The Base Line Across The Blueberry Barrens And Its Most Important Visitor

Nancy Willey addresses large group at the Milbridge Historical Society

by Terry Hussey

Construction of the base line in 1857, across the blueberry barrens, from Columbia to Deblois and a very important visitor to the work camp were the topics addressed by Milbridge Elementary School teacher Nancy Willey at as recent meeting of the Milbridge Historical Society. The program attracted more than 60 people, the largest attendance ever for the monthly meeting of the Society.

Local history says that Jefferson Davis came to Cherryfield in 1857 and stayed at the Stagecoach Inn. According to Willey, Historian Jonas Crane in his book Fighting Yankees and other Yarns and a biography by Mrs. Davis confirm that Davis and his wife, Varina, traveled from Washington to Milbridge by ship.

From Milbridge, they took the stage to Cherryfield According to Willey, they were accompanied by a large entourage, including a number of slaves. Davis had just resigned as secretary of war, and he was in poor health. His doctor had advised a cooler climate, and Maine seemed to fit the bill. They came to visit Davis's boyhood friend, Alexander Bache, who was building the base line road across the blueberry barrens.

Local legends differ for some of the rest of the story. Some say he stayed in Cherryfield, some say at an inn on Shoppe Hill in Aurora, and others say he stayed in Deblois. Maybe he stayed in all of these places because he was there for most of the summer, moving around with the work party.

Willey said that Davis and his wife were hauled up Humpback Mountain by oxen. They camped with the men at a tent site near the road. Davis made frequent trips into Bangor, hiring a stage and driver to take him there. That driver, George Spratt, received a letter from him 30 years later, thanking him and discussing his feelings about the social issues of the time.

According to Willey, there's a story that Davis left a trunk at the inn at Shoppe Hill, telling people they were turn it over only to someone who knew his secret password. At the end of his summer in the country, Davis went to Portland where he was met by huge crowds, and then to Bowdoin where he received an honorary degree. No one could foresee that in just a few years he would become President of the Confederate States and an enemy of every northerner.

What is a base line?

What is a base line? In 1857 when the United States was emerging as a world nautical power, it was felt that the country needed to be able to measure distances and points more accurately. They were seeking a survey to determine absolute positions of points on the earth. Swiss born Ferdinand Hassler proposed a survey based on a chain of triangles stretching from one end of the Appalachians to the other. The survey would make it possible to link individual harbor surveys. The premise he was working on was that if you know the length of one side and two angles of a triangle, you could calculate the third angle and the length of the other two sides.

Hassler's triangles were actually a series of triangles within other triangles, using mountain tops as his points of reference. There would be a chain of six major triangles measured, the first being in south western Alabama and the last being on the Epping Plain in Washington County, Maine. The length of the other sides of the triangles would be calculated from the known length of the six base lines which were to be very accurately measured.

And thus it was that in 1857, a survey team headed by Alexander Dallas Bache came to Washington County to create and measure a base line. Bache was the great grandson of Ben Franklin. Today, almost 130 years later, this base line is the only one in the country still visible. All the others, in Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Georgia, and Alabama, have washed out to sea or been buried.

The previous summer local farmers had been hired to clear the land and grade it. Bache had determined that a straight line of five or six miles could be measured. They had to cut into banks or use stone cribbing to elevate the path in order to keep it perfectly level. Four towers were erected to make sure the line was level. The surveyors used six foot long iron bars for their measurements. The bars were encased in a tin tube and supported by trestles.

Other local mountain peaks such as Pigeon Hill in Steuben, Cooper Mountain, Tunk Mountain, Humpback, and Cooper Mountain were used as points of other triangles. The road was to 25 feet wide and 5.4 miles long.

The survey proceeded through the summer of 1857 with Italian marble monuments placed at each end. Granite markers exactly one rod apart marked the distance from the end of the road to the monuments.

The truly amazing thing about Bache's measurement was that when it was checked in 1991 by a team of professional surveyors using GPS (Global Positioning Survey), it was found to be accurate to within one centimeter--less than one half inch.

"Willey and her students were excited to find four of the granite markers in the ground on one of the early trips. In recent years, she has been able to find just two. Vandals have damaged the monument at the west end of the road," she said.

"We rest a lot," taking most of the day to make the 5.4 mile trip," said Willey. "The kids eat the whole way." Willey said that in two sections the road is overgrown, forcing walkers to take a detour.

It's so important for us to make the students aware of the history right here in our own back yard," said Willey.