True North

This month’s feature was submitted by Jeff Baldwin, principal surveyor with the Somerset County Engineering Division in New Jersey. Reflecting on Christmas and the holiday season just passed, I thought this had a nice, timely sentiment. ~TJ


Last spring I was asked to take part in Surveying USA, a nationwide effort to raise awareness about and educate the public on the role of the land surveyor. The project involved the simultaneous GPS collection of points of interest at hundreds of locations throughout the United States.

It was truly a great event, and I enjoyed participating in it. Our particular GPS point was a granite post called a “True Meridian Marker” that was set in front of the Somerset County Courthouse, located in downtown Somerville, New Jersey, in 1864. After the Surveying USA event and some additional research into these markers, I think I’ve walked away with a little more than just a GPS coordinate.

If you were hoping to read an article about the relationship of the magnetic declination to true north plotted as a function of geo-thermal changes in the Earth’s core, well, you can stop reading at this point. This article is more about life than anything else. Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Let’s back up, way back to 1863 when the State of New Jersey decided that surveyors were messing everything up. You see, the technology of the day was the compass and chain. Angle and distance. Problem is, as you probably know, the compass doesn’t point to “true north”—the actual north pole let’s say. The compass needle is actually a piece of magnetized iron, and it points according to the forces of magnetism developed in the Earth itself. That’s how things got messy. The compass not only points somewhere else besides true north, it doesn’t point the same way from year to year, from location to location, or even from compass to compass.

In an attempt to solve the problem of a swinging compass north, the New Jersey legislature endorsed a plan of action. By requiring the installation of posts at the courthouse of each county in the state, each surveyor could “calibrate” his compass. Two posts were to be provided, at least 100 feet apart, set on the true meridian.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. The year was 1864 and the requirement was that these monuments were set within one minute of accuracy; that’s 1/60 of one degree from true north. Okay, did I mention it was 1864? Did I mention these were granite monuments, six-feet long, one-foot square at the bottom and tapered to seven inches at the top, set three feet in the ground, surrounded with stonecutter chips and hydraulic cement? Just for yucks, let’s say that’s four cubic feet of granite at a conservative density of 170lb/ft3, providing a total estimated weight of 684 pounds! What? And we surveyors complain about setting those puny little concrete monuments we use today! These monuments got me thinking.

It’s pretty obvious they meant business in 1864. The project of setting the True Meridian Posts here in Somerville, New Jersey was supervised by none other than the state geologist at the time, George H. Cook, after whom they named Cook College at Rutgers University. The meridian was established by celestial observation using crude equipment, ephemeris tables, and timepieces. The entire project is a small wonder.

It must have been quite an event when these carved and polished monuments arrived on a wagon in this small town in central New Jersey. They were probably hoisted in place by a large block and tackle with no small amount of fanfare. People were very optimistic about this new requirement, that having surveyors set up their compasses once each year and record their magnetic declination readings in the county clerk’s office would eliminate conflicting land descriptions, errors, and many disputes.

Maybe the whole “True Meridian Marker” idea is one big object lesson. Everyone has surely heard the term “moral compass.” Well, how is yours doing? The reason I ask is that sometimes I think mine’s broken along with the rest of the world. It seems like a lot of things are happening in the world, and in our own backyard, that people just wouldn’t believe back in 1864. I wonder if maybe we all need to find our “true meridian.” In this economy, in this world of natural disasters, man-made tragedies, pain, suffering and inhumanity, it seems like it couldn’t hurt to check in to a reference line from time to time. Now, I am not about to tell you which reference line, where it is, or how you get there. What I do know is that we all have them.

I’ve read stories about surveyors finding ancient markers. I heard a story recently of an original section corner found twenty feet below grade after years and years of searches and errant positions. I guess that our own true meridians could be like that, too. They might be hard to get back to, overgrown and out of the way. But they are there. It’s our guiding principles, our core. Our meridian is much more than something we believe, it’s what we believe about ourselves. It’s what we stand for, our higher purpose.

It’s not always an easy thing to do, this whole orientation of one’s self thing. You have to want to go there and be willing to read the declination. True North doesn’t lie. It is what it is. Maybe when you get there you realize what’s important and that your compass was really off. Maybe you suddenly remember being there before, and you realize where you are and where you are going. Maybe you meet another traveler there, broken compass in hand.

The meridian markers really are the ultimate object lesson. First, they were intended to be unmovable. After all, what good would it be if some little kid could play tricks on all the surveyors by moving some metal post or small stone? Secondly, the markers are extrinsic, that is they are outside of our personal system of measure. That’s a handy thing because then anyone can use them, over and over.

I can imagine the surveyor in 1864 knew how to find the true meridian. Pretty much everyone knew how to get to the county courthouse. Somerset County is just over 300 square miles, and I can imagine surveyors back then would have had to make a deliberate journey to the true meridian. We do know that surveyors also had to pay fifty cents once a year to file their readings with the county clerk; however, the fine was a hundred times that if they failed to check their compass. There might be a lesson there, too.

So maybe when I get so stressed with life and all the things that don’t really matter in the big picture, when I forget who I am or what I stand for, when it seems like my whole world is falling apart at the seams, maybe what I really need to do is take a little trip to the meridian markers to remind me what’s really important. I don’t know about you, but it seems like I need to take that walk now more than ever.

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