Famed surveyors' work borders on miraculous

Marker: A replica of a crownstone laid more than 200 years ago at the Maryland-Pennsylvania line will be put into place in a ceremony tomorrow.

October 18, 2002|By Emily Benson and Mary Gail Hare | Emily Benson and Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The surveyors gathered in a rutted Carroll County meadow and began to dig. For three years, they had retraced the Mason-Dixon line, and modern, satellite technology told them that they had found the 75-mile mark of one of history's most famous borders.

Three feet down, their shovels hit a lump of limestone with two smooth sides: the remains of a crownstone that Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon laid more than two centuries ago.

"It was the right place, depth, and its sides were oriented properly," said Chas Langelan, a surveyor and a member of the Mason Dixon Line Preservation Partnership. "How good were Mason and Dixon? Very good - and with nothing to go on but the stars."

Langelan will be among hundreds of surveyors from as far away as England who will return to the site tomorrow. There, they will wear period costumes and use equipment from a bygone era to lay a newly sculpted replica crownstone.

And they will applaud the famed duo's surveying precision.

Langelan and several other volunteers have spent many weekends during the past three years in isolated farm fields along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. They set out to re-create Mason and Dixon's assignment: survey a line that extends due west from a point 15 miles south of Philadelphia.

They relied on coordinates established by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and verified by the Global Positioning System of satellites - and found that the milestones left by the two British surveyors were rarely off by more than 200 feet.

In many cases, the differences are measured in inches.

Mason and Dixon drew the line with only celestial bodies and a few rudimentary instruments to guide them. Their work, which began in 1763, was designed to settle an 80-year-old boundary dispute.

King George III sent Mason and Dixon to the colonies on what was expected to be an 18-month expedition. It took the pair six years. They scaled mountains, waded through swamps and cleared paths through forests.

They hired Indian guides who negotiated temporary truces with hostile tribes. Along the way, they marked every mile of the 233-mile border. At every fifth mile, they placed a heavy crownstone carved with two crests - Maryland's on its southern face and Pennsylvania's on its northern surface.

Their job was not done, however. Before returning to England, the surveyors also marked the 87-mile line between Maryland and Delaware - a task American surveyors failed at three times, Langelan said.

The surveying of the Mason-Dixon line brought to a close years of land disputes between the colonies.

"It represents the resolution of decades of colonial conflict," said Bea Hardy, library director at the Maryland Historical Society. "It really was one of the things that helped us come together as a nation. The symbolic importance of the Mason-Dixon line is huge."

Although the line officially separates Maryland and Pennsylvania, it unofficially divides the American North and South. By the 19th century, the line had become the symbol of freedom to slaves escaping the South.

Gene Spangler's farm straddles the border in the Carroll County community of Harney. The crownstone marking the 75-mile point was in an field that adjoins his property. Until farm equipment annihilated it several years ago, Spangler could see it from the kitchen window of his farmhouse. "I remember my family telling me about the stone when I was just a kid," said Spangler, 70. "Everyone around here knew that the line went through here. Most of us pay taxes in two states."

When strangers with clipboards, maps and cameras would come to his door and ask for directions to the stone, he would walk them out into the field. He figures those history buffs will be back once they hear that mile 75 again has a marker.

According to Mason's diary, the 5-foot-tall, 600-pound crownstones were placed at every fifth mile. Three feet of each crownstone, made from Portland, England, limestone, which resembles cement, went into the ground. The remainder protruded from the earth.

Two months ago, the volunteer surveyors began to dig a foundation for the replica crownstone. They hit a creamy white rock unlike any found in Maryland - the foundation of the original crownstone.

The old foundation was extracted. It remains in a plastic milk carton in Langelan's Jeep. Boundary monuments belong to the states, but several individuals and associations have contacted Langelan seeking possession of this one.

The replica crownstone is made of granite. It cost about $3,000, weighs 525 pounds and was quarried in Vermont, not England. It is carved with the original Maryland and Pennsylvania crests. Etched into its sides are words of dedication to the survey societies that helped make it possible.

The new crownstone, which for the past year Langelan has kept at his Taylorsville home and hauled by trailer to surveyors conferences throughout the mid-Atlantic, will arrive in Harney at 2 p.m. tomorrow.

A replica war wagon similar to those used during the French and Indian War will carry the stone to the site. Volunteers, dressed in period costume, will lower it into the ground by operating a pulley rigged beneath a timber tripod. As a guide, they have "Running the Line - 1766," a recent painting by Brian Tucker that depicts the laying of a stone.

Unlike Mason and Dixon, who left the stones to the vagaries of time, the volunteers plan to erect a split-rail fence around this one.

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