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February 23, 2006 at 6:27 pm | Posted in Emmitsburg | Leave a comment


Mason and Dixon

February 18, 2006 at 12:02 am | Posted in Emmitsburg | Leave a comment

Mason & Dixon
Surveyors’ monumental task stopped short in W.Va.
(as posted at

CORE, WV — On a ridgetop overlooking Dunkards Creek just north of this Monongalia County community, British astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon came to the end of their epic, four-year survey through the American frontier 36 miles short of their goal.

After crossing a heavily used Indian trail the day before, Mason and Dixon’s party of 11 Mohawk and three Onondaga guides balked at proceeding any farther west, for fear of raising the territorial anxiety level among the Seneca and other regional tribes. The 14 guides represented the Six Nations alliance of Eastern tribes, which had granted the survey party permission to traverse the Allegheny frontier.

The spokesman for the guides told Mason and Dixon that the trail, used by Seneca warriors from as far away as New York to raid Catawba settlements in South Carolina, marked the western limit to which he was authorized to escort the survey party. According to Mason’s diary, the spokesman added that he “would not proceed one step farther westward.”

The previous month, the Six Nations guides had balked at crossing the Cheat River near present-day Morgantown, but held a council and decided to accompany the survey crew westward.

But here, on Oct. 10, 1767, attempts by the British surveyors to persuade the delegation to once more move west proved futile. After taking numerous astronomical observations and calculating their position, they set their survey’s final marker atop Browns Hill.

“We set up a post marked W on the west side and heaped around it earth and stone three yards and a half diameter at the bottom and five feet high,” Mason wrote in his diary.

They had traveled 233 miles, 17 chains and 48 links westward from their starting point on the shore of Delaware River.

While the early part of the survey involved establishing what is now the 87-mile border between Delaware and Maryland, the bulk of Mason and Dixon’s work involved tangibly marking the invisible line at 39 degrees 43 minutes north latitude.

That line, along with the earlier survey, was used to settle a land dispute between two wealthy colonial clans, the Penns of Pennsylvania, who held title to a huge land grant on the north side, and the Calverts of Maryland, who had holdings nearly as vast to the south.

Authorized by the British Chancery, the survey was paid for by the Penns and the Calverts.

The line dividing the western portion of the Penn and Calvert holdings now serves as the border separating Pennsylvania and Maryland. At its western end, it marks the Pennsylvania-West Virginia boundary.

Nearly a century after the line was charted, it was used to demark the boundary between free states and slave states, and forever associated the names Mason and Dixon with the Civil War.

The western end of the survey line was not located and charted until 17 years after Mason and Dixon were turned back at Browns Hill.

The earth and stone cairn erected by Mason and Dixon atop Browns Hill was replaced by a sandstone monument set in 1883, during a resurvey of the line by Cephus Sinclair.

That stone, with ‘WV’ carved on the West Virginia side and ‘P’ etched on the side facing Pennsylvania, can be reached via a 2.6-mile roundtrip hike from the parking lot at Mason-Dixon Historical Park, off W.Va. 7 between Core and Blacksville, about 12 miles west of Morgantown. Trail maps are available at a signboard at the park’s red barn office building.

The trail skirts Dunkard Creek then makes a steep ascent of Browns Hill, giving hikers a glimmer of the daily effort required by Mason, Dixon and their army of assistants to complete their task.

While Mason and Dixon had no choice but to turn their attention eastward when their American Indian guides refused to proceed west, they surely had misgivings about coming so close to completion of their project without reaching the western endpoint.

“They had to have been disappointed,” said Todd Babcock, a Fleetwood, Pa., surveyor, and president of the Mason and Dixon Line Preservation Partnership. “But they had to have been pretty tired, too. What was supposed to have taken them one or two years to complete ended up taking four or five.”

In addition to hauling astronomical survey gear, including a six-foot brass telescope, across the Alleghenies and through the Appalachian foothills, the Mason and Dixon party had to haul 500-pound stone monuments that marked each mile of the survey. Even larger “crownstones,” bearing the coats of arms of the Penns and the Calverts, were set every five miles.

“They also placed stones at the crests of hills where the line crossed them,” said Babcock.

The England-quarried stones were placed along the route until the party reached Sideling Hill, near Hancock, Md., where the terrain became too rugged for the teams and wagons used to carry the monuments. From then on, the party erected stone cairns by hand, using local rocks. Latter-day survey parties used the quarried monuments left at Sideling Hill to replace the hand-built markers used on the western end of the survey.

During the peak summer months of the survey, as many as 115 people were hired to serve as axmen to clear a 9-yard-wide survey swath, or as instrument bearers, cooks, tent keepers, shepherds or milkmaids.

“Considering the equipment that was available to them and the conditions they were working under, it’s amazing how accurate they were,” said Babcock. “Near Emmitsburg, Md., the stones are about 900 feet south of the intended latitude, and at Browns Hill, they were about 500 feet south.”

But for much of the route, the surveyors were within a few feet of the line, as pinpointed by modern-day surveyors using Global Positioning Satellite technology.

“In making their observations and calculations, they relied on a plumb bob hanging down a 6-foot line,” said Babcock.

“We know now, but they didn’t know then, that the effect of gravity on a plumb bob varies from site to site. If they had been able to take that into consideration, their survey would have stayed within 50 feet of the true line.”

Babcock’s Mason and Dixon Line Preservation Partnership has inventoried more than 190 of the 247 stones placed along the east-west section of the survey. The section of the line east of Sideling Hill, where granite markers from England were placed, is the line’s most intact segment, with all but about 10 of 132 stones still in place.

“We have pictures of five or six stones along the West Virginia portion of the line,” he said.

Most of the stones are located on private property, and are often obscured by brush and weeds. Several markers placed adjacent to roads have fallen victim to snowplows or gun-wielding vandals.

But Babcock said natural weathering has probably taken the biggest toll on the markers.

Babcock’s organization hopes to stabilize and restore as many damaged markers as possible, but other than a $10,000 grant from the state of Maryland, restoration cash has been hard to come by.

“So far, we’ve replaced four or five markers with new stones,” he said, adding that he’d like to do more. But state restoration officials in Pennsylvania, he said, “just seem indifferent when it comes to the Mason and Dixon Line.”

Mason and Dixon returned to England soon after completing — or almost completing — their survey.

“Thus ends my restless progress in America,” Mason wrote upon boarding a packet boat bound for Falmouth.

Dixon resumed his career as a surveyor upon his return to Durham County. Mason returned to his job with the Royal Society of Astronomers, where he prepared lunar tables for navigational charts, Babcock said.

In 1786, Mason, apparently frustrated with low pay received while working for the Society, returned to America with his wife and eight children.

In September of that year, he wrote a letter to Ben Franklin, stating that he was in ill health and confined to bed. He died the following month.

“At Franklin’s arrangement, he was buried in Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia,” Babcock said.

“Mason was the more studious of the two, and had a real eye for nature, while Dixon was more free-spirited,” Babcock said. “But both had scientific minds and were Renaissance men. I think they complemented each other.”

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