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Home arrow Archives   The American Surveyor     

End of the Line: Monumenting the Northern Terminus of the Sixth Principal Meridian Print E-mail
Written by Jerry Penry, LS   
Thursday, 26 July 2007

A 2.200Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

The northern terminus of one of the most important north-south survey lines in the central part of the United States had remained un-monumented for 150 years. Since the establishment of a temporary wood post in a mound on July 22, 1857, by U. S. Deputy Surveyor Charles A. Manners, the end point of the meridian has been changing daily. Manners' instructions, issued by Surveyor General John Calhoun, were to intersect the Sixth Principal Meridian with the existing water's edge of the Missouri River ­ a position that could be marked by a one-time distance on paper, but one that could not be legally held as a fixed boundary point.

From the Initial Point on the Base Line at 40° North Latitude between the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, Manners traveled 197 miles, 19 chains, and 20 links to where he reached the water's edge of the southerly shore of the Missouri River and duly recorded in his notes: "Water's edge on the right shore of the Missouri River bearing east and west. As no meander corner of a permanent character could be established at this point or nearer it than the witness corner to sections 1, 6, 7, and 12, I set a Post in Mound (regarding it as temporary) to mark said intersection..."

Manners' monument was a symbolic reference preserved by a measurement that was likely soon washed away after he turned his back to return south. The Missouri in the late 1850s was still in control of its own daily schedule, often meandering from place to place without interference or confinement. Early travelers often mused that the unruly river could never be tamed and generally slept in a different bed every night. During his approach to the river, Manners noted that the historic south high bluffs were 2.15 miles south of the water's edge. It was evident that the river channel locations varied since the land from the foot of the bluffs to the monument he placed on the water's edge was described as being a low, marshy bottom prairie, interspersed with young willows, barren sand bars, subject to inundation, and being wholly unfit for cultivation.

A 10" diameter cottonwood tree on the meridian was marked by Manners in 1857 for a witness tree 776.16' south of a post on a river sand bar that he set for the NE Corner of Section 12, T33N, R1E. This same tree was 50' south of the recorded high water bank or 2,043' south of the edge of water. The following year Manners returned to survey the subdivisions in the area and noted the cottonwood tree as now being a meander corner and did not note anything further north on the meridian toward the river. County Surveyor Andrew McNeal located a 20" cottonwood tree both in 1875 and 1877 which he described as the original witness corner and used it for the northern end of the east line of Section 12. Twenty years later in 1895, McNeal defined the location of the bank when he meandered the Nebraska side of the Missouri River. The witness tree originally established by Manners was now noted as just being evident by the remaining roots, and the river bank was located 1,072.5' north of where Manners had noted its location in 1857. The physical nature of the river bank was likely a low shelf that consisted of loose sand easily moved to a new area when yearly floods shifted it to a new location.

Many travelers had already come through the area including the expedition of Lewis & Clark 53 years earlier, so it was certainly not a foreign area to the Native Americans or to the white man. Manners' establishment of the Sixth Principal Meridian would, however, hasten the development of the land that could then be legally bought and sold. The nearest establishment, Yankton, soon emerged as a prominent river city just one mile upstream from the meridian along the north shore and became the Dakota Territorial Capital in 1861. River boats from St. Louis made the arduous travel upstream despite having to traverse around sunken trees known as "snags" that could disable or sink the vessel of an unsuspecting driver/sailor in a matter of minutes.

The ever-changing landscape along the Missouri River has made the northern end of the Sixth Principal Meridian one of continued change due to accretion, avulsion, and reliction. The early decisions of the Court in Nebraska have been quite clear and consistent that the riparian owners own to the center of the stream in all rivers, without regard to navigability. Nebraska has, however, since entered into separate legal agreements with its eastern neighboring states of Iowa and Missouri defining an agreed upon centerline of the Missouri River. The defined boundary with Iowa is based upon alluvial maps from the U. S. Corps of Engineers. The boundary with Missouri is a compact agreement based upon a mathematical coordinate listing. The historic case laws of accretion still pertain to Nebraska's northern boundary with South Dakota, making the end of the 6th Principal Meridian a point of continual change irrespective of the fact that the land across the river in South Dakota is actually governed by the Fifth Principal Meridian.

Despite the end point of the meridian being in constant change, Manners was thorough in 1857 when he recorded the physical location of the existing outer high bank of the river in addition to the historic location of the high bluffs. Even though the high water bank at the time of the 1857 survey was 1,993.2' south of the river's south edge of water, it established a reference point from which the legal accretion or reliction could be measured. To South Dakota's advantage the river has now shifted south with the present high bank being 477.5' south of where it was first located in 1857.

The completion of the Gavins Point Dam in 1957, six miles upstream from the Sixth Principal Meridian, raised hopes of enhancing navigation and minimizing erosion in addition to flood control, but both the bed and the shore of the river have continued to erode. Comparing recent aerial photography to the USGS 7.5-minute quad sheet (1968) shows approximately 150' of bank movement on the Nebraska side in just the past 40 years. The present high water bank is now approximately 15' above the surface of the water indicating a degrading bed that is apparently going down since the water can no longer spread out. In an effort to slow the southward erosion, the Corps of Engineers has placed piles of bank stabilization material along the Nebraska side of the river, but the erosion is likely a situation caused by man that may not be reversible.

Nebraska Deputy State Surveyor Gene A. Thomsen had long envisioned establishing a monument to mark the northern end of the important meridian to act as a meander corner similar to the cottonwood tree marked by Manners in 1857. While surveying for a highway project that would involve a new bridge across the Missouri River at Yankton, as well as knowing the approaching 150th anniversary of Manners' survey would arrive in 2007, Thomsen's interest was piqued, and he began making plans to establish a permanent monument on the meridian near the present high bank.

The landowner on the Nebraska side of the river was not opposed to the establishment of a monument as long as it did not interfere with farming operations. The once swampy area noted by Manners in 1857 north of the high bluffs is now prime agricultural land on both sides of the Sixth Principal Meridian. Access to the area near the river is seasonal and limited to when crops are not present. Erecting a monument on the July 22 anniversary date would have been nearly impossible due to crops, so the spring day of April 20, 2007, was chosen for its placement.

To establish the meridian, Thomsen first located the NE Corner of Section 24, T33N, R1E, which was 462' south of the historic high bluffs of the Missouri River. He then found the E ¼ Corner of Section 13 in the bottomland 2,100' north of the foot of the high bluffs, the NE Corner of Section 13 in a present-day east-west gravel road, and also the E ¼ Corner of Section 12 in a cultivated field. A line was extended north by using the two monuments found in Section 12 which intersected the present high bank of the Missouri River 4,076.5' north of the SE Corner of Section 12. A suitable location 38' south of the high bank was chosen, making the terminus monument 196 miles, 61 chains, and 19 links north of the Initial Point. The established point consisted of a 7-inch square white Portland cement monument with chamfered edges, measuring 7-feet, weighing 350 pounds and having a custom-made Berntsen 3½" diameter brass disk in the top. The south face is lettered with "6TH PM", the east face with "C MANNERS", and the west face with "TERMINUS". The monument was placed three feet into the ground with the faces oriented in the cardinal directions. When Thomsen built the form for the marker he made wooden letters that would be indented into the concrete, plus he added four threeeighths-inch rebars each six-feet in length for strength.

Assisting Thomsen in the placement of the monument was Nebraska NGS advisor Jim Richardson, Cedar County, Nebraska County Surveyor LaVern Schroeder, and myself. The Sixth Principal Meridian controls all of the surveys in Kansas and Nebraska, most of Colorado and Wyoming, and a western portion of South Dakota.

The location of the cottonwood tree on the meridian that Manners marked and noted as being 50' from the south bank in 1857 is now 427' into the river. Will the monument that has now been established 150 years later someday meet the same fate? Only time will tell as the river continues to have its way.

Jerry Penry is a Nebraska licensed land surveyor and a frequent contributor to The American Surveyor.

A 2.200Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

 
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