Coastal Survey Maps

On February 10, 1807 President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill creating the United States Coast Survey. The new agency was responsible for conducting detailed surveys of the young nation’s coastal areas and producing charts based on this work. Its creation followed a realization of the urgent need to ensure the safety of mariners, ships, and cargoes by supplying information about the shoals, reefs, and navigational hazards among which they moved while carrying the nation’s commerce.

Because of this concern for maritime trade, the Survey was established under Albert Gallatin, Secretary of Commerce, who in turn selected a young Swiss engineer, Ferdinand Hassler, then employed as a mathematics teacher at West Point, to head the new agency. As the U.S. Coast survey was delayed by the war and by difficulties in obtaining adequate surveying instruments, actual surveying of the coasts did not get underway until 1816, when Hassler began his work on the New York triangulation network. This selection was to have a profound effect on the course of the Survey’s work.

Hassler was a perfectionist who envisioned the division of the Survey’s work into three branches-geodetic, hydrographic, and topographic, of which the geodetic was most important. Geodesy is the science concerned with the measurement and description of the size and shape of the earth, and includes large-scale surveys for determining positions and elevations of points for which the size and shape of the earth must be taken into account. The original conception of the Survey was much less ambitious and did not include geodetic work, but Hassler rightly saw that the Survey’s work would prove truly useful and would stand the test of time only if its detailed triangulation could be attached to a firm framework of geodetically determined points. This insistence caused lengthy delays in the work of the Survey and endless political problems with a Congress bent on more immediate, less precise results, but it ultimately was the basis for the extremely accurate maps and charts the Survey produced.

By the time of Hassler’s death in 1843 the foundation for the survey of the coast had been laid and the detailed surveys of the ports and harbors were begun at New York. Hassler was succeeded by Alexander Dallas Bache, a great grandson of Benjamin Franklin and grandson of Alexander Dallas, Madison’s Secretary of the Treasury. Bache’s academic and intellectual credentials were impeccable, and he followed Hassler’s plan faithfully, adapting it to fit the needs of the expanding United States. The addition of Texas, California, Oregon, and Washington to the nation at the close of the Mexican War nearly doubled the length of coastline under the Survey’s charge, and Bache pursued the extended surveying and charting operations with vigor and scientific rigor.

The work of the Coast Survey not only resulted in the most accurate charts possible of the coastal waters of the nation, ensuring the safety and the reliability of maritime traffic, it also pioneered the modem techniques and equipment utilized by later surveys in the interior. Moreover, it provided the precise geodetic framework on which these later surveys were based. The work of the U.S. Geological Survey, the various state surveys, and even the surveys of the Army’s Topographical Corps were thus to some extent grounded in the work of the Coast Survey. Even more important, the early creation of the Coast Survey embodied a recognition on the part of the federal government of a new responsibility, that of developing and disseminating maps and charts to promote the safety and welfare of the people. It is therefore in the political as well as technical and scientific groundwork of the Coast Survey that the later progress of other government surveyors is founded. Thus, in more ways than one, the country became known from the coastline inward.