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The U.S. Coast Survey

By Jim Mathews  

In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson invited Ferdinand R. Hassler, a young Swiss political refugee, to begin the scientific survey of the ill-charted U.S. Coast.  Hassler was a colorful, and tempestuous character who devoted his life in America to this work.  His unusual charm won the friendship of Jefferson and others, but his high-handed methods outraged Congress and the old-line Naval Officers, who insisted that they could handle the task better than he.

The Coast Survey effort was officially begun in 1816, within the Treasury Department, under Hassler's direction.  The Coastal Survey, thus predated the establishment of the Topographical Engineer's Bureau, and this was the first contact that the "Topogs" had with that organization.  In later years the Topographical Engineers would undertake much construction for the Treasury Department.  Colonel Abert, who later commanded the Corps of Topographical Engineers, and who was at that time a Major, worked for the Coast Survey for two years.  In 1818, after a temporary period of operation under the Armed Services, a lack of funds forced the suspension of work.  This lack of Congressional funding together with naval jealousy held up work on the project until 1832.

In 1831, Colonel Abert had secured the independence of the Topographical Bureau, and at that time expressed to Congress the need for a coastal survey.  According to Abert, the Topographical Engineers were the only service with the sufficient technical knowledge and the requisite discipline to do the job.  Further Abert claimed that the survey completed under the auspices of the Topographical Engineers would have extreme value, not only for the military services but for the interests of Commerce and Science as well.  Lastly, Abert exhibited an eagerness to accomplish the work.  Unfortunately, for all concerned, Congress refused to add the requested coastal survey work to the missions of the Topographical Bureau.

In 1832, finances were again available and the appropriations for the coastal survey were resumed.  It's first activity was in the area of Long Island, NY.  In 1836, at the Treasury Department's request, Colonel Abert detailed Captain William H. Swift of the "Topogs" to the project. Unfortunately, however, due to unusual organization and the continued pressure of the Navy to conduct this effort, it was not until the reorganization of the Coast Survey itself, in 1843, that the Topographical Engineers began to take a much larger part in the survey work.

The law of 1843 determined a board of officers to provide, design and develop a plan for the project in an effort to move the project along and to streamline it's efforts.  This board was to consist of four "from among the principle officers" of the following groups:

--Corps of Topographical Engineers;

--Superintendent of the Coast Survey and his two main assistants;

--Two Naval Officers then in charge of the Hydrographical Parties. 

The "Topogs" were then given the detailed implementation of the topographical portions of the final plan.  From then until the breakout of the Civil War, one "Topog" officer was always with the survey in some capacity or appellation.

The first coastal survey chart was produced in 1844 after the death of Hassler.  This work consisted of a chart of New York Harbor in six sheets at a scale of 1:30,000.  This magnificent work depicted a newly discovered and very important deep water channel into the harbor.  This channel was named after it's surveyor Lt. Thomas R. Gedney of the Navy. The specific importance of the Gedney Channel Survey, had a great impact on the Merchants and Shipowners alike in New York, and probably saved the survey from further delay.

The Coast Survey itself had only a small staff and relied on the Army and the Navy personnel to accomplish much of it's surveying in the antebellum period. Several officers represented the "Topogs" with the survey, including Joseph E. Johnson, Thomas Lee, Thomas Jefferson Cram, and James Simpson.  For almost a decade, 1833 to 1834 and 1836 to 1843, Captain Swift was the Coast Survey's dispersing officer.  Captain Humphreys served as Assistant In Charge from 1844 to 1850.  Those officers who worked with the survey added their surveying and exploration background and skills to the project while gaining experience with instruments and equipment peculiar to the coastal survey.

Coast Survey became the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey thirty-four years later in 1878.



United States Coastal Charts (1783-1861)

The Nation Builders (A Sesquicentennial History of the Corps of the Topographical Engineers)

Vanguard Of Expansion (Army Engineers in the Trans-Mississippi West--1819 - 1879)

Picture History of the U.S. Navy

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