Rebuilding The Chimney

December 4, 2005
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Recovering, reinstalling and rededicating the Calais Observatory.



A rough cut, 1-ft square, 8-ft tall granite shaft protruded from the top of a granite dome behind the Calais Academy High School in Calais, Maine. Generations of children called it "The Chimney." Perhaps the name came from the idea that imaginary people lived below the rocks, or perhaps some residents thought the lone shaft resembled the remains from a burned-down house. Or maybe the Indians had built it. Really, no one knew why the stone was there. But soon, the history of the so-called "Chimney" would be uncovered and the site containing it would be honorably dedicated.

The Calais Observatory. The tall stone to the left is believed to have supported the Hardy Astronomical Clock. An astronomical transit sat upon the stone block on the right. Photo Credit: Harold Nelson

An Adventure Begins

In 1998 I was setting up a control survey in Calais and came across a triangulation station named CALAIS OBSERVATORY 1866, listed as destroyed. It would be useless for the survey, but its name certainly intrigued me. Curious, I contacted Joseph F. Dracup, retired head of the horizontal branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Geodetic Survey (NGS). Both Joe and I shared a passion for U.S. Coast Survey history. His reply to my call inquiring about the observatory station astounded me: "This site was a telegraphic longitude station," he told me, "one in a series that brought precise longitude from the Greenwich Observatory to Harvard College Observatory." With that, I knew I was off on another adventure into surveying's past. A few forays into vintage books at Fogler Library at the University of Maine in Orono sent me back to a time when batteries were jars with copper plates with acid and oil lamps illuminated crosshairs in surveying instruments.

The Purpose of an Observatory

Beginning in the very early 1800s, the U.S. Coast Survey (now the NGS) applied the principles of triangulation and precisely measured base lines to tie surveys together. Observations of stars determined latitude and longitude for key points in the triangulation, placing the surveys in perspective worldwide. Latitude could be measured at more stations since only "rough" time was necessary to micrometer star pairs as they passed overhead. Longitude, however, required the commodity of time-the more precise the better. Simply put, if a surveyor took 24 hours in a day (one rotation of the Earth) and 360 degrees in a circle, and knew that a star passed over Greenwich at a certain time, and if five hours later it passed over his location, he could calculate that he was five hours, or 75 degrees, west of the Prime Meridian.

Here I stand with Orland Bean, PLS, Brian Casey and Curt Crow after arranging with NOAA for placement of the first Heritage Trail Disk at Calais. Photo Credit: Harold Nelson.

Pie Pieces of Longitude

The 1840s brought the invention and development of Samuel Morse's electromagnetic telegraph system designed to speed news and messages across great distances. The U.S. Coast Survey immediately saw the potential to apply telegraphic time signals to determine longitude.

Each temporary observatory had an astronomical transit. An astronomical clock and chronograph register were wired together with a battery and connected to the nearby commercial telegraph line, which was usually used free of charge after 9 p.m. A local true north meridian was established and a point set upon which to point the transit, then it was aimed skyward through a slit in the roof of the observatory building. The pendulum of the clock was dipped in a pool of mercury, which made second beats on the chronograph drum. The electromagnetic pen was also wired to a telegraph key. When a particular star passed the crosshair, the observer tapped the key, which made an "out of sync" mark on the chronograph register. An etched glass plate could then be placed over the chronograph paper to read time to the hundredth of a second. The surveyor-measurer would then subtract the west station time from the east station time for a particular star, and have longitude in hours, minutes and seconds, which easily converted to DMS (degrees, minutes, seconds) format. These "pie pieces" of longitude spread south in the winter and north in the summer from Harvard College Observatory, the cardinal point of longitude in North America. By 1851, the work had progressed to Thomas Hill Observatory at Bangor, Maine.

Photo taken in 1998 of pillar and pad looking east.

In September 1857, Professor Alexander Dallas Bache, superinten-dent of the Coast Survey, completed measurements at the Epping Base Line near Cherryfield, Maine. Bache directed G.W. Dean, Stephen Harris and Julius Kincheloe to go to Calais and select a longitude site near the telegraph station that could be tied into the triangulation network. They selected a site behind the Calais Academy, and with permission from the headmaster, arranged for placement of a granite block for the astronomical transit as well as the tall granite shaft to support the Hardy Astronomical clock and the construction of the observatory building to house the stones. The astronomical work had to be completed that year before houses being built on Thomas Hill would interfere with survey work.

The 90 miles of telegraph lines between Bangor and Calais had recently had new India rubber insulators installed and were in such perfect working order that the clock in Calais would register on the chronograph in Bangor and vice versa. This aided in taking out some of the systematic error in the instruments. The surveyors also realized that different observers had different reaction times between when they saw the star cross the wire in the eyepiece and when they tapped the telegraph key. To help reduce this possible source of error, the observers switched stations halfway through the longitude campaign. Professor William Brydone Jack, the first astronomer of British North America at King's College Observatory, also visited Calais to see firsthand this "American method" of longitude determination. The weather did not cooperate, but Jack managed to time star passages with his friend Dr. Toldervy in Fredericton to determine the longitude difference between Calais and Fredericton.

The "Golden Spike" of Longitude

On July 27, 1966, the ship Great Eastern grounded the transatlantic telegraphic cable at Heart's Content, Newfoundland. The Coast Survey dispatched Assistant George Davidson, aided by S.C. Chandler and F.W. Perkins to Calais; Dr. Benjamin Arthrop Gould was accompanied by A.T. Mosman to Ireland; Assistant George W. Dean and Assistant Edward Goodfellow headed for Heart's Content, Newfoundland. As the fall and winter ensued, Davidson at Calais became ill and had to leave for more temperate latitudes. Assistant Charles O. Boutelle succeeded him. They finally decided to use the telegraph to synchronize the clock at Ireland with the clock in Newfoundland, and determine independent star times. Also, despite the installment of several automatic telegraph repeaters between Heart's Content and Calais, the signals were poor. It was not until late fall that a sharp frost threw the telegraph line into near perfect working order. On Dec. 16, 1866, closing observations took place between Newfoundland and Calais, thereby giving Calais Observatory the honor of joining longitudes determined east from Greenwich and west from Harvard.

Finding the Stone

In July 1998, my wife Deborah and I drove to the University of New Brunswick where I perused the archives material of William Brydone Jack and saw his observatory. We then drove to Calais, and on the evening of July 2, 1998, Deborah and I stepped onto the grounds of the Calais Observatory. My first thought was that the tall stone, with its mortise and drill holes, was used to support the Hardy Astronomical clock. This is a point I haven't been able to fully document but do believe is true. To the east of the tall stone, there appeared to be a carved pad in the ledge but no drill hole or mark of any kind. At the foot of the igneous dome was a granite block lying against a dead tree. Based on what I knew about the station's description and of the workings of an astronomical transit, I felt sure that this was the transit stone. I quickly sketched the area and Deborah held the end of the tape so that I could make a rudimentary survey of the site.

Though it was the weekend of the Fourth of July, I managed to find Jim Porter, assistant city manager of Calais, to share my findings. I explained what I had found, and we both knew that the site should be preserved, perhaps as a city park. I also met with Charles "Brand" Livingston of the Calais Historical Society who soon released my findings in the society's newsletter.

City of Calais Public Works workers recovered the transit stone and placed it back on the original carved ledge pad.

Plans Come Together

In January 2005, Harold Osher of the University of Southern Maine's Osher Map Library asked his relative Richard Auletta, a Long Island University linguistics professor who had fallen in love with the pristine Calais area, to put together a list of names of those who might be interested in preserving the Calais Observatory. Richard envisioned a Calais Observatory Conference on July 2-3, 2005 to coordinate committees to plan and create "Meridian Park," which would showcase the observatory remains. Gayle Moholland, director of the Unobskey School, part of the University of Maine complex, also emerged as a supporter of the effort. Gayle offered the school facilities for the conference.

Meanwhile, Albert "Skip" Theberge of NOAA's History Library contacted me about its new Heritage Trail Disk program, part of First Lady Laura Bush's Preserve America campaign. The program seeks to place commemorative disk markers that will also serve as survey markers in the National Spatial Reference System. Skip said that if I could arrange necessary matters, he was willing to come to Maine to dedicate the historic site. Richard and I immediately saw how this could boost our efforts to bring attention to the observatory site, and I agreed to work with NOAA to make this happen.

On May 19, 2005, Brian Casey and I, both of the Maine Department of Transportation's Property Office, and Orland Bean, PLS, from Sidney, Maine, met with Curt Crow, NGS state advisor for Massachusetts and New Hampshire, to set NOAA Heritage Trail Disk No. 1. City officials, the media and about 50 people turned out to witness the setting.

I told Curt that the carved pad in the ledge near the tall stone was probably the original station site. He then set up a Sokkia (Olathe, Kan.) GPS antenna on that spot to see if he could verify the hypothesis and to demonstrate GPS technology to the public. Surprising results came about when Curt ran the data through the NGS OPUS program-the solved position was very close to the CALAIS OBSERVATORY NGS station. This confirmed my suspicion that the transit block at the foot of the hill did indeed belong on the pad.

With that connection made, I asked Gayle to arrange with Jim Porter to have the Calais Public Works crew move the transit stone from its resting place against the tree and place it on the carved pad. Jim gave the OK and Gayle directed the crew per my instructions on placement and orientation of the 3,100-pound stone. Indiana Jones could not have been more proud of Gayle and the city crew as the transit stone fit perfectly onto the pad!

City of Calais Public Works workers recovered the transit stone and placed it back on the original carved ledge pad.

The Making of Meridian Park

In mid-June 2005, NOAA's NGS sent Steve Randall, cartographic technician and special projects manager, and Casey Brennan, program analyst, to perform GPS observations on the Heritage Trail Disk of the transit stone. It rained for the three days they were there, so they received no more attention than their predecessors did in 1857 and 1866.

On July 2, 2005, the Calais Observatory Conference got underway at the Unobskey School in Calais. Skip Theberge gave an insightful presentation on the history of the U.S. Coast Survey and on the Preserve America Heritage Trail Program; I detailed specifics of the Calais Observatory history. In the afternoon, Skip again spoke at the formal dedication on the observatory site along with State Senator Kevin Raye and Jim Porter on behalf of the city.

The following day, seven dedicated individuals met to discuss the concept of Meridian Park. The plan includes handicap-accessible paths with interpretative panels that explain the role of the Calais Observatory in determining longitudes (and its impact on the development of the concept of standard time and time zones, and other related concepts); selective plantings native to the region in the approximate 1-acre site; possible construction of a replica of the original observatory building; and the re-creation of the original instruments used at the Calais Observatory. The group also envisions educational outreach both locally and internationally including cultural exchanges between students in Maine, Newfoundland and Ireland at all levels from elementary to university.

"It was pointed out that the cable line which extended from Harvard Observatory in Massachusetts to Greenwich Observatory in England connected the four great Anglophone nations of the North Atlantic: the United States, Canada, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom," said Richard Auletta. "The potential for inter-scholastic contacts at all educational levels, and the development of international cultural ties among these four nations, is virtually unlimited."

When complete, the implementation of Meridian Park will honor the simplicity of the Calais children's "Chimney" and the great influence of the observatory station that linked transatlantic longitude.

Sidebar: Preserving America

Preserve America is a White House initiative in cooperation with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; the U.S. Departments of Defense, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and Education; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities; and the President's Council on Environmental Quality.

An executive order signed by President Bush on March 3, 2003, complements the Preserve America initiative. The order establishes federal policy to provide leadership in preserving America's heritage by actively advancing the protection, enhancement and contemporary use of the historic properties owned by the federal government. Under the order, the ACHP has issued recommendations to the president and federal agencies on stimulating initiative, creativity and efficiency in the federal stewardship of historic properties.

The order also encourages agencies to seek partnerships with state, tribal and local governments, and the private sector to make more efficient and informed use of these resources for economic development and other recognized public benefits. In addition, it directs the Secretary of Commerce, working with other agencies, to use existing authorities and resources to assist in the development of local and regional heritage tourism programs that are a significant feature of many state and local economies.

Through the Preserve America executive order, President Bush has called on NOAA and other federal agencies to step up efforts to inventory, preserve and showcase federally managed historic and cultural or "heritage" resources; and foster tourism in partnership with local communities.

Find out more at www.preserveamerica.gov.

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