the shipping industry safe for everyone. Their monument in the Congressional Cemetery stands to remind us of the sacrifice of those who worked to make the sea safer for others. Their white marble monument is showing it’s age of 156 years. The monument is in need of a cleaning and some of the names and inscriptions are wearing away. It should be the task of this generation to re-cut the engravings and preserve their memory for the generations that continue the often times dangerous task of mapping on the sea, the land, and as we reach to other worlds.

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