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Marking The Final Chapter

By Rhonda Rushing and Harold Charlier

The idea of writing a story about a survey monument at first seemed like a difficult task, as most monuments are considered utilitarian and therefore—let’s face it—just not that exciting or picturesque. But one in particular at Wisconsin’s State Capitol in Madison is different. The center of its rotunda represents the section corner common to Sections 13, 14, 23, and 24, Township 7 North, Range 9 East, 4th Principal Meridian, Northwest Territory of the Public Land Survey System. This in essence makes the capitol building itself the nation’s largest and most expensive section corner monument. As a final chapter to the saga of verifying this, a permanent marker was recently placed inside at the rotunda center.

It all started with deputy surveyor Orson Lyon, whose December 1834 field notes indicate that he headed north between sections 23 and 24, 40 chains to the quarter section corner “in lake.” (Surveyors back then could walk on water!) Continuing north at 51.28 chains, he set a post on the north side of the lake, tying it to an 18-inch hickory and an 11-inch black oak. He continued north and at 80 chains set a post marking the corner common to Sections 13, 14, 23, and 24, tying it to a 20-inch burr oak and a 7-inch black oak. He described the land as “rolling and 2nd rate.” Little did he realize that 72 years later, the location of this plain old wood post would be marked with Wisconsin’s present-day capitol. It lies on an isthmus running in a northeast-southwest direction between Lake Monona (“3rd Lake”) on the south and Lake Mendota (“4th Lake”) on the north, each part of a series of four lakes in Madison. 

In researching records, we were fortunate to have within two blocks of the capitol the offices of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. There we found the original field books and a map of the township. But one thing remained a mystery: How in the world did Orson Lynn maintain a line of direction and distance when encountering the “3rd Lake” as he came up from the south? If the lake had been frozen over, we’d have the answer. Obviously, the original field notes, which have been reserved, were not prepared on the spot as the crew pressed onward. Mr. Lyon would have kept separate running notes and calculator sheets as he traversed around the lake and then calculated his position on the far side. 

A second and more likely scenario might have been to establish a base line, say 10 chains to the east or west of the already established northbound section line, and measure the angle at each end of this base line to a distant point at the far end of the lake. He then could compute its location, having two angles and the included side. Oh, how they could have used GPS back then, along with two-way radios to direct a lone flagman as he tried to communicate with the rest of the crew at the south end of the lake. We suspect that those “original notes” we find in the preserved field books were in fact the second generation of notes, prepared in the evening under candlelight. The deputy surveyor was evidently not required to file his “scratch” notes and calculation worksheets while performing surveys of public lands at the time. However, in later years as the Public Land Surveys moved westward, such notes were preserved and can generally be found today in those survey files.

So is the capitol rotunda accurately centered on the section corner as intended? That was certainly the intention of George B. Post, architect for the state’s third capitol. The first one was built on platted capitol grounds in 1837, and a second was built to replace it beginning in 1857 with completion coming in 1869. Then in 1904, a fire destroyed most of the interior of the second capitol. In 1906, construction began on the third and current capitol, with the rotunda being built between 1911 and 1915. Because the second capitol had not been centered on the section corner, the new building was built 26 feet west of the center of the existing dome of the old building at the section corner, according to the Plats of Madison. The location of the section corner was established by the City of Madison’s remonumentation program in 1963. This places the corner 2.09 feet west and .87 feet north of the center of the five-foot circular marble stone at the center of the rotunda.

A drawing in the capitol’s archives verifies that the new capitol’s center was indeed to be placed at the center of the public square, which in turn was centered on the section corner. Members of the Madison Chapter of the Wisconsin Society of Land Surveyors (WSLS) have taken a keen and ongoing interest in the relationship between the two positions. They have done extensive voluntary research, both in office and field, to reconstruct the section lines and street centerlines, which fan out in eight directions. 

In 1985, WSLS held its summer meeting at the capitol in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the Public Land Survey System. With television and newspaper coverage, the Madison Area Surveyors Council reenacted the setting of the section corner in the rotunda with a brass disk, using an antique compass and chain. However, the Capitol Building commissioners rejected the idea of epoxying the disk onto the marble floor. 

As to the precise location of the section corner, it depends on which combination of monuments and street line extensions you use to reset the corner. Relative to the massive size of the building and its rotunda, it can be safely said that its center is well within an acceptable error ellipse generated from the chapter’s measurements and computations.

In the meantime, WSLS set out to place a brass survey marker at the section corner on the floor directly below the capitol’s main floor. An agreement was reached with capitol decision makers to allow the brass monument to be embedded in the floor directly below the center of the main rotunda floor.
With WSLS fellow member and past president Donald Paulson spearheading the effort, Berntsen International designed the inscription on the monument and then produced it. (Berntsen’s has its world headquarters on Madison’s northeast side). Finally, on January 12, 2007, the monument was set in place as a contingent of interested spectators looked on and listened to accounts of how the corner was originally set and finally re-established. An exhibit describing this unique survey monument, along with other surveying memorabilia, has also been prepared for display in the capitol’s museum on the sixth floor.

RHONDA RUSHING is president of Berntsen International in Madison, Wisconsin.

HAROLD CHARLIER is a member of the Wisconsin Society of Land Surveyors and the editor of its newsletter.

This article appeared in the November 2007 issue of Professional Surveyor Magazine and is displayed here with permission. Copyright 2007 by Reed Business Geo, Inc.

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