General George Meade – Wilderness Surveyor to Gettysburg Victor

In the mid 1800’s much of Michigan was wilderness. While many settlements were established on the shore, there was few government maps and almost no official documentation of water depth and shore topology.  Local knowledge from “fisherman and coastals” was depended on.  As growth in the upper Great Lakes commenced, calls where made by steamship companies to the U.S. government to offer official maps and depth charts. By the 1840’s the US Army was tasked with conducting the first accurate survey of Lake Huron from the St. Mary’s River to the St. Clair river in the south. .

George Meade Engineer of the Lakes

General George Meade

In 1857, Captain George Meade relieved Lt. Col. James Kearney on the Lakes Survey mission of the Great Lakes. Meade had already established a successful assignments of building lighthouses and mapping the shoals and reefs from the Jersey shore to the Florida Keys. In Florida, the shallow reefs ravaged shipping since the Spanish plied the Caribbean in the 1500’s.

George Meade came to Michigan in 1857 to make the first survey of Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. As a civil engineer of the US Army he “leveled the baseline” at Sand Point. The method was to use a series of triangulated line-of-site towers that based on angle could be accurately measured from point to point. All the measurements on Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron where based on the baseline established on the length of Sand Point

170 Foot Towers Loomed Over Saginaw Bay

The line-of-sight signaling towers erected on Charity Island, Oak Point, Sand Point, Tawas Point, Pointe Aux Barques, Forestville and others assisted in the survey measurement. These towers measured from 82 to 169 feet above the water level and were considered the highest artificial structures ever made for triangulation measurement in the United States. Measurement was done a survey instrument called a theodolite capturing the flashing mirror of a distant tower.

signal-tower-circa -1860

Sand Point was Considered the Center of the Lake Huron

Captain Meade needed a Prime Meridian point. He established a this at a base camp on located on Sand Point.  The jut of land extended out into  Saginaw Bay offering large line of site vantage point. Meade cleared an area and placed a marker while surveying to denoting the new Prime Meridian line for Saginaw Bay and all of Lake Huron. From the United States Land Survey Station, Sand Point, Saginaw Bay all “geodetic positions of all points of triangulation” were calculated. There is record of Latitude and Longitude observations and calculations made from Sand Point from July 2 through October 9th 1857. They calculated the longitude position of Sand Point Station Latitude at 43° 54’ 39” 79 N , Longitude 5h, 33m 22s.976 west of Greenwich at (computed at 83° 20’ 44” .64 ) [ Note that the original longitude convention was added.  Page 1266 “Message of the President of the United States Communicated to the Two Houses of Congress”, 1858]

Completion of the survey of Lake Huron and extension of the surveys of Lake Michigan down to Grand and Little Traverse Bays were done under his command. Prior to Captain Meade’s command, Great Lakes’ water level readings were taken locally with temporary gauges; a uniform plane of reference had not been established. In 1858, based on his recommendation, instrumentation was set in place for the tabulation of records across the basin. In 1860, the first detailed report of Great Lakes was published.


Civil War Interrupts Progress

In 1861 war was declared between the North and the South. Washington DC sent notice calling Captain Meade into active service as a brigadier general. His orders were delivered to Detroit.  As Meade was making preparations to return to Washington DC to take over a new Topographic group authorized by Congress.  Local lore tells that notice of his assignment was delivered to the Sand Point Station from Port Austin. This was due to no Post Office in Caseville.

Meades Engineering Advancements

Meades Survey Map
Portion of the Saginaw Bay Survey Map

Captain Meade fulfilled this orders by completing the surveying all of Lake Huron, Saginaw Bay and upper Lake Michigan down to Grand and Little Traverse Bays. In true engineering fashion he also modified a method to determine longitudes by electric telegraphy

Another feat was to recommended that standardized instruments be set in place across the Great Lakes basin to measure water levels. In addition, Meade established 19 weather stations on five of the Great Lakes and set up a system of analyzing data obtained from the weather instruments of the time, to predict storms to warn mariners. He also developed a system for denoting wind force and direction observations.

Before he left the Great Lakes for the war, George Meade urged Congress to fund further survey work on Lake Michigan and Superior noting that economic growth and safety of the waterways could be achieved. General George Meade won the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 which he was considered the hero in turning point of the war.

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