A Rendezvous with Mason and Dixon

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series November 2013

An annual gathering of surveyors took on special significance in Philadelphia this year as attendees retraced the Mason-Dixon Line and learned about the astounding men who established it.

In November of 1763, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon arrived on the shores of Philadelphia with an epic task: once and for all settling a heated boundary dispute that had already spanned three generations. Their mission was clear, the stakes were high, and, from what the history books can tell us, they were armed with the latest and greatest in survey instrumentation and a heaven full of stars that would guide them. 

So much has happened since that British pair began to establish their boundary line starting at the southernmost point in Philadelphia. Independence was fought for and won (or, in their case, lost), a Civil War fought, and little did they know that—with every pull of the chain and turn of the instrument— they were making history, and the line they were mapping would literally one day divide this country. 

Fast-forward 250 years, and once again surveyors descend on the shores of the Delaware River. This time, they don’t hail from England but from all across this country, and they come to pay homage to the astounding work previously completed. They met at the 17th annual Surveyors Rendezvous organized by the Surveyor’s Historical Society (SHS). 

The common thread connecting nearly all of the members of the Surveyor’s Historical Society and others in attendance is their love of history, and what better place to relive this 18th-century period than in a city as rich in colonial history as Philadelphia? For the more-than 200 travelers in attendance, a chance to turn the clock back and experience colonial history while quite literally walking in the footsteps of two of the most extraordinary surveyors of the time was the opportunity of a lifetime.

A welcome to weary travelers kicked off the festivities with light-hearted humor. Australian surveyor John Brock shared 50 years of television and movies that feature surveyors and the profession.  

Through a tour spanning Ronald Reagan to Bugs Bunny to Al Bundy, the Rendezvous attendees were able to examine accuracies and flaws of the use of surveying equipment over the years. Or, in the case of The Sopranos, how to use a GPS base station to perform a mafia-style beat down. 

The Rendezvous was also host to several technical sessions, including a presentation by James Shomper of the SHS. He detailed one of the nation’s oldest continuously operating, city-run survey departments and the intricacies of the Philadelphia district standard of measure. A former Philadelphia district surveyor himself, Shomper shared his experience and expertise on the city’s unique methods, along with an extensive collection of maps and field books that date back to the 19th century. In anticipation of the afternoon field trip, Shomper also led a presentation on the SHS search to find and recover the original southerly line of the city.  There were other sessions intermingled with fellowship and touring the old city that brought to life the seldom-seen personality of the men, not just the famous line.

Two Landmarks Commemorated

Soon after arriving in the city and before getting settled in fully, Mason and Dixon’s first order of business was to determine the southernmost point of Philadelphia so they could set up a temporary observatory and start collecting data. With the aid of city authorities, it was determined that the city terminated at the north wall near the Huddle-Plumstead House on Cedar Street, which is now South Street. This is where they would begin the line. 

In a ceremony at the intersection of Front Street and South Street, Surveyor Rendezvous attendees helped dedicate this location as a historic landmark ordered by the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission. Shomper, Chas Langelan from SHS, and Todd Babcock, chair of the Mason-Dixon Line Preservation Partnership, led the ceremony. Current Philadelphia district surveyors and local surveyors, as well as the host of researchers and volunteers, were on hand to witness the marker being unveiled. Although the original position of the point had been calculated, its location was inaccessible as it fell in the center lane of Interstate 95.

Another rendezvous point was a visit 31 miles due west of the South Street point to the Harlan House in the western suburbs of Embreeville, Pennsylvania. It was Mason and Dixon’s second stop in their journey, a place they called home when not on the line. Although the reference stone used to delineate the south bearing line still exists, the actual “stargazing stone” where they took astronomical observation has been obliterated, thanks again to the advent of motor vehicles and our lovely network of roadways. The host of surveyors and their families gathered at this site to reset Mason and Dixon’s stargazer point with a vintage colonial iron stake.  A commemorative stone was placed on the side of the road to tell the story for generations to come. 

More than Costumes

The ceremony was followed by the annual picnic, an event that has become an institution to the seasoned travelers over the years, and this one did not disappoint.  Surrounded by replica colonial transits and located on the property still owned by the Harlan Family, this picnic is where many can let loose and be colonial surveyors. Many of the “tools of the day” were showcased throughout the property, and eager folks could experiment with items on display, including the historical reproduction of the Mason-Dixon celestial observatory.

Imagine not having latitude/longitude at your fingertips or Google Earth to check where you are, or having chains and links as the primary tools in your arsenal. There were many occasions for basking in the past and, with a sense of awe, admiring just how Mason and Dixon accomplished as much as they did with the little they had at their disposal. Amidst the celebration, conversation, and feasting, those dressed in traditional colonial attire provided a pleasant escape into the period and added to the authenticity of the weekend.  

The keynote was appropriately delivered by one of the greatest American astronomers, inventors, clockmakers, and surveyors of his time. As a last-minute addition to the program, David Rittenhouse, played by American Historical Theatre actor Bob Gleason, kept the audience entertained by highlighting some of his life’s accomplishments. He spoke of how his lack of formal education was the catalyst to allow his mind to develop in many different areas. He was noted as the surveyor who completed the western end of the Mason-Dixon line with Andrew Ellicott after the work was interrupted in 1767. 

The weekend culminated with a memorial service to pay tribute to the life of Charles Mason, and for those in attendance, it was well worth the buildup. As the crowd amassed at the Christ Church burial ground at the intersection of 5th  Street and Arch Street, a sense of excitement was in the air that the gathered were a part of something special. 

A Mark for Mason

The more you learn about Charles Mason’s life work, the more you think that when it’s all said and done, something is missing. Shortly after returning to the United States in 1786, Mason died penniless and convinced that his work was for naught. He was laid to rest in an unmarked grave, paid in full by his friend, Benjamin Franklin. 

Those in attendance honored him by placing a boundary stone in the cemetery as a memorial to mark his grave. While the exact location of his burial is still unknown, the British surveyor whose work was placing stones in the ground to mark relevant points finally has his own mark on the ground. 

“Charles Mason is buried across the street from Independence Hall in an unmarked grave,” said Chas Langelan. “And it has been a dream, a goal of the Mason-Dixon Preservation Partnership for the past 20 years, who said, ‘Would it be great to find the grave of Charles Mason and put a tombstone there?’ We never found the grave, but we got our hands on not a tombstone but an authentic, 1766, quarried-in-England, Mason-Dixon stone that had been removed from the line.” Langelan, a surveyor for more than 40 years who has spent many years recovering historic Mason-Dixon stones, was lead organizer of the Rendezvous. 

The brief ceremony included remarks from Christ Church Rev. Katherine Spelman and John Hopkins, Richard Leu, Stomper, Langelan, and Babcock from SHS. Edwin Danson, a Royal Chartered Surveyor and author of Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America, represented England as he read letters from Prime Minister David Cameron and Royal Astronomer Lord Martin Rees. 

As the ceremony ended, it brought to a close a festive weekend rich in history, full of knowledge, and “monumented” to retell the story for generations to come. Many characterized the weekend as the best rendezvous yet and wonder what SHS will do to surpass this year’s events when they reconvene in Mobile, Alabama in 2014.


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