Resurveying the highest and hardest to reach Initial Point in the country.

On Nov. 7, 1852, Colonel Henry Washington, deputy surveyor under contract with the United States Surveyor General of California, completed a four-day hike with 12 men to a point he designated and monumented to be the Initial Point for all future cadastral surveys in southern California. November 2002 marked the sesquicentennial anniversary, or 150 years, of the establishment of the San Bernardino Mountain Initial Point.

White's diagram of Washington's surveys.

How It All Began

In a letter dated December 1852, Col. Washington described his journey to the Initial Point to Samuel D. King, then surveyor general of California:
"…the men being much fatigued did not perform much service until the next day—the travel over mountain spurs being very laborious."

Washington’s letter also contained a wordy paragraph in which he hoped to persuade the government for more money since he had underbid the job. He was probably the first surveyor in California to make this mistake, but certainly not the last. Washington wrote:
"The amount of my account for expenses incurred in erecting the monument being $511 was forwarded to you on the 5th [instruction], but [although] this account closes the transaction with the Government it is nevertheless proper to state that it does not cover all the necessary expenses... and the opinion expressed by you that Four hundred dollars was enough to cover all my necessary expenditures upon this work, believing, as I do, that the account, for the above reasons, would not be allowed, or, if allowed, great delayed to the prejudice of the public service."

Little did Col. Washington know that his monument would later become the point of beginning of over six million parcels owned by the almost 25 million inhabitants of the southern California region. Nestled at an elevation of 10,300 feet just west of what is now known as Mount San Bernardino, this Initial Point is both the highest and hardest to reach in the entire country. According to surveyor and historian C. Albert White, in his book titled, "Initial Points of the Rectangular Survey System,"1 it is also the only one that has not been altered over time by man. And, adding to its mystique, this point has one other unusual characteristic that makes it unique: there are two other possible initial points nearby.

Washington’s survey work to California’s Initial Point was not only difficult, it was also dangerous, as indicated in his records. A couple portions of his notes read:

"From the last corner a deserted adobe house bears S 2¿ 15' East. A man named Moore is said to have been one of the original occupants, but driven off by the Indians."

"From the last corner it is S 41¿ E, about 2 1/4 miles (can see the smoke but the camps are hidden from the view by a range of hills near the village) to an Indian Village."

Washington did not travel blindly into this survey assignment. Surveyor General Samuel King had sent Leander Ransom, the surveyor who had established the first Initial Point in California at Mt. Diablo the year before, ahead of Washington by a few months. His job was to do reconnaisance work and select an appropriate location for the monument on a high point that would allow the southerly meridian to intersect the Mexico border before striking the Pacific Ocean.

A diagram of the three monuments set at San Bernardino peak.

Initial Point Times Three

By definition, an Initial Point is unique, one of a kind. An Initial Point normally establishes the base and meridian lines as defined by the United States Rectangular System for the orderly subdivision of land for a defined region. It officially marks the intersection of two lines extending out to the north, south, east and west as far as is necessary to reach the boundary of the next base and meridian. Through a series of unusual circumstances, covering a period of over 55 years after Washington's first survey, the San Bernardino Base and Meridian has the dubious honor of three possible initial points.

Washington described the monument he constructed in great detail, clearly planning on observing it from the valley below at a later date. He wrote:
"The monument formed of two pieces of timber spliced and braced by Three Iron bands, [25 feet 9 inches] long, extending from the surface of the earth [23 feet 9 inches] long hewed from the surface 8 x 10 Inches, on 4 sides, to the distance of 13 feet and the remainder tapering off to the top 4 Inches in diameter."

An 8-ft portion of the original post and the rock mound remains in good condition today as do some of the tin reflectors. Several of these reflectors, used to sight the monument from eight to 12 miles away, have been recovered over the last 15 years.

The story behind the three monuments begins with the final sentence in Washington's letter to Surveyor General King dated Nov. 9, 1852. Washington stated:

"The San Bernardino Mountain about the monument was considered too rugged to attempt the survey of the Base and Meridian Lines from that point. Satisfied that the line could not have been measured with the requisite degree of accuracy."

The saga picks up again eight days later in Washington's government notes dated Nov. 17, 1852, with Washington beginning a traverse from his "point of beginning" about 8 miles to the southwest in what is now the city of Yucaipa. He recorded in his notes a bearing of South 45∞ West for his point of beginning from the Initial Point but gives no distance call. He continued by stating that the Initial Point was plainly visible from the valley on that day. His random traverse then proceeded on courses called out as due north, south and west bearings for a distance of over 12 linear miles. He then stated:

"Set a stake from which the monument on the top of San Bernardino Mountain established on the 8th of November 1852, bears due East, and the true distance, as ascertained by the foregoing lines shows it to be 13 miles, 9 chains, 80 links."

Washington then goes on to traverse due East along the San Bernardino Base Line "1 mile, 9 chains, 80 links to the ownship corner for Ranges 2 and 3 West." From this point Washington begins his township surveys of that area that eventually returns him to the "yet to be established" Meridian Line 12 miles south of his Initial Point.

In a report dated 1967 titled "Washington Monument Resurvey Expedition" written by Bill D. Laurie for the San Bernardino County Museum, Laurie concludes that: "To date, no record has been found, which would indicate Washington's methods or procedures for surveying away from his initial point." It wasn't until C. Albert White's book on initial points was published that the missing piece of the puzzle regarding Washington's establishment of the San Bernardino Base and Meridian was first developed in print.

George Johnson, a cadastral engineer for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) produced a map in 1969 that summarizes the remaining government surveys necessary to complete the townships in the vicinity of Washington's Initial Point. The BLM can find no text to accompany this diagram to date, but it is very similar to White's summary in his chapter on the San Bernardino Initial Point.

Johnson's map shows Deputy Surveyor Henry Hancock running a series of township boundaries and traverses between the years of 1853 to 1857 that would return him to the Meridian Line 10 miles north of the Initial Point. Hancock’s surveys covered over 34 linear miles. However, it would not be until 1894 that John C. Rice would finally complete the Meridian Line to the Initial Point from the north. And this is when the story of the three initial points starts to become clear. Rice's notes insinuate that he closed his north Meridian line on an easterly projection of what would have been Washington's Base Line if it were extended easterly. Rice's last half-mile measures 232 feet longer than the standard 40 chains. Rice also calls out Washington's monument 13.45 chains (887 feet) east. It is then that Rice sets a new Initial Point in much the same fashion as Washington did 42 years before him using a huge mound of stones and a large hewed post with scribing.

In similar fashion, George W. Pearson completed the Meridian Line from the south in 1907 and he too found both Washington's and Rice's monuments intact. He then set a third initial point as a closing corner from the south, the monument being a large stone with chiseled markings. Pearson's monument falls 610 feet east of Washington's monument.

The combined distances of the surveys needed to bring the north and south Meridian lines back to the Initial Point area is over 94 miles including Washington's initial traverse out of Yucaipa to his new base line. Questions abound as to where the errors were made to have the misclosures of nearly 900 feet in the northern townships and over 600 feet in the southern townships.

Down the Mountain

Also critical to the analysis is discovering precisely how Washington got down off the mountain. Washington knew all along that he would never be able to traverse his way off San Bernardino Mountain in time to produce base and meridian lines needed to begin township surveys of the southern part of this promising new state, now only two years old. The idea for a tall post with reflectors had already been conceived of by the Surveyor General's Office in San Francisco and used at the Mount Diablo Base and Meridian Initial Point in 1851.

Washington's plan, which included Ransom and King, was to set a tall enough post in an area that could be seen from at least two places from the valley below, one of which would be on the base line. We know from his notes that he changed his plans to set the Initial Point on the very top of San Bernardino Mountain because he wrote to King about the numerous trees on that peak. So, he moved the point to a bald ridge area about 1/2 mile west of the top for better visibility.

Washington proceeded to place himself on a 45¿ angle from the Initial Point by use of a solar compass to establish astronomic north and then wiggled in on this line. He then traversed in one-mile intervals, avoiding any physical obstacles such as local hills, until he got close to the base line. He then needed to again wiggle along a true north line until he could site the Initial Point again and find it to be due east of his position. Washington then only had to add up the latitudes and departures of his traverse to establish two sides of the rectangle he constructed. With the two angles he had measured to the Initial Point, Washington would have created a simple trapezoid figure made up of rectangle and right triangle. Knowing the relationship of the sides of a right isosceles triangle (1,1, sq rt 2) he could have obtained his distance west of the Initial Point by adding the sum of one long side of a rectangle and one side of his right triangle. No higher mathematics were necessary. Washington hints at a simple mathematical solution when he states in his notes:

"the monument on the top of San Bernardino Mountain established on the 8th of November, 1852 bears due East, and the true distance, as ascertained by the foregoing lines shows it to be 13 miles, 9 chains, 80 links."

How accurate could Washington position his Initial Point with this methodology? He could have been quite accurate if he could see the Initial Point monument clearly, produce astronomic north accurately and had no major errors in chaining his 12-mile traverse. The only real way to prove how accurate Washington's work actually was would require retracing his survey from original evidence. But could any evidence other than the Initial Point itself be found 150 years later?

The San Bernardino Initial Point was retraced in early August 2002.

Resurveying the Initial Point

A retracement survey of the San Bernardino Initial Point was organized in early August 2002. Cecilia Whitaker, PLS, Manny Cortez, PLS, Jeff Delaney, Mike Strom, LSIT, and I measured the three initial points using GPS in 1988 and 1991. The new surveying team consisted of three Metropolitan Water District of Southern California employees and two employees from Surveyor's Service Company of Costa Mesa, Calif. Leica Geosystems (Norcross, Ga.) offered three Leica SR530 GPS receivers and SkiPro v2.0 software to perform the survey. Three key points were researched in the two local county surveyor's offices: the first physical evidence of Washington's survey 13 miles west along the base line from his Initial Point and 12 miles south along the meridian from his Initial Point, and evidence of Henry Hancock's monument 10 miles north along the meridian.

At the outset, it seemed more likely that one would find an error in Hancock's open-ended traverse that covered 34 miles, including an elevation change of nearly 3,000 feet, before he came to rest 10 miles north of Washington's Initial Point on the meridian line. Could he have seen Washington's Initial Point five years after it was constructed? His notes do not clearly state this but imply as much as his last mile measures over 90 chains to the north meridian. Upon further research and profile analysis of the ground between Fawnskin (where Hancock established the meridian to the north) and Washington’s Initial Point, it does appear that Hancock could sight Washington’s monument to position himself along the meridian.

The surveying team recovered two sycamore trees about 20 chains east of the section corner 13 miles west of Washington's Initial Point at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains where Base Line Road ends. These trees were called out in Washington's notes as having trunk diameters of 6", but now have diameters of 24" or more. These trees are the only sycamores in the area today. They measure within 3 feet of Washington's call to the section corner and fall about 10 feet south of his base line. These trees gave us an independent validation that we were very close to being on Washington's original base line. However, when we compared the distance to his Initial Point we came out more than 420 feet short of his calculated distance (68,217.88' to 68,640').

Moving on to Washington's point 12 miles south of his Initial Point, along the southerly meridian, we found a similar distance discrepancy. The surveying team uncovered a pipe about 2 feet deep along a wire fence and dirt road. This point history has only been traced back 32 years but it appears to be in a place unlikely to have been disturbed for some time in a huge undeveloped section. The measured distance along this 12 miles is 330 feet short of the calculated record (63,029.53' to 63,360'). What is more perplexing is the angular relationship we find from these two points and Washington's Initial Point. What should be an angle of about 90 degrees measures 90 degrees and 43 minutes. This is surprising because most solar compass measurements can be made to at least an accuracy of three minutes.

Finally, moving to Hancock's point 10 miles north of Washington's Initial Point, the surveying team found one of Hancock's original bearing trees and one bearing tree stump plus an iron pipe position dating back to 1917. The measured distance to Hancock's monument is only 80 feet longer then record (52,880.12' to 52,800').

Looking along the meridian itself, the straightest line along the meridian goes surprisingly closest through the Rice monument. None of the three possible initial points have the proper expected north bearing after correcting from grid to astronomic bearings.

It is unclear where all the measurement errors reside in these original surveys, but it is clear that Washington's triangulation network had flaws. It appears Hancock's traverse, on the other hand, was quite good, especially in the north/south direction.

I agree with White's conclusion that "there is only ONE Initial Point and that is the monument constructed by Henry Washington in 1852." But I believe the Bureau of Land Management should officially document this. The BLM does plan to produce a new plat and notes giving some clarification of this interesting survey problem as part of the San Bernardino Mountain Initial Point 150 year anniversary. A hike to the point is planned in May. Maybe then Colonel Washington and his monument will have their due.

1 White, C. Albert. 1996. Initial Points of the Rectangular Survey System, Westminster: The Publishing House, Colorado Word Works Inc.