Surveying at Basset Hall
in the Woods near Williamsburg
Recently one of our correspondents,
who, incidently, once served as a chainman for Mr. George Washington on
a South Branch River survey, had the opportunity to visit a friend in Williamsburg. During
the visit our correspondent was invited to accompany Mr. Harris on a survey
of a trail at Basset Hall. The country was much like that of our
own frontier lands, so we thought that our readers might like to see something
of the work. We will pick up from the letter recently received:
"As one would expect in Williamsburg, we had the choice of several precise instruments among which was an unsual wooden survey compass from New England where such instruments are used by the more occassional surveyor. We chose a more substantial brass instrument such as one usually finds in Virginia. When we opened the rather rough wooden case (made to slip easily into a saddle bag and yet hold the instrument safe from harm) there was a finely made brass compass with beautifully etched compass rose (the card with the N-E-S-W bearings inscribed on it).
Fortunately for the more novice visitor, the compass we chose to use was one of the more up-to-date models with the compass rose made for easily keeping track of one's course - it had East and West switched to make reading bearings more conveniently as long as one keeps the fleur-de-lis always away from oneself. You may note that the "North" mark is replaced by the fleur-de-lis to make this process easier. Just keep in mind: "Fleur-de-lis away from me."
Our work took us to a remote part of the woods behind Basset Hall. It was not unlike the backcountry in Hampshire County. Sometimes the woods were comfortably open with decent viewing, but other times the undergrowth made sighting very difficult. One is often at a loss to choose between sighting greater distances (which means fewer stops to set up the compass and take bearings and read the number of chains) or making shorter sightings to be more precise and to insure one is indeed seeing the pole of the "marker" (the assistant who marks the spot and notches a tree or sets up a stone pile to record the spot). Keep in mind that we were surveying the course of an already established trail rather than laying out a plain rectangle or polygon of set acerage.
The undergrowth also makes it hard on the chainman who must pull the measuring chain along to measure from point to point. Often the chain gets snagged on limbs or rocks. Our Mr. Harris, a successful man of business, is able to afford the chain with the extra rings between links which serve to keep the chain from twisting into a useless tangle of steel. Because of the undergrowth along the course, he had chosen to use a half chain of fifty links rather than the longer full chain of four poles or 100 links.
However, even with the best of equipment and a competent surveyor like Mr. Harris,
the job was still quite laborious. The thickness of the foliage made sighting difficult. The late fall forest was beautiful to behold, but the pleasant warmth had kept the
One of the most important parts of the survey job that only a professional surveyor can be trusted to do, is to keep the field note book. This contains notes on all the bearings and courses. At the end of the day, the surveyor will use these notes to plot the survey on paper, work that is not often done in the field because of the preciseness and additional instruments it requires. It was most comforting to note the exactness with which Mr. Harris made his notes with a small silver ink well and shortened quill pens... After a laborious morning of work we retired to the Raleigh Tavern for some liquid refreshment...."
If time permits and our artist makes more pictures we may be able to enlarge this very informative article at a later time. - The Editor