The Survey Camp of Yore

Survey camps have gone the way of the West. As long as the transit and tape were the principal tools of surveying, the camps flourished. In 1961, there were 120 of them. Within 15 years, they had dwindled to six, conducted by Lehigh University (Pennsylvania), Georgia Tech, Oregon State, Purdue, University of Tennessee, and University of Wisconsin (Lehigh Horizons, September 1976, p. 3). Lehigh University conducted its last in 1983.

It was called a camp because it was held off campus in primitive surroundings. For many years, Lehigh University held its camp at Camp Hagan. Steve Turoscy, who attended it in 1973 and later became assistant city engineer of Allentown, Pennsylvania, describes it as spartan. The site was an abandoned religious retreat near the Delaware Water Gap that consisted of dilapidated cabins. The beds were cots and the mess hall picnic tables that doubled as drafting tables. The air was stifling and the gnats unrelenting.

The year after Steve attended, the camp moved upriver to a former honeymoon resort near Dingmans Ferry, transformed into the Pocono Environmental Education Center (still in operation). Living conditions were comparatively luxurious at this site, but the terrain that was to be surveyed was as untended (full of briars and poison ivy) as at the former site. The days were too long and arduous to enjoy any more of it than a comfortable bed.

The camp used to be a three- (near the end a two-) week accredited course in the practice of surveying. It was an intense learning experience: 15 weeks compressed into 15 days. It was an integral part of the civil engineering program and was given immediately after the finish of the sophomore year, after students had taken a classroom course in the fundamentals of surveying and before they took the various design courses in the engineering curriculum (highway, railroad, airport).

The purpose of the camp was not to produce surveyors. Some students liked surveying so much that they became so-called field engineers who made boundary and topographic surveys prior to any construction and designed street and utility extensions, among other things, and then staked them out. The work was done, as much as possible, entirely on site.

This is exactly what the students were taught to do at the survey camp. But the foremost aim of the camp was to instill a certain discipline in the students. In the words of the long-time director of Lehigh’s camp, Professor John O. Liebig Jr., it was to give them “confidence in their competence, to perform properly in the field and office.” In tributes written by his former students upon his retirement, some said they found his demand for perfection maddening, but all attributed their professional success to being as strict as he had taught them to be. None forgot his admonition (and some apparently quite ably mimicked his Pennsylvania Dutch intonation): Do it once right!

At camp, the learning of discipline began with the issuance of the instruments: 30” or 1-minute transits and 100’ steel tapes. Transits had to be checked for level and repaired tapes for proper length. A fool’s tape (one foot short) was issued at random. Traverses had to be tied to a monument of the state plane coordinate system and aligned to true north, and bench loops had to proceed from an established bench mark. Each measurement of length had to be adjusted for tension and temperature and the angles of a traverse added to determine angular error. Traverses and bench loops then had to be adjusted to eliminate the inevitable errors. Field books had to be kept neat and clean, numerical readings entered on the left and sketches made on the right.

The discipline continued, usually after supper, with the plotting of the field notes and the design of a structure, such as a highway ramp, involving both straight lines and curves of various sorts, horizontal and vertical. The base plan, drawn at a scale of 1”=20’, had to be sufficiently detailed, showing both contours and existing structures, to make the design of an assigned project possible. The design had to be made to fit the site and at the same time be simple to stake out and inexpensive to construct. The stake-out of the design then had to be planned and accomplished by the end of the course. At the end, the camp was strewn with stakes. Since they could not be left there, removing them was the last task.

Quite intentionally, the students also had to learn self-discipline. They were graded partly on how well they worked together. In an effort to give each member of a crew the opportunity to perform each of the functions of the crew, they were divided into four-man crews on the basis of their personalities, and the members of each crew had to rotate among the positions: party chief, instrument man, head and rear chainman. In this way, no student could dominate the others and no student could simply coast. It taught all of them that the best results were attained through the coordination of their efforts.    

The survey camp was a crash course in the practice of surveying. All surveyors have to learn what the students used to learn in this course. Those enrolled in a current surveying curriculum undergo some semblance of this course. For most surveyors, however, it is part of on-the-job training, extended over a considerably longer period.

The demise of the survey camp can be attributed to the introduction of technologically more-advanced surveying equipment than transit and tape, the cost of which the universities did not want to bear. But surveyors in practice have had to keep up with the advances as well as bear their cost. To some extent, the survey camp has been replaced by demonstrations of the equipment by vendors, workshops in its use, and self-instruction. The discipline that the camp used to instill is, to a large degree, a matter of individual dedication, and therefore less uniform than it once was.

About the Author

  • Wilhelm A. Schmidt, PLS
    Wilhelm A. Schmidt, PLS
    Wilhelm Schmidt is the former owner of the surveying firm Bascom and Sieger in Allentown, Pennsylvania. You may contact him at

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