Imagining a memorial for surveyors of the Outer Banks Base Line.

Photo Credit: National Oeanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Imagine that it's 1848. You are working for the United States Coast Survey founded in 1807, establishing a highly accurate survey base line along the coast of North Carolina. This base line is being used for the first-ever coast survey, mapping the eastern coast of the (still new) United States of America. President Thomas Jefferson set aside funds for the project 45 years ago, and the project is now in full swing.

This base line is actually the fifth base line, following Fire Island, New York (1843), Kent Island, Maryland (1844), Providence, Massachusetts (1844) and Dauphin Island, Alabama (1847). In fact, this is the second base line established in North Carolina-the first was destroyed when a hurricane came through earlier in 1846. That hurricane was so strong it created a new inlet on the Outer Banks and washed a ship (the Oregon) right over the island, dumping it, albeit safely, in Pamlico Sound. That inlet severed the south end of the base line you are to survey, so you had to establish another. That meant getting another 3'x3' granite stone brought over from the mainland, using mules and a sand sled to haul the stone the 12 miles from the closest town, Nags Head, down to the site. At least this time you moved the entire line farther north, closer to Nag's Head.

You and your crew have been out here in the coastal plain of North Carolina for 12 months without a holiday. In fact, your supervisor recently sent a letter to Mr. Alexander D. Bache, second superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey (and acting superintendent at the time of this survey), requesting permission to go home for a week due to the hardships of the job. That request was denied. Now, after many hours of preparation and several false starts, your crew is finally ready to start work. Work in this case means measuring roughly 6.75 miles of the east coast base line. Along with the 6-meter iron and brass bars you use for measuring distance, you might get to use Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler's 300-lb "Great Theodolite." Or you may get to use the new apparatus that Bache and William Wurdemann, a master technician in the mid- to late-1800s, recently developed called the "Bache-Wurdeman Compensating Base Apparatus," which they used to measure seven principal base lines between Dauphin Island and Atlanta. Along the way, you set smaller granite markers at 1,608-meter intervals. You and your crew endure all of this immersed in the swamps and sand of Bodie Island, where the mosquitoes are bigger than some birds.

Ah, well, it's 1848. It's all in a day's work. You could have been off in the great southwest fighting in the war with Mexico.

A few years later, gold is discovered in California. The War of Northern Aggression (Civil War to those of our non-southern friends) brings Union and Confederate troops and skirmishes between the two to the Outer Banks. Blockade-runners successfully hide in the numerous inlets and islands off the North Carolina coast. A new design allows for the construction of taller lighthouses such as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1869 and smaller sister lighthouses, Bodie (1872) and Currituck (1876). But in spite of the lighthouses, ships too numerous to count continue to run aground on the shoals, washing cargo and bodies ashore, keeping the new LifeSaving Service stations busy. In 1903, 20 miles up the road at Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills, Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully have the first controlled flight, starting a new era of travel. Two wars see German U-boats off the North Carolina shore, sinking commercial freighters, resulting in millions of dollars of lost cargo and numerous lives. And finally, many years later in the late 1950s, the United States Park Service takes over part of the Outer Banks as a National Seashore, providing protection from development and a safe haven for one of the last remaining base lines established more than 100 years before by a small group of surveyors-including you-on a lonely, windy island.

North Carolina survey crewmembers stand proudly over the U.S. Coast Survey granite base and capstone from 1848.

Back to the Future

Now imagine that it's 2005. You and your family have finally found the time to take that vacation you've dreamed about. You've driven all over the East Coast, to Washington to see the White House and the Capitol and to Yorktown to see where General George Washington won the Revolutionary War. You've seen wonderful sights. You've seen monuments to soldiers, to statesmen, to inventors (maybe you went by the Jefferson Memorial and told your children about Jefferson the surveyor). Now, with a little time left, you drive down to the beaches of the Outer Banks in North Carolina to play in the surf, visit the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kill Devil Hills and view the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. As you enter the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, you decide to stop at the Visitor's Information Center off US 64 in Whalebone Junction.

Your children excitedly run inside to get maps and find out where the best swimming holes are. But, once inside, they find something else-inside the Visitor's Center there are panels with pictures about surveying in the 1800s, and a map or two drawn in that era. They are directed to go outside where they see a trail heading into the woods. Pulling you along, they head down this intriguing path through typical Outer Banks maritime forest lands, past more panels telling of the nature in the area, the history of the Banks and the history of surveying the base lines for the U.S. Coastal Survey in 1848. Finally, after about 1/3 mile of hiking, you all come upon a 3'x3' granite stone with a 3' tall capstone on top. There is even a replica of a tower used in the initial survey in 1848. And there's a statue of a surveyor-a proud representation of your profession. There are directions to three reference markers nearby. There is information about the difficulty of the work, the importance of mapping the coast and the very pivotal role that the early surveyors played in building this great nation of ours.

Your children look at you, a surveyor, with a newfound glint of admiration in their eyes and say, "Wow, dad. We never knew surveyors were so important!"

Workers begin to clear a path through Outer Banks forest land to the historical monument and markers. Will you help to make this into an honorary surveying trail?

Making This Story A Reality

The Bodie Island Base Line was rediscovered and resurveyed in 2002 (see "Redrawing the Line," POB magazine, February 2003). The National Park Service has agreed to establish some type of trail and historical corridor for the base line (both North and South Bases and all mile markers existent and included). The only other requisite for making this a reality is a need for money. Funds are needed to create the trail and monument to honor the surveyors of yesteryear that we, the surveyors of today, feel is warranted.

The first part of this article happened. The history of the Outer Banks is vivid and the Bodie Island Base Line is a part of that-much to the credit of some dedicated surveyors. With your help, we can make the last part of this story happen as well.


To make a donation, send a check to*:

c/o North Carolina Society of Surveyors
P.O. Box 10128,
Raleigh, N.C. 27605

*Denote your contribution for the "Bodie Island Base Line." Your gift is tax-deductible and all proceeds go toward improvements to the Base Line site.