Surveyors Peak

Bring me men to match my mountains…
Sam Foss

Somebody once wrote that surveyors are remembered only by the monuments which they themselves have set. Not necessarily, because surveyors have monuments that put the Taj Mahal to shame. There is, for starters the worlds highest mountain Mt. Everest, named after Sir George Everest (1790-1866), a British geodesist, who was surveyor general of India from 1830 to 1843, when he surveyed a great meridional arc from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin at Indias southern tip. The roof of the world is a monument to his name, even if the elevation (29,028 feet) seems to keep changing. By the way, Mt. Everest is the worlds highest point only because elevation is measured from sea level; if it were measured from the center of the spheroid, Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, two volcanoes in Ecuador, would each be a couple of miles higher.

But what about surveyor names in our own breathtaking scenery? I decided to look at a listing of the highest peaks in the various states of the United States, and was surprised and pleased to find a few surveyors among them. Some of them were surveyor-explorers who were often among the first to scale these peaks and to report on them to an astonished nation. First a word to the wise: Because surveyors tend to disagree, the elevation of the peaks here given might not be the official value.

New Mexicos Wheeler Peak (13,161 feet) was named after George Montague Wheeler (1842-1905), a West Point graduate topographical engineer (a fancy name for surveyor). Upon his graduation in 1866 he was commissioned lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. In 1871 he was put in charge of surveying and mapping the Southwest from the 100th meridian to the Sierra Nevada, where until 1889 he produced 164 maps. The final report of what had become the great work of his life comprised seven volumes. His fieldwork was accomplished in fourteen trips of from three to more than eight month each, and the hardships, deprivation and exposure he encountered in that vast and largely unexplored region ruined his health, forcing him to retire in 1888. By an act of Congress, and in recognition of his services to the nation he was in 1890 promoted to the rank and pay of major, retroactive to 1888. Nevadas second highest peak (Wheeler Peak, 13,061 feet) is also named after him, as there are several lesser features in California and elsewhere.

The highest point in Arizona is Humphreys Peak (12,633 feet; about ten miles north of Flagstaff). Andrew Atkinson Humphreys (1810-1883) too was a West Point graduate and served in the artillery, but after taking part in the Seminole War in 1836, he resigned his commission to become a civil engineer for the army Topographical Engineers. In 1844 he was assigned to the Coast Survey and six years later was put in charge of the topographic and hydrographic surveys of the Mississippi Delta. In the 1850s the Secretary of War directed him to ascertain the most practical route for a railway from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. Humphreys found not only one, but five routes, all of which were eventually built. The Civil War saw him rise to the rank of brigadier-general and in 1866 he was appointed chief of the Corps of Engineers (until he retired in 1879).

Kings Peak (13,528 feet; 75 miles east of Salt Lake City,) tops Utahs list of high points, named in honor of Clarence King (1842-1901) who led one of the four great topographic surveys of the American West (the others: Hayden, Powell, and Wheeler). King graduated from Yale and became a geologist and mining engineer. Somewhat of an adventurer, he rode on horseback across the entire American continent (he walked across the Sierra Nevada), exploring and studying. In 1866 he proposed to Congress a topographic survey from eastern Colorado to the California boundary, an about 100 miles wide strip along the fortieth parallel. Congress accepted and put him in charge. The inevitable rivalry and overlaps of the four great surveys led Congress in 1878 to establish a single organization, the U. S. Geological Survey, with Clarence King as its head (from 1878 to 1881).

California has Mount Whitney (14,494 feet; in Sequoia National Park) named in honor of Josiah Dwight Whitney (1819-1896). Like King, Whitney graduated from Yale and started his career as an unpaid assistant in the geological survey of New Hamshire. In 1842 he went to Europe to study geology and chemistry. After many years as a consulting geologist in the upper Midwest and Canada, Whitney in 1860 was appointed state geologist of California. Clarence King was one of his assistants and it was Whitney who recommended King to Congress. While not a surveyor in the strictest sense of the word, as head of the California Geological Survey Whitney made important contributions to the mapping of the West. In 1875 he became a professor at Harvard.

In passing I would like to point to the State of Nevada whose second tallest peak I mentioned above. Nevadans call their highest mountain Boundary Peak (13,143 feet; on the California line northwest of Death Valley); while that is not the name of a surveyor, I consider it close enough to make my list.

Wyoming remembers and honors Henry Gannett (1846-1914) in its highest mountain, Gannett Peak (13,804 feet; in the Wind River Range). Gannett, more than anybody else, applied his energy and talent to the spread of geographic knowledge. After graduating from Harvard he was appointed as topographer to the Hayden Survey (mentioned above), were he was active mostly in Colorado and Wyoming. In 1882 he became chief geographer of the U. S. Geological Survey, where he remained until his death. In his job he organized the work of the field parties, visited them in the field and supervised the translation of the field records into maps. Gannetts passion was the research of place names and geographic designations. For twenty years he was chairman of the U. S. Board of Geographic Names, and later president of the National Geographic Society, which he helped to establish. Writers like to refer to him as the father of American map making.

The highest point in Texas is Guadalupe Peak (8,751 feet) just below the New Mexico line. The Spanish had already named it in the 18th century; therefore Texans can be forgiven for naming only their second highest mountain after a surveyor. In the Big Bend National Park is Emory Peak (7,835 feet), overlooking the inner basin of the wild and scenic Chisos Mountains. I have written so much about William Hemsley Emory (1811-1887) and his surveys of the Mexican boundary, that I feel ANTEPASADOS readers know him well enough without repeating here.

In the eastern half of the United States the highest point is Mount Mitchell (6,684 feet) in North Carolina (twenty miles northeast of Ashville). Dr. Elisha Mitchell (1793-1857) was a Yale educated professor of Geology at the University of North Carolina. A lifelong mountaineer and explorer, the man who measured mountains first noted in 1828 that a peak then called Grandfather Mountain was the highest in the region. After measuring and publishing the elevation (he was 208 feet short of the true value), Mitchell got into an argument with fellow surveyor-explorer and later U. S. Senator Thomas Lanier Clingman (1812-1897), who had made his own measurements, and who questioned that Mitchell had actually climbed that mountain. Piqued, Mitchell climbed the slopes of his mountain for the third time in June of 1857, when he fell to his death during a sudden storm. Clingman got his own name onto the map in Clingmans Dome (6,643 feet) located in the Great Smoky Mountains. It is the highest point in Tennessee and has a paved trail to the top.

It would not be politic to end this subject without mentioning Mount Washington (6,288 feet), New Hampshires highest peak, even though I suspect the name was not chosen in order to honor a surveyor. But surveying he once did, by George, so we surveyors might as well claim his mountain.

There are of course plenty of lesser geographic features that have been named after surveyors, and I will leave it to the discretion of the reader to make his or her own list. If I have failed to recognize a surveyor in the name of another states highest peak I would like to hear about it, and I promise to duly write a codicil.

About the Author

Fred Roeder, LS

Fred Roeder lives in Tularosa, New Mexico. He emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1957 and spent most of his surveying career in the Southwest, working for the U.S. Forest Service. Now retired, he started writing a regular column for the New Mexico Professional Surveyors Newsletter in 1988. In 1994, NMPS produced Antepasados, a book of his columns. Many surveyors are good writers, especially about technical or legal matters. However, it's not often that we find a surveyor/story-teller who can present historical facts in a manner that makes them fun to read. Fred Roeder is such a writer and we are pleased to present more than 80 of his stories here. Bibliography is a list of the books Fred used in his writings, and includes a numbered index of the articles. Index is a list of all the articles Fred has written and when. Editor's pick: The King Who Had No Title
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