Bernard A. Drew: Surveying Mass.-N.Y. border


GREAT BARRINGTON >> Robert Frost suggested good fences make for good neighbors. In the case of states, good boundaries certainly make for fewer differences.

The border between New York and Massachusetts was generally agreed on in 1664. A first attempt to run a line was made in 1719. There were a few squabbles. The line was relatively stable from 1787 to 1853, when 1,010 acres of Boston Corner — virtually unreachable from the Bay State — was shaved off Mount Washington and bequeathed to Ancram, N.Y.

New York decided in 1897 it needed to perambulate the boundary. Massachusetts agreed. Charles H. Flanigan of New York and Sidney Smith (soon replaced by Eugene E. Peirce) of Massachusetts were assistant engineers in charge. A Topographic Survey report published in 1900 is available online.

You can imagine the challenges of pursuing a straight line along the ridge. As the surveyors explained, "The line runs through a heavily wooded country along the tops of the Taconic range of hills, and much difficulty was experienced in locating the main points of the line, which is a little over 50 miles in length. It was necessary to cut a path through the woods for the larger portion of the distance

"The line," they continued, "is straight for a distance of 47.2 miles. The difficulties incident to developing a perfectly straight line of this length upon the ground can only be known by those who have undertaken a similar task. A preliminary study showed that points that were supposed to be nearly on the line in 1787 could not be identified; it was therefore determined to adopt for the preliminary survey a base line which would represent as nearly as possible an average of the old stone piles and other marks already found ."

The team began at Mount Mercy, near a 1787 transit post. They erected a tripod signal with a heliotrope that flashed toward Alandar Mountain in Mount Washington. "This point was used as an instrument station for sighting to the flash on Mount Misery as a foresight, a distance of 37.9 miles; and, with the aid of the line thus established, a point was fixed on Mount Harvey [in West Stockbridge], situated 16.3 miles north of Alandar. With these three points well set in line, other points were interpolated by the usual methods, and the straight line prolonged north of Mount Misery by transiting a distance of about ten miles."

Surveyors used a Buff & Berger straight line instrument that could be "accurately centered by a motion of the base. The telescope has an aperture of 2 inches, magnifying power of 40 diameters and cross-hairs of the x design. The instrument used for running and staking the line between the summit points set by the straight line instrument was a Buff & Berger transit theodolite," Peirce said.

How accurate was their survey? The commissioners said, "Upon the completion of the survey it was found that this line had been run with so much care and was so near the probable line adopted in 1787 that it was difficult to determine how it could be materially improved. Near the southern extremity it was 1.9 feet east of the middle point between the M and NY cut on the ledge at Mount Prospect a few miles further north. Near the northern extremity of the line it was a few feet east of the stone pile on Mount Misery, supposed to be the twelfth transit post of 1787, and a few feet west of the stone pile on Berlin Mountain, supposed to be the fifteenth transit post, and it passed directly through the stone pile on Rhodes Pinnacle, known to be the fourteenth transit post."

The engineers installed 47 transit monuments and 26 cast iron posts.

The survey proved to be to Massachusetts' advantage. The northwestern corner of the commonwealth as determined by a Massachusetts and Vermont commission in 1896 was 58 feet too far east. So that marker was moved from Williamstown into Petersburg.

"On the face of it, therefore, it would appear that Massachusetts had gained that much territory. That the northwest corner of the state is just where the bound or monument now stands, however, is agreed to by the representatives of New York and Vermont. Already the bound has been ratified by the legislature of the latter state in adopting the line run between Massachusetts and Vermont," the Boston Sunday Globe reported Feb. 10, 1901, in a story titled "Bay State Regains Soil." Of course, it was no loss to Vermont.

"The line as re-marked runs through three houses," the Massachusetts commission noted, "but the only instance in which the new monuments made any material change from the old markings was at the hotel at State Line village on the Boston & Albany Railroad. The old road stones at this place were found to be about 50 feet east of the true line, which was thus made to pass through the parlor of the hotel, whereas it really crosses the rear portion of the house. A number of old stone piles found in this vicinity agreed with the line as now located ."

On the other hand, on Harvey Mountain, eight points were found to be within 6ΒΌ inches of the old ones, Chief Engineer Henry B. Wood wrote.

Today they do it with a geographical information system, or GIS.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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