Easily overlooked marker has been stationed at courthouse for more than 100 years

Overlooked plaque stationed at courthouse for a century

October 5, 2015
A U.S. Geological Survey plaque is cemented into the wall in front of Washington County Courthouse. - Celeste Van Kirk/Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Mention a publication called “Spirit Leveling in Pennsylvania” during the month of October and someone is likely to think of mowing down ghosts who’ve risen up to do some haunting for Halloween in the Keystone State.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The title of this 1912 publication has to do with the tangible: plumb lines and surfaces that are truly horizontal. The device used to determine straightness or stability is sometimes called a bubble level or just a level, but the term “spirit level” refers to the liquid inside the tube, which is usually alcohol.

Between 1899 and 1911, there was a concerted effort by the Department of the Interior’s United States Geological Survey to denote specific points, including the Washington County Courthouse, as bench marks.

“In the surveying profession, the term bench mark (usually two words) is used specifically for points of known elevation, or vertical control,” according to the geocaching.com website.

“When the bench mark is established at known latitude and longitude, it is described as a horizontal control. The generic terms favored by professionals to describe horizontal control are station or mark rather than ‘benchmark.’”

Shown a photo of a Geological Survey disc outside the Washington County Courthouse, Clay Kilgore, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, said, “I’ve never seen it. Nobody has ever said anything about it.”

Neither is the marker included in a booklet about courthouse history.

Descriptions of the bench mark by Washington County Courthouse and others in the area written more than 100 years ago by R.B. Marshall, chief geographer for the U.S. Geological Survey, indicate there was an effort to adjust previous descriptions and elevations of bench marks to agree with the 1907 “precise leveling of the Coast and Geodetic Survey,” now known as the National Geodetic Survey.

Webster defines the term geodetic survey as “a survey of a large land area in which corrections are made for the curvature of the Earth’s surface.”

Marshall went on to write in his 99-page report, “The numbers stamped on the bench marks described in the following pages represent the elevations to the nearest foot as determined by the levelman.”

The central Washington disc is stamped “1156 PITTSBU” 1,155.914, referring to its feet above sea level.

John Fouke, a cartographer with the United States Geological Survey in Rolla, Mo., said the purpose of the bench marks was to produce accurate topographical maps.

“We couldn’t have them without these,” Fouke said of the markers. “That was back when topographic maps were made entirely by data gathered in the field. They had survey instruments and a tripod and pointed it toward the rodman.

“They had to get enough elevation values to create the contour lines for a map. After World War II, they shifted to aerial photography. These bench marks are still used by private surveyors and some government agencies today.

“Once (global-positioning satellites) came along , you could go out and gather precise elevation and latitude and longitude. GPS has revolutionized mapping.”

Other area sites noted in “Spirit Leveling in Pennsylvania” as having U.S. Geological Survey information included Amity, post office and store of F.F. Iams & Son, in stone doorstep, on north side of door, east side of road, aluminum tablet stamped “1204 PITTSBURG” 1,200.748 feet above sea level; Carmichaels, on stone step of entrance to schoolhouse, aluminum tablet stamped “1004 Pittsburg” 1,003.947; Centerville, (East Bethlehem post office) 35 feet east of H.L. Smith’s store, 30 feet east of center of street, Mrs. Deaves’s residence, in northwest corner of retaining wall, bronze tablet stamped “1178 Pittsburg” 1,177.651; Canonsburg, iron road bridge over Chartiers Creek, Jefferson Avenue, in east end of north abutment, aluminum tablet stamped “931 PITTS” 930.659; and McDonald, northeast wing wall of McDonald Street iron bridge, aluminum tablet stamped “980 PITTS” 979.631.

The U.S. Post Office, in an attempt to streamline spellings, removed the “h” from Pittsburgh from 1890 to 1911, hence the appearance of “Pittsburg” in the text of “Spirit Leveling in Pennsylvania.” (According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Pittsburgh’s high point is 1,370 feet above sea level, and its low point is 710 feet.)

Other Washington and Greene locations with markers, which may not necessarily be bench marks, but might be a metal stake or other object, according to the 1912 publication, included Newton, Davistown, Mt. Morris, Beallsville, Scenery Hill, Vanceville, Zediker, Eighty Four, Gilkeson, Thomas; Venetia post office, Anderson Station; Hackett, Rogersville, Nineveh, Eno, Burdette, McCracken, Aleppo, Morford, Deep Valley, New Freeport, Pine Bank, Lagonda, Van Buren, Prosperity, Old Concord, Good Intent, East Finley, Fargo, Budaville, Coon Island, Taylorstown, Buffalo, West Middletown, Finney, Tunnel No. 4, Independence, Patterson Mills, Woodrow, Hickory, Westland, Burgettstown, Florence, Bavington, Burgettstown, Hanlin, Bulger, Midway and Primrose.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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