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Charting the great lakes: 100 years 1917-2017 Michigan history.


To commemorate the centennial of Michigan History magazine, we will be reprinting a series of articles that were originally published in the magazine's first volumes 100 years ago. Written in the style of 1917, the articles will be edited for length, style, and clarity. We hope our readers will enjoy exploring Michigan History's fascinating past!

During the mid-nineteenth century, the unpredictable waters of the vast Great Lakes were regarded by many as perilous to sailors, fishermen, and merchants alike. The need for a professional survey of the lakes to chart safe passageways and offer navigational assistance was great by the time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assumed responsibility for the task. The final results of the official Lake Survey--a complete charting of the five Great Lakes and many of Michigan's smaller lakes, rivers, and harbors--proved to be even more successful than expected.


An official government survey of the Great Lakes and connecting waters was begun by the United States in 1841. Though small, local surveys of Lakes Erie and Ontario had been conducted by U.S. Army engineering officers as early as 1816, no work had been undertaken on Lakes Huron, Michigan, or Superior.

The upper lakes region, stretching from the head of the Detroit River around Michigan's lower peninsula to Chicago, was sparsely settled at the time. There was not a single good harbor on either Lakes Huron or Superior and only one--Chicago--on Lake Michigan. Vessels leaving Chicago found no harbor or shelter in stormy weather until reaching the Manitou or Beaver Islands. After passing the Straits of Mackinac, boats were once again exposed on Lake Huron without refuge until arriving at the St. Clair River. Consequently, a complete survey of the Great Lakes was requested by many and would be appreciated by all.


There were many reasons for establishing a survey of the Great Lakes. Navigators experienced great

Previous page: Storms on the Great Lakes were every bit as hazardous to navigation and shipping as were those on the open oceans. This page: Charting the vastness of Lake Michigan, its entire coastline inside of the continental United States, proved to be the toughest task of the survey. (Photos courtesy of Pixabay.) Next page, left: The Abert, later named the Surveyor, was the principle survey vessel during the early stages of the Great Lakes Survey. (Photo courtesy of the C. Patrick Labadie Collection at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.) Next page, right: The Straits of Mackinac survey, 1856. (Photo courtesy of the American Geographical Society Library at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.) difficulties at the head of Lake St. Clair and the west end of Lake Erie due to the many crooked, narrow, and shallow channels in those areas that hindered commerce between Chicago, Detroit, and Buffalo. The great mineral wealth of Lake Superior had also begun to attract attention, which prompted topographical engineers to search for a canal between Superior and the rest of the Great Lakes.

Before the Great Lakes were surveyed, commerce on the lakes was conducted under difficulties that caused much loss of life and property each year. Lighthouses were rare, and masters of vessels had few navigational charts to rely on. Navigation of the Great Lakes was believed by authorities to be more hazardous than that of the oceans. While winds and storms on the lakes rivaled those of the oceans, vessels on lakes could not drift before the gale until the storm was over, as they would at sea. In a long, continued storm on a lake, vessels would have been thrown upon shore unless a port or harbor was reached in time.

As commerce increased on the Great Lakes during the mid-nineteenth century, it became a major priority of the U.S. Government to produce topographical charts, construct lighthouses and beacons, and place buoys to guide ships. The magnitude of such a task could not be understated--the American shoreline of the Great Lakes and their islands was measured at roughly 4,700 miles. Adding the surveying of rivers and narrow regions of the Lakes where both shores would have to be mapped increased the length of the shoreline to nearly 6,000 miles. Including the Canadian side of the international boundary, which was also surveyed by the United States, brought the total shoreline length to 8,750 miles.


In May 1841, Captain W.G. Williams, who served as superintendent of Harbor Improvements on Lake Erie, received orders from Colonel John J. Abert, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, to begin a survey of the northern and northwestern Great Lakes. His instructions were to establish a starting point for the operation at the entrance of Green Bay and to survey different points of navigation near the Straits of Mackinac.


In those early years, the survey was greatly hampered by the lack of proper equipment and scant appropriations from Congress, which totaled $15,000 for the first year. Nearly all the land in the upper lakes region was heavily timbered, and a great deal of labor was required to clear lines for the measurement of surveying stations and triangulation.

Captain Williams remained in charge of the survey until 1845. During those years, a topographical survey of Mackinac Island was completed and a partial survey of the Mackinac Straits made. Also surveyed were Traverse Bay and the Manitou Islands, Michigan's Grand River, waters around St. Joseph, the St. Clair Flats, and western Lake Erie.

In his annual report for 1845, Colonel Abert reported that all harbors except for those on Lake Superior had been surveyed. The year before, the first steamer built specifically for the surveying work was completed. It was called the Abert, a name which was later changed to Surveyor.

In 1845, Lieutenant Colonel James Kearney replaced Captain Williams in charge of the surveying operations on the Great Lakes. Because there was a high demand for army officers of the topographical engineers for service in the Mexican-American War, only three officers besides Kearney were engaged in the survey between 1846 and 1848.

Surveying operations during the war were generally restricted to the completion of the survey of western Lake Erie, for which the first full chart of the lake was produced in 1849. Additional surveys of the shorelines and islands of the Mackinac Straits, Bois Blanc and Round Islands, and the Sandusky River and Port Clinton in Ohio were also made. Colonel Kearny remained in charge of the survey until April 1851.


Historically, the Lake Survey proper is believed to have truly begun in 1851, when Captain John N. Macomb was placed in charge of the work. Nearly all the localities surveyed during the previous decade were resurveyed with greater accuracy and with the use of better instruments and equipment. In Detroit in 1852, the systematic distribution of charts to vessels was begun.

Under Macomb's supervision, surveys of the Straits of Mackinac and approaches for 30 to 40 miles on either side of Mackinac Island were completed, as were those of the whole of St. Mary's River and the north end of Lake Michigan, which included the Beaver Islands group. Surveys were also completed of Eagle River, the Eagle and Agate Harbors on Lake Superior, and the harbor of Ontonagon.

During a reconnaissance by Macomb in the fall of 1855, the Surveyor passed through the new ship canal at the Soo, making it the first government vessel to make the passage. Macomb's last work on the Lakes was to begin a survey of Saginaw Bay. Because of the rapidly increasing commerce on Saginaw Bay and in response to urgent requests for surveys and charts of that section, it was decided to place the whole force of the survey there for the following season.



In 1856, Macomb was relieved of his command of the Lake Survey and reassigned to duty in New Mexico. Colonel Kearney, who oversaw the survey a decade earlier, again took charge but was obliged to retire due to failing health in early 1857. Finally, Captain Meade, who had served as a junior officer to Macomb, was advanced to chief of the Lake Survey. He directed all survey operations from his headquarters in Detroit, enjoying the improving state of appliances and geodetic methods.


Under Meade's supervision, surveys were completed of Saginaw Bay, the whole of Lake Huron, and the northeast end of Lake Michigan, which included the Fox and Manitou Islands and Grand and Little Traverse Bays. Those surveys provided data for the badly needed chart of navigational routes between the Straits of Mackinac and Chicago.

Prior to Meade's command of the Lake Survey, readings for water levels were taken on temporary gauges at localities where surveys were being conducted, which produced either the mean water level during the period of the survey or the mean level during a particular season. To account for fluctuating water levels and tides of the lakes, Meade recommended in 1857 that simultaneous water-level readings and complete meteorological observations should be made over the entire lake region.

His recommendations were approved, and in the spring of 1859, Meade himself distributed and assembled instruments at locations on all five Great Lakes. Competent observers were employed to operate barometers; psychrometers; thermometers; and water, rain, and wind gauges. Recordings were sent monthly to the headquarters in Detroit, where they were tabulated for publication.

Meade remained in command of the Lake Survey until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. He had just begun a survey of Lake Superior when he was ordered to Pennsylvania, promoted from captain to brigadier general, and given command of an infantry brigade in the Union Army. Meade would ultimately be given command of the Army of the Potomac in 1863 and score a major victory over the Confederacy at Gettysburg.


Captain Meade was replaced as head of the Lake Survey by Colonel James D. Graham, who gave much attention to the reduction, tabulation, and discussion of the water level and meteorological observations at the stations established by Meade. Graham also commenced surveys of Green and Keweenaw Bays; portions of the Sturgeon, Pike, and Pilgrim Rivers; and the entirety of Torch River.

When General William F. Raynolds took charge in April 1864, he made the survey of Lake Superior, which had been started by Meade in 1861, his chief priority. By the end of 1869, nearly all of the topographical work on the lake was completed, as were surveys of Green Bay, much of Lake Michigan, and a large part of Lake St. Clair.

In May 1870, General Cyrus B. Comstock, who had previously served as an aide to Union General Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, assumed charge of the Lake Survey. He oversaw operations until 1881, during which surveys were completed of all the Great Lakes waters. Charts of the lakes, rivers, and coasts were published, which displayed sailing lines, the mean levels and fluctuations of water during certain periods, tables of magnetic variations, locations of lighthouses and beacons, and areas of danger to be avoided. Comstock also successfully determined the latitude of Detroit, completed a survey of the Detroit River, and examined the tides of Lakes Michigan and Superior.


In 1875, work was started to determine the height of the Great Lakes above the Atlantic Ocean. Both spirit-level and water-level measurements were utilized. The data collected showed that the mean surface of


Lake Ontario was over the mean tide at New York City by 246.21 feet; Lake Erie, by 572.61 feet; Lakes Huron and Michigan, by 581.32 feet; and Lake Superior, by 602.31 feet. Survey records also showed that water levels of the Great Lakes frequently varied every two or three years, caused by continued winds from a single direction that held back the water.


When the Lake Survey was officially declared to be completed in 1882, the maximum depth of water in channels and harbors shown on the charts did not exceed 16 feet. However, with the building of larger vessels and deepening of channels and harbors, the survey commanders found it necessary to expand the scope of operations. Surveyors resumed field work in 1889 under a general project for charting lake depths in all significant regions of the Great Lakes to a depth of 25 to 30 feet.

Astronomical observations for time and latitude were again conducted, and base lines for the triangulation were again measured. Shorelines were surveyed with either a compass and chain or a theodolite and chain. Hydrographical soundings were taken from a rowboat or steamer, the boats running on known courses or between buoys and stations on the shore. Off-shore hydrography was conducted by steamers and shore parties working in tandem.

Hydrographers were, however, aware that their methods of surveying were not flawless. Even with improved instruments and procedures, obstructions in particular channels sometimes escaped their readings. To lessen the risk of that occurring, a submarine sweep was developed in the mid-1890s, in which a heavy copper wire was extended underwater and dragged behind a number of steamers to trigger barriers. If the wire caught onto an obstruction, flags that were attached to rise above the surface of the water would dip into the waves, signaling to the surveyors that an obstacle of some kind lay beneath.

By the twentieth century, submarine sweeps were being used at a length of upward of 3,000 feet--nearly three-fifths of a mile--and with a swath of about 2,000 feet. In 1907, five previously uncharted shoals and wrecks were found in 77 square miles in the west end of Lake Erie. That same year, seven new shoals were discovered when sweeping 17 miles of the Mackinac Straits, which necessitated moving the navigational route for vessels about one mile farther north. A sweep of Lake Michigan in 1908 revealed 17 uncharted shoals having a depth of less than 18 feet. The sweep also revealed the wreck of the five-masted sailing vessel David Dows and the wreck of Ferry Barge Number 2, which had been sunk the previous year.

In 1908, a sweep of the Manitou passage on Lake Michigan near Sleeping Bear Point located the boulder that seriously damaged the steamship Elbert H. Gary--an accident that led the Lake Carriers' Association to close the Manitou passage to vessels belonging to the association until the obstruction was located and the charts corrected. The boulder was just 17.5 feet below the surface. As a result of the discovery, a shorter and more convenient navigational route was opened through the Manitou passage.


A 1913 Lake Survey sweep located the wreck of a Buffalo lightship that had been sunk in a storm. It lay 30 miles off Buffalo Harbor in Lake Erie, submerged in 60 feet of water.


The water area charted by the Lake Survey between 1841 and 1917 measured nearly 95,000 square miles, two-thirds of the area being on the American side of the international boundary. For a point of comparison, 95,000 square miles is approximately the land area of Michigan and Ohio combined.

The total expenditures by the U.S. Government for surveys of the Great Lakes and connecting waters--covering triangulation, soundings, sweepings, surveys of the shore areas, the preparation of charts, and the issuing of notices to mariners to June 30, 1915--amounted to $4,895,978.09. That equals about $50 per square mile. Measured from a strictly commercial standpoint, the expenditure proved exceedingly profitable.

Lieutenant Colonel Mason M. Patrick, overseeing the Lake Survey, and Mr. F.G. Ray, Patrick's principal assistant engineer, made a number of calculations in 1916 that supported the financial benefits of the Lake Survey: "The average rate per ton-mile on the Great Lakes is about six-one-hundredths of a cent; or, in other words, one dollar will carry a ton of freight on the Lakes 1,700 miles, whereas it costs about thirteen times as much to carry an average ton of freight the same distance by rail. It is sometimes argued, when statements are made about the cheapness of transportation on waterways which have been improved by the United States, that no account is taken of the cost of the improvements.

"On the Great Lakes the total thus expended for all improvements to the end of the last fiscal year is, in round numbers, $135,000,000, spread over a period of nearly one hundred years. Now, if to the total annual freight-carrying charges there were added a sum which would represent interest on this total expenditure at four per cent plus one per cent for a sinking fund, the resulting increase of the average ton-mile freight rate would be about one-one-hundredth of one per cent, and it would still be only about one-tenth of the average rail ton-mile rate."

At the time, private investments in American vessels on the Great Lakes were estimated to be about $150,000,000, with investments in terminal docks and facilities many millions more.


Until 1890, a full set of topographical charts was given free to each registered American vessel. Afterward, a nominal charge of 5 to 30 cents per chart was then established to cover the price of paper and printing. About 20,000 Great Lakes charts were reported to be sold in 1913, contributing to the total charts issued since their introduction, which numbered half a million. Supplemental materials, such as monthly and annual bulletins relating to river and harbor improvements and to navigation, were supplied at no cost to all those interested in the navigation of the Great Lakes.

By 1917, 120 lake charts were available to traders and navigators, each chart covering a different area from the others. Every chart was printed in color, with all depths of 18 to 21 feet printed in blue to show at a glance where vessels could proceed safely.

Additionally, special mimeographed notices on the subject of the Lake Service itself were issued to vessel interests and to newspapers, making the Lake Survey a clearinghouse for information received from its own engineers and private sources alike. Commercial and industrial activities prompted occasional changes in the relative importance of various locations, which, in turn, affected the operations of the charting program. Occasionally, a locality such as the Eagle River on Lake Superior would experience a decrease in navigational importance that would no longer justify its charting. Other localities, such as the harbor at Rogers City on Lake Huron or the docks for the steel corporation at Ojibway, Ontario, on the Detroit River, sprang into prominence and required revision or special charts. Those new and supplemental charts enabled seafarers and commercial shippers to familiarize themselves with previously untraveled routes as well as altered conditions on existing channels.

Historically, officers of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversaw the Lake Survey between the period of 1841 to 1917. In the earlier years, their assistants were almost exclusively engineer army officers, as well. However, as the scope of the work was enlarged and more assistants were needed than could be spared from the army, civilians were employed, many of whom remained in the service for a long period of years.

The season for Lake Survey operations usually lasted about five months each year, from May to October. The remaining seven months were spent at the main headquarters office in Detroit, where engineers made reductions, computations, and plottings of the previous season's work.

In 1915, the chief of engineers stated that with the revision of old charts and preparation of new, the Lake Survey would remain obliged to maintain the integrity and accuracy of navigational data as it kept pace with constantly growing conditions.


Editor's Note:

The official Lake Survey begun by the U.S. Government more than a century and a half ago laid the foundation for larger and more spectacular engineering feats that would follow. The surveying tools and technologies of the nineteenth century pale in comparison to those used today, which makes the feats of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers then even more impressive. Michiganders and inhabitants of the larger Great Lakes region alike who have ever traversed the lakes owe the engineers, surveyors, and contractors involved with the Lake Survey a debt of gratitude--for it is largely due to their efforts that we can enjoy so much of these beautiful lakes today.

John Fitzgibbon was a political journalist for the Detroit News who served as a press correspondent with the Michigan State Senate and contributor to Michigan History magazine during the early twentieth century.

Caption: Left: The Detroit River survey, 1876. (Photo courtesy of the American Geographical Society Library at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.) Center, left: Before commanding the Union Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg during the Civil War, Captain George Meade oversaw the Lake Survey from his headquarters in Detroit. Bottom, right: Under General Cyrus B. Comstock's supervision, surveys were completed of all Great Lakes waters by 1881. (Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIGppmsca-40717 and LC-USZ62-110551.) Next page, top: A diver descends from a survey power boat to confirm the location of an obstruction located by a wire drag. Next page, bottom: A common wire drag used by survey vessels to identify underwater obstructions in the lakes. (Photos from Michigan History magazine, October 1917.)

Caption: Left: The survey of the north end of Lake Michigan, 1867. Next page: Lake Huron, 1860. (Photos courtesy of the American Geographical Society Library at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.)
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Title Annotation:Michigan History Magazine
Author:Fitzgibbon, John
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Mar 1, 2017
Previous Article:Jamon Jordan.
Next Article:Home on the iron range: John Lane Buell.

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