Point of Beginning

Surveying the Work of John Randel Jr.

Marguerite Holloway, the author of “The Measure of Manhattan,” talks to POB about the life of the man who laid the grid for Manhattan.

October 28, 2013

Marguerite Holloway, the director of science and environmental journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of “The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor.”

Published earlier in 2013, “The Measure of Manhattan” details Randel’s work on the Manhattan grid in the early 19th century. The book chronicles not only Randel’s life but his surveying efforts, from his high standards to his invention of his own instruments. Holloway also examines Randel’s lasting impact by looking at the present-day work of surveyor J.R. Lemuel Morrison, geologist Reuben Skye Rose-Redwood and ecologist Eric Sanderson.

POB talked to Holloway about Randel’s life and legacy. Below are excerpts of the interview.

POB: As you mention in your prologue with the reference to Big Rock in Riverside Park, you seem to have a personal connection to this biography. What drew you to the story of John Randel Jr.?

Marguerite Holloway: I grew up in New York City, but I’ve traveled a lot and I had the good fortune to revisit places at different ages. So I’ve always been really

Holloway_inbody
Marguerite Holloway is the author of "The Measure o Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor." Photo courtesy of Marguerite Holloway.

interested in how you experience a place very differently through time. Of course, I’m talking about a very short scale, just the scale of a lifetime or a decade. But I’ve always found that really engaging.

In 2003 when I was working on a profile of Eric Sanderson, who did the “Mannahatta” project for the New York Times, and I was following him around, I was amazed at how he could see New York City as it was 400 years earlier in his mind’s eye as he walked. That sort of took seeing layers and landscapes to a whole different level for me. Then he kept referring to this young man Randel, who of course had been walking the island 200 years earlier, seeing only this great city, seeing streets and lines, and not seeing the land so much.

The idea of these two people separated by two centuries, experiencing the landscape and the island in completely different ways, just became the kernel of the obsession about Randel. When I started to try to find out about Randel, there was so little. I couldn’t believe this guy who laid the grid on New York City—this emblematic, iconic grid—that he was a bit of a mystery. So that’s what set me on it.

POB: One passage describes the traits Simeon DeWitt found in Randel: “rationally driven exactitude, the desire to improve upon what they had, what they encountered.” What characteristics do you think made Randel a good surveyor?

Holloway: I think that he was incredibly mathematically minded. He seems to have had an amazing facility with math. He liked things to be very precise and accurate. He was obsessed with replicating, with doing things several times to make sure that he had gotten it right. He was also thinking not just personally and about his own commitment to doing things correctly, but also I think he seems to have had a much larger vision of what the country was going through and what the country was becoming at that time.

He really cared so much about the canals and about the railroads and about urban planning. He seems to have connected those very personal obsessions with a bigger picture of what the country’s potential was. That combination made him not entirely unique, there were lots of people like that at that time and there still are. But I think that’s what made him so enormously successful. He had sort of vision at two scales, and he was also very ambitious. He had a lot of confidence about his abilities and his inventions and his talents.

POB: What kind of legacy has he left? How should he be viewed in history?

Holloway: I think he should be viewed as one of the very important people who worked on our early infrastructure. And I think he should be viewed as someone who was very important to New York City history in particular. He worked on the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal, he worked on this very early railroad, the Newcastle and the Frenchtown, and a railroad in upstate New York.

I think that he was viewed as very ambitious by people he came into conflict with and who he criticized. So Benjamin Wright obviously found him very ambitious. But Benjamin Wright himself was very ambitious so that’s not entirely fair.

I think also Randel because he was involved in the courts a lot--it was not that unusual for that time. … Nevertheless, people saw him as litigious, and that I think made people feel somewhat negative toward him. He seems to be a little intense at times so those could be seen as negative qualities.

But, if you look at it in a different light, he was really driven, and his entire professional career depended on his reputation. For him to get another gig, working on the railroad or working on the canal or doing surveying, he had to be seen as someone who cared about getting it right and who was obsessive about that. So I think he pushed back very hard whenever someone raised a question about his name or his work.

I also think—and I mention this in the book--he really felt he was getting at a truth of some sort. Because he thought so much about getting things right and about mathematics, that I think he felt all the time if he just showed people, if he could just make the math clear to him, if he could just have them understand his measurements and his reasoning, they would get it, and they would agree with him. So some of the fuel driving him was, ‘This is right. If you just take the time, if you listen to my arguments, you will see it too.’

POB: What type of insight did you gain from Randel’s field books and notebooks?

Holloway: There are 45 notebooks at the New York Historical Society and they basically run from 1808 to about 1823. So they extend a little bit after the time after he was working so intensely in New York City. Then there are four or so notebooks in the Onondaga Historical Association in Syracuse.

The notebooks, or surveyor’s notebooks, were considered the state or the city’s property. They were really this official record of the bounds of the lands and of the measurements and property lines and things like that. Randel had a different relationship with his notebooks, and perhaps many other surveyors did, too, I don’t know. There were archives that I looked at in which I looked at a lot of surveyor’s notebooks and they didn’t have this quality to them. But I’m sure Randel is not completely exceptional in this regard.

But he would write down all of his measurements, all of his calculations, he would write about what had happened in the field with the crew that day with some of the conflicts with the landowners. But then also he had these incredible descriptions about his family life, about illness, about conflicts he was having with clients, about the genesis of some of the lawsuits. After pages and pages and pages of numbers and measurements, there were these incredible gems of his personal life. And that was really all I had to piece together what I could of the narrative of his personal story and his feelings and his character, because most of it was really his measurements.

POB: They were almost sort of like diaries?

Holloway: But they weren’t consistently like that. They were mostly measurements and tallies as they should be. There would be a sketch, ‘Today we started at this point, and we went in a straight line along this avenue, and we would pass this, this, this and this.’ He would sort of sketch sometimes a stone wall, a tree, a privy, some houses, and he would say how far they measured that day. Then later on sometimes he would add up the measurements for an avenue for a street, and he would divide by the number of streets so he could get every block exactly right. The majority of the field books is that.

Then the personal stuff — “It was pouring rain. William (his brother) left a notebook out in the rain. I sent him to fetch it” — notes about his crew goofing off, these were like these little gems hidden between the measurements.

POB: Why do you think Randel’s story resonates with surveyors (or at the least, Reuben Skye Rose-Redwood and J.R. Lemuel Morrison)?

Holloway: Reuben is a geographer, and he is really interested in the evolution of cities and the evolution of the organization of cities. He’s done a lot of work on postal house number and street naming. He looks at cities and how they came to be in this very interesting way. He was the person who introduced me to Morrison. They became very obsessed with finding markers, if they could, of Randel.

Morrison explains his obsession as just being what surveying is about. You’re trying to look for records of the past and relate them to the present. He said many surveyors—and I found that from interviewing other surveyors—are really interested in history and how things were laid out and marked in the past. He said that’s just the way he thinks all the time.

I love going out in the field with them. It was just wonderful. With Lem Morrison, I went out to see what contemporary surveying is like. It was just extraordinary. We all pass surveyors on the streets, working on roads or bridges. They are sort of iconic with the tripod, but I don’t think everybody understands what they are doing and how crucial it is to our everyday lives. Going out in the field with Morrison made me aware of that in a completely different way, and it was so fun.

POB: What lessons can we learn today from Randel’s life?

Holloway: “The thing I hope the book does most is document Randel and his significance so that people are aware of him. But on another level, knowing about Randel’s life and work I hope makes readers think about the layers of time and landscapes so that they are aware that we have these records that go back sometimes a century—sometimes two, sometimes longer—that can bring alive the changes that have occurred as people have lived in that landscape. An awareness of what has changed and what has stayed the same could be very important for informing how we think about landscapes and cities in the future and how we plan for the future. I think that is what I find, at core, most interesting about looking at Randel’s story in New York City.

“The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor” is available for purchase on Amazon.com.