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Sailing the Medicine line: a nautical history of the North-West Boundary Commission (and Captain James Gregory).

In the beautiful late summer of 1874, it fell to Assistant Astronomer Captain James Gregory of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to draw the last few miles of the Medicine Line. Behind him stretched a string of earthen mounds and wooden posts, running in a graceful arc across nearly 800 miles of high plains desolation back to the Canadian Shield and the swamps of Lake-of-the-Woods. A few miles ahead and more than 3,000 feet above him, perched on a rocky saddle along the very spine of the continent, stood a stone cairn erected thirteen years earlier at the terminus of the International Boundary Survey that had brought the 49th Parallel east from the Pacific coast. Gregory's last observations would be the final piece in the century-long process of defining the boundary between the United States and Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Since beginning their second summer season just west of Wood Mountain (about half-way across modern-day Saskatchewan), the American and British-Canadian parties had leapfrogged each other across the high plains. Working mostly independently but meeting regularly to socialize and to confirm each others' results, the teams had surveyed and marked nearly 300 miles of the line in only two months.

By mid-August, working at breakneck speed to avoid the prospect of a third season in the field, the advance parties had crossed the Belly River and climbed into the Rocky Mountains. After two months of short rations, foul, alkaline water and relentless, shimmering heat (the surveyor's worst enemy), they found themselves in what they could only describe as paradise. Amid the sublime peaks and valleys of the eastern slope, the soldiers' cool, professional detachment broke down and glowing accounts of rich grass, crystal clear water and huge trout appear alongside the charts, chronometer checks, and stellar observations that are the usual stuff of their official reports.

Following the pattern of establishing alternating astronomical stations, the British had set up shop on the banks of the Belly River and it fell to the Americans to establish the fortieth (and last) station midway between the Belly and the Divide on the shore of the Waterton Lakes. No doubt brimming with confidence and anticipation, Captain Gregory led his party into the mountains. As he describes it in his final report:

Hemmed in on all sides by ranges of towering, precipitous mountains, whose peaks rise from two thousand to six thousand four hundred feet above it, the lake is unapproachable by any route save by the valley of its outlet, the Waterton River.

By turning northward, therefore, from a point on the boundary-line about twenty miles east of the lake, we headed off the outlying mountain-range, and following up the valley of the Waterton River, reached the foot of the lake, with our wagons, on the 18th of August. Camp was pitched the same evening on a fine shingle-beach at the foot of the lake, a position which, besides the practical desideratum of proximity to an abundant supply of pure, cold water, afforded us also a comprehensive view of the lake and mountain scenery, which, for picturesque beauty and grandeur, is probably not excelled, if equalled, by any on the continent.

With the exception of American Chief Commissioner Archibald Campbell and British Chief Astronomer Samuel Anderson, both of whom had been members of the Pacific Boundary Commission, none of the officers and men of the two parties had ever set eyes on the Northern Rockies. Born in Troy, New York, in 1845, the son of a Dutch Reformed Church minister, Gregory had graduated from West Point in the class of 1865 and, until being assigned to the Boundary Commission, had spent most of his career with the geodetic survey of the Great Lakes.

This was his first trip west and he had relished every minute of it.

As his men relaxed in the warm, late summer sun and his worn-out livestock began to fatten on the rich grass, Gregory was confronted with a problem he could not have anticipated. From his position on the eastern shore of the lake, the 49th Parallel -- which he estimated to be just three-and-a-half miles to the south -- was utterly inaccessible. The slopes of the eastern range dropped precipitously into the lake and access to the western shore was likewise blocked. The changing season and the view through his telescopes would have conspired to stay any thoughts of retracing his steps and coming at the lake from the south.

There was only one solution: if Gregory could not go around the lake, he would simply have to go across it.

Despite the matter-of-fact reporting of his decision, Gregory must at least have sensed the serious risks inherent in such a decision. Although his years with the geodetic survey would have had him as much on water as on land, there is no evidence that either he or any of his men had any experience with the dangerously unstable nature of western mountain lakes. The only water they had encountered during their two seasons in the field had either been shallow enough to ford or narrow enough to throw a temporary bridge across. Indeed, had they not been so close to the end of their odyssey, it is unlikely that Gregory would have risked his men and his invaluable instruments on such a harebrained scheme. Nevertheless, once the decision had been taken, the work proceeded apace:

After some experiments with improvised boats composed of wagon-boxes with covers of tent-canvas, which failed on account of the permeability to water of the thin canvas, I finally achieved success in two boats which were modifications of the above. One of these was a wagon-box with the ends and all cracks covered with pieces of raw-hide closely tacked on, and the whole covered with canvas. The other, as the supply of hide was exhausted, was a wagon-box fastened on top of a raft composed of seven logs, to which additional buoyancy was given by securing empty water-casks between the outside logs on each side of the raft.

Both craft proved terribly unstable. Their centres of gravity were so high that, as Gregory puts it:

Paddles were used for propulsion, the paddlers being squatted in the bottom, as the crankiness of the boats would not permit the use of elevated seats such as are necessary for oarsmen.

If the first sea-trials of his new craft did not dissuade Gregory from his plan, the events of the next 48 hours perhaps should have. As his makeshift fleet lay on the shore, being loaded with supplies and the precious instruments, one of the Waterton Lakes' terrible storms blew up out of nowhere and pinned the men in their tents for two days. Fully exposed on the shore, the boats were nearly smashed to pieces by the battering of the wind and the waves.

With his confidence no doubt shaken, but still in better condition than his boats, Gregory ordered repairs and, two days later, they were ready to depart. Determined to make as short a job of it as possible, he once again tempted fate:

On the evening of the 22nd, the night, though dark, was still, and I determined to take advantage of the lull to make, at least, part of the distance to the boundary-line before daylight ... I embarked, about 8 pm, with my assistants, Mr. Boss and Mr. Edgerton, and five men, the necessary instruments, seven days' rations, and as much camp-equipage as was absolutely necessary.

Once fairly out upon the lake the darkness appeared thicker than before, and land positions were totally unrecognizeable. The labour of forcing the unwieldy and heavily-loaded crafts through the water, and our constrained positions in the bottom of the boats, which we were unable to relieve by change, as the slightest motion produced unpleasant tips, suggestive of capsize and the certain loss of all our instruments, made us all very tired, and we were glad to find a convenient little beach where we landed about 11 pm, and bivouacked for the night. We had made, in the three hours of toilsome paddling, about one and a half miles.

In the early morning we were again under way, and arrived about 9 am at a good landing-place on the western shore, which was opposite a point on the eastern shore previously determined ... to be, approximately, in latitude 49. There we landed our effects, and near by, on a convenient bottom-land, set up the observatory, where the astronomical work was begun the same evening.

With American Station No. 20 established, Gregory began to search for some way to establish a link with the stone cairn perched on the Continental Divide just seven miles to the west. Clambering his way up the steep ravines in search of a suitable place "... by means of which a trigonometrical connection could be effected, [after] several hours of toilsome climbing, I became persuaded that the project was impracticable and reluctantly abandoned it."

So, at about noon on August 26th, with the completion of their observations and the building of a large stone monument to mark the position of the 49th Parallel, the work of the International Boundary Commission was all but done. The actual clear cutting of the line from the Belly River to the Divide would not be accomplished until well into the new century.

But Gregory's nautical adventures were far from over. He and his party were still on the west side of the lake and the afternoon winds were freshening. Realizing that the longer he delayed his departure the more perilous the trip would become, Gregory ordered the camp struck:

The instruments, &c., were repacked in the boats the same afternoon, and, although the wind was blowing almost a gale from the south, making the lake very rough, it was a fair wind for us, and all hands preferred taking the chances of disaster in the day-time, to risking the possibilities of another night-trip. We therefore started about 3 pm, and by means of square sails extemporized from tent-flies, sped along in quite gallant style. Our unceasing efforts were, however, required to keep the crafts before the wind, and tolerably free from water. The surf was running very high upon the beach near camp, and I greatly feared the danger of capsize in the attempt to land there, for which there was no alternative; but this calamity was averted by several of my men, who from the shore were anxiously watching our progress. They appreciated the situation, and making into the breakers, at exactly the proper moment, seized each boat, as she arrived in shoal water, and bore her upon the wave-crests, high and dry upon the beach.

Following this near-poetic account of his voyages, Gregory reverted immediately to the cool, professional recorder of the unvarnished facts. The next line in his report reads as follows:

Immediate preparations were made for the march eastwards, which was begun next morning, August 27.

The Medicine Line was drawn and, with its completion, "the longest undefended border in the world" became a reality.

James Gregory remained in the army for the rest of his life. He served for some time as chief engineer of the Department of the Missouri, and, for five years, as aide-de-camp to General Phil Sheridan, but he was probably best known as the author of a Telegraphic Code to Insure Secrecy, the publication of which led to his promotion to major in 1886. He died in 1897.
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Author:Rees, Tony
Publication:Alberta History
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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