Tribute to a Special Wild West Explorer
IT'S about time. Surveyors of the American West finally are getting the recognition they have long been due. I recently learned that an exhibit has opened at Metropolitan State College of Denver which, through the presentation of historical documents, maps, drawings, photographs, and other artifacts, at last brings to public attention the great surveying expeditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
My source is "The Record," a publication of the National Archives and Records Administration. According to the publication, the exhibit "shows the American West through the eyes of those first surveyors and accompanying artists who created a compelling record of their travels." I can't wait to see it.
My father was one of those men who, like Lewis and Clark, were explorers of the America West. They had to be resourceful, adventurous, physically strong, and mentally tough. My Dad was all that.
Several years before he died at age 104, he had become, he told me, the only surveyor alive who had done primary state-line surveys in this country. He said his surveying party helped establish the state line between Idaho and Oregon in the early 1900s.
I had been thinking about my father and his role in opening up the Wild West when I was given a copy of "The Record." I had seen newspaper articles saying even engineering graduates were finding it difficult to find jobs these days - and if they did, they were mostly starting out in humble work with low pay. What a contrast to the workplace my Dad entered as a civil engineering graduate from the University of Illinois in 1895. "The world was my oyster," he told me.
Immediately on graduation Dad took a position with a railroad in Chicago. One of his first tasks, he said, was to keep a surveillance on the Dearborn Station, which recently had been built and was teetering a bit. Dad said he "ran levels" on the tower every day for months until he could assure his bosses that it had stopped leaning.
Soon Dad, with my mother, was headed West. For 25 years he found a variety of intensely interesting and challenging opportunities. At one point he was city engineer of Boise, Idaho, then a small community, and while there he "laid out" the present city. He was also a vice president and treasurer of a silver mine. Additionally, he was one of the chief engineers in the building of a dam and a bridge. But it was as a surveyor of the formidable terrain in the mountains of Idaho that Dad spent most of his years in the West. He told us children wonderful stories of his adventures on these expeditions - particularly when he was in the Seven Devil Mountains - when he and members of his surveying "parties" would be away from civilization for months at a time.
He recalled how he and his surveying crew once were far from base camp when, blinded by a sudden snowstorm, they became lost. After hours of wandering - and by this time it was night - they finally heard gun shots from camp and moved slowly in that direction. But before making it back to safety, the surveyors got into deadfall from the trees and, before they were able to extricate themselves, were badly scratched. "By the time we made it back," Dad would say, "most of our clothes were torn off." He told how on two occasions members of his party drank poison water and died. Dad said poison water was a bigger danger than wild animals.
My father's best story was about the time he was making a land survey in Wyoming. One of the landowners angrily claimed Dad was "taking" land away from him. The man told people he was going to "kill that surveyor."
Dad said the man rode up one day while he was working nearby. "He had a gun in his hand," Dad would tell us as we listened, wide-eyed. "What did you do?" we always asked, waiting for the answer we loved. "I just walked over to him and talked to him quietly. That's the only way you can deal with a situation like that. He put away his gun. We talked. And later we became friends."