We take for granted much of the modern system of mapping and cartography. In the United States, this system is very much derived from our Jeffersonian grid, established in the late 1700s, and expanded along with US western expansion, this (mostly) unwavering net draped over the country as part of the Public Land Survey. I’ve written previously about the General Land Office (GLO) Cadastral Survey, in more general terms, but in that post, I mentioned a unique feature in Portland — the location of one of the few starting points — the 0,0 point which started the mapping for the entire Pacific Northwest on June 4, 1851.
In the most lovely case of serendipitous map-nerdiness, this point has been protected and celebrated, and is thus both visible and accessible by visiting Willamette Stone State Heritage Site in Northwest Portland. A quick drive from downtown Portland, for anyone remotely interested in maps and Portland history it’s a simple trip up Burnside and winding along the back side of Forest Park.
I’ve been staring at the GLO maps for years, and knew it existed but had yet to visit this spot, so the hint of a nice Spring day last weekend was a pretty good opportunity for a short walk and to check this off my list. A small pull-out off of SW Skyline Drive opens up to trailhead, with a informational board offering a brief introduction that outlines the purpose of the park, and some background on the survey, including a sketch by Roger Cooke showing an illustration of the surveyors at work.
From a short blurb on the sign:
“This short trail leads to the Willamette Stone, the surveyor’s monument that is the point of origin for all public land surveys in Oregon and Washington.”
The monument itself is simple. A short walk through forest, a few steps down and a square paved zone, measuring 20×29 feet, surrounded by benches and immersed in a remnant of northwest forest. From the Oregon Encyclopedia: “The surveyors selected a high point on a ridge along the Tualatin Mountains (known today as Portland’s West Hills) for the intersection of the meridian and base line and the location of the survey initial point established on June 4, 1851. Known later as the Willamette Stone, the first marker placed at the survey point was a cedar post. It was replaced in 1888 with an obelisk marker, but the stone marker and bronze plaques were vandalized in 1951, 1967, and 1987. A stainless-steel marker, set into the original obelisk, was rededicated in 1988. The Willamette Stone site is now enclosed in Willamette Stone State Park near Northwest Skyline Boulevard. “
A plaque provides more information, and the marker (a stainless steel version that was installed after other had been vandalized), with the words ‘Initial Point’ of the Willamette Meridian with the T1N/T1S marking townships above and below, and R1W/R1E marking their east/west counterparts. It was a sunny day but early afternoon was casting deep shadows on the spot, giving it an austere, and somewhat ominous feel. It felt, to me somewhat sacred.
The Willamette Stone Park monument captures some of element of the survey in subtle ways. Embedded metal strips highlight markings on the ground surface, representing the meridian and baseline, a typical township broken into it’s requisite allotment of 36 equally spaced, 640 acre sections, ready for development.
It’s interesting for something so innocuous to hold such power, a simple disc of metal that references something much larger, and more meaningful. The hours I’ve spent staring at the maps derived from this point and the rich history that unfolds. It includes both a snapshot of what existed in the mid-1800s, but by extrapolating back as well to Native settlement and use, shows also a network of pathways worn to common points – a boat launch, a ferry, a significant landmark. These hints of pre-colonial use were shaped for many years, and some have persisted in our urban development – a path turning from a trail now a road with some odd, informal alignment. Ecological mosaics now transformed, consisting of coniferous forests and deciduous lowlands, with marshy margins near meandering rivers whose shorelines continue to weave their way through the pull of northward flowing water. And, all of those now disappeared waterways – the buried creeks, the long forgotten lakes, the now filled wetlands.
Sitting on one of the benches, I close my eyes and transport myself back to this spot in 1852. I remark on the integrity of some of the remaining verdant ecosystem in this unassuming spot. The verticality of Douglas Fir spires towering skyward, mixed with moss-draped Bigleaf Maple and understory Vine Maple pushing their bright green spring leaves. On the ground, dense clumps of Salal weave around in abundance, punctuated with the complementary textures of Sword Fern and Oregon Grape, lighter margins of Snowberry and Currant. And, to mark the season with a punctuation mark, the fleeting display of Trillium.
Then, slowly, as I peer around, at the edges, I spy a hint of invasive English Ivy and English Holly (both of which were absent from this ecosystem of 170 years ago), beginning to creep out to the margin of my vision. A witness to our human impacts. Panning right, the faint etchings of guy-wires intrude into the viewshed amidst the trees. I’d been so focused on the ground, and the stone, head down focusing on the monument, I’d been unaware of this neighbor. I slowly follow their paths in an about-face, craning my neck straight up to the apex of the radio tower close-by. Not looming, but its red and white paint, and geometry in sharp contrast to the lush greenery.
Thus the scene, as the origin point, took on a double meaning. Although lush and natural on the surface and very much of the place in the Oregon landscape, this survey point was also the origin of our rapidly changing environment. This is evident in the burgeoning city that exists today, and the irreparable impacts on ecology and hydrology that make it barely legible from where it all started. The origin point of our discovery, what we have now experientially only in maps as a record, also being the origin point of our changing landscape and humanity.
The bench I sat on had double meaning also. Surrounding the monument, these contained the names of significant surveyors relevant to this westward documentation. William Ives was responsible for running the Meridian northward towards the Puget Sound, and Eastward along the Baseline as well, according to the history of the Oregon Land Survey John B Preston is also acknowledged, as the first Surveyor General of the Oregon Territory and Western US, his name is pervasive, affixed to many of the GLO maps. And finally, one dedicated to C. Albert White, who was at BLM surveyor with the General Land Office who started in the 1940s, and is know as an expert in cadastral surveying history, which is seem in his 1983 publication, ‘The History of the Rectangular Survey” which is the definitive tome on the Public Land Survey, and fitting for him to be celebrated here as well.
A map excerpt shows these ubiquitous gridlines – the work of Ives and Preston notably on, “A Diagram of a Portion of Oregon Territory,” from 1852. This map highlights this point where the Baseline runs east and west from ocean to the state borders, and the Willamette Meridian runs north-south from the southern border of Oregon up to the US/Canada border. The origin made manifest.
It’s amazing how this GLO survey left an amazing resource for hydrology of cities that were relatively undisturbed, as these surveys were done in a relatively youthful United States, and in the west the mapping in the 1850s was done concurrent with the establishment of many settlements. The resulting maps show small, nascent grids, which predate much of the late 19th and early 20th creative destruction that forever changed the landscape and led to hidden hydrology. It’s good to know your origin story. And in this case, the origin is close at hand.
HEADER: Willamette Meridian — this and all images in post, unless otherwise noted, also by Jason King