I’ve been reading the revised edition of “Drawing the Line,” by Edwin Danson. It’s about the survey that led to what we know as the Mason-Dixon Line. It almost reads like a novel; it’s full of conflict and political intrigue, and if you count the story of Charles Mason’s marriage and the early death of his wife, there is even romance and tragedy. But more importantly, it takes a slice out of the long history of land surveyors and the challenges they have faced in completing their work.
Hostile terrain, hostile weather and even hostile natives are not new to professional land surveyors. And, competing interests relative to the anticipated outcome of their survey are nothing new.
A thread as ubiquitous as Gunter’s chain runs through the story — the integrity with which the surveyors apply themselves to the problem at hand. You might say, it’s all about the line, and not what is on this side or that side of the line.
Despite the significance of the outcome of their survey, the surveyors stuck to their task of providing the truest and most accurate boundary measurement. Their work on the 233-mile boundary has stood the test of time, with only minor adjustments after being re-surveyed in 1902.
Fast forward from the 18th century to the 21st, and Mason-Dixon is a story we need to recall and apply today. The local news media in Northeast Ohio aired a story about landowners confronting surveyors working on the 255-mile NEXUS gas pipeline. Drama once more; but no romance. While the commentary stopped just short of making the surveyors the wrongdoers, the visual images were another matter.
Surveyors are pictured after they had approached the property, and the property owner can clearly be heard saying he does not want his land surveyed. Armed security escorts made it all the more ominous. (NEXUS said it sometimes employs off-duty law enforcement officers to provide security for its workers.)
What isn’t in the video, but is in court records, is the advance notice NEXUS says it sent to property owners. Also not as clearly shown is the crew approaching and asking permission to survey. When the landowners have said no, the crews have departed.
Pipelines are highly charged issues. As the NEXUS story was playing out, a very different confrontation was taking place in North Dakota, with a very different outcome.
Image is a problem when things get this political or this emotional. But, it’s an even bigger problem for the profession when it looks like surveyors are the actors in this drama. The real issue was the pipeline company’s statutory right to have access to the property. The surveyors were just the first step in the pipeline construction process. How do you go to career day at the local high school and tell young people, “You should consider becoming a surveyor” when this is the image they have of the profession?
Mason and Dixon didn’t draw their line to separate slaveholding from non-slave states, though that was certainly one outcome. No, their job was to turn the idea of that boundary line into a reality.