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report on the history and progress of the american coast survey up to the year 1858


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PART I: Objects, History, Methods.


To an industrious and enterprising people, zealously engaged in cultivating the arts of civilized life, and occupying a territory bordered to any considerable extent by the ocean, a correct acquaintance with the physical features which mark their marine boundary is a matter of such moment, that we may properly regard it as a kind of economical necessity. To such a people, the ocean is the great outlet of production, and the highway over which are perpetually flowing back upon them the products of other lands. Without an exchange of commodities constantly in this manner going forward between different and distant nations, it is impossible that the industry of any people should be stimulated to an efficiency in any degree commensurate with its capacities: it is impossible that its inventive genius should be awakened, or its artistic skill developed, or its dormant natural resources evoked from their slumber, or, in a word, its powers of production generally brought into exercise in so effectual a manner as to promote most successfully and satisfactorily its advancement in the road to national wealth, or its elevation in the scale of national greatness. An isolated nation, with no natural channel for the efflux of its surplus production, will have little incitement to produce after the demand of its own consumption shall have been satisfied. The arts, moreover, among such a people, unfostered by the encouragement of a vigorous demand, will make but sluggish progress in the march of improvement, and will contribute but feebly to the multiplication of the comforts or the elegancies of life, to the growth of aesthetic culture, or the increase of general wealth. It is true that in a territory wide of extent, and possessed of diversified resources, industry may find a stimulus in the upspringing of a domestic commerce. But it is not true that any activity in the exchange of productions at home can diminish the importance of commerce with foreign nations, or render it a matter of trivial moment to any people whether or not it shall avail itself of the natural advantages it may possess to foster such a commerce. It is accordingly matter of history, that every maritime people that has ever, since the days of the Tyrians, made itself conspicuous among the nations for its intelligence or enterprise, or has succeeded in securing to itself a controlling position in the affairs of the human race, political or social, has ever likewise found in foreign commerce one of the most prolific sources of its prosperity, and has been accustomed to keep a vast amount of its wealth constantly afloat upon the waters, and exposed to all the hazards which brood in the bosom of the deep.

Those hazards can never be totally annihilated. They will always be the occasion of a greater or less amount of annual loss. And maritime commerce, considered as one of the springs of national wealth, will always be by so much the less productive as the dangers to which it is exposed, and the losses to which it is consequently subject, are greater. Any expedients, therefore, by which these dangers and these losses may be diminished, any improvements, for example, in the construction of vessels, or in the art of navigation; or any additions to human knowledge in regard to the laws which govern the winds or the waves in their seeming caprices, or in regard to the secret dangers which lurk invisibly in the ocean’s depths, will inevitably in due time be felt, in the increased returns with which they will reward commercial enterprise, and in the stimulus which they will bring to the growth of Commerce itself. For it is to be observed, that, in the diminution or annihilation of the hazards which attend any speculative adventure of capital, a nation is profited not merely through the immunity from loss of each individual adventurer, but, beyond that, through the encouragement held out to other capital, unemployed or employed unprofitably, to embark in a productive channel.

The dangers which attend the mariner are various. Some of them accompany him everywhere, and are capable of being reduced or eliminated only by perfecting the science of navigation itself, by improving the methods of naval architecture, and by insuring to practical seamen the highest nautical skill, by providing for their thorough training to their duties. Others, however, are local, and arise not out of the want of skill or science in the navigator, or out of the fragility or ill-construction of his vessel, but simply out of his unacquaintance with the natural features of the sea-bottom beneath him; with the currents of the surface on which he floats; with the degree of proximity or distance of reefs, or shoals, or dangerous shore-lines, or with the courses which he should follow in order to escape so perilous a neighborhood. Such local dangers are for the most part found in the vicinity of the land. Upon the high seas, indeed, the practised navigator dismisses apprehension; and though, as he leaves his port, he may lay his course with a severely scrupulous accuracy, and trace his way by buoy or beacon, or feel it out with an almost timid caution with the lead, yet no sooner does he see the blue water rolling beneath him, than he experiences a sense of security as complete as that which the landsman feels in the shelter of his quiet home. As he approaches the port of his destination, his anxieties return, and his vigilance is once more aroused. At this critical period, ignorance or error may bring the most prosperous voyage to a sudden and fatal termination. The shores which mark the approaches to the most frequented seaports of our continent, have been a hundred times strown with wrecks of vessels dashed in pieces just as the ill-fated voyagers whom they bore were congratulating themselves that all their dangers were over. The wealth which has been engulfed, almost within sight of a single American port, can only be told by millions; and the lives which have been swallowed up along with it present a melancholy total of many thousands.

Against the recurrence of disasters so calamitous, no absolute security can ever be provided. But it is obvious that their liability to occur may be very greatly reduced, by removing, so far as the human effort can remove, the principal cause of their occurrence, which is simply want of correct knowledge of the natural features of the coast, as they appear exposed to view, and as they lie concealed beneath the waters. Accordingly the governments of all maritime nations have earnestly endeavored, especially in modern times, almost without regard to the question of expense, to secure a faithful and minute delineation and description of their entire ocean boundary, both as to its visible outline and as to the character of the soundings which lead from it into deep water. For the purpose of obtaining this information in the form most severely exact, systematic surveys, geodesic and hydrographic, have been instituted and sustained for many years, by the principal commercial powers of Europe; the results of their operations having been condensed, or being still in process of condensation, into the form of elaborate hydrographic maps, or charts, for the guidance of the navigator, and also for the assistance of the government itself, in selecting proper sites for the lighthouses, buoys and beacons, which are to mark the available channels, or to warn against hidden dangers. Such a survey of our own coast, carried on under the authority of the Federal Government, has been also for a number of years in progress; and it is in regard to the past history and present condition of this great public work that the present committee has been appointed to inquire and report.

It is apparent, from what has been said, that the leading object directly proposed in the conduct of the American survey, as in that of very other, is to secure the safety of the American survey, as in that of every other, is to secure the safety of the wealth hazarded in commercial enterprises, by reducing to a minimum the dangers of navigation. But it may by no means hence be justly inferred that the benefits of such a survey are limited to particular localities, or confined to particular classes or portions of the people; that they accrue, for example, exclusively to the great marts of commerce, or to the individuals directly and personally concerned in foreign trade. To any one who attentively considers the causes which give to property its value, it will be manifest that these benefits extend to every citizen, no matter in what part of the country they may reside, provided that he has anything whatever at stake in the prosperity of the commonwealth, even though it be no more than the labor of his own hands. The cotton-grower of Tennessee, and the tobacco-planter of Kentucky, whose agricultural products seek a marker in the old world, are no less positively interested in whatever may diminish the dangers of the seas than the merchant who, without producing himself, makes it his business to convert their productions for them into the equivalent values they require. This remark is one of great importance. Nothing in these days is more common than to hear the three great departments of human industry– agriculture, manufactures and commerce– spoken of as if they were interests entirely independent of each other, or even absolutely antagonistic. Yet, without the productions of agricultural and manufacturing industry, commerce would have no material; and without the constant, and convenient, and rapid exchanges which commerce effects, agriculture and manufactures could have no life. Whatever makes commerce easy, or diminishes the cost or the hazard of its operations, encourages productive industry in every form, and renders its rewards more certain and more abundant. For the sake of illustration, let for one moment, the effect, so often illustrated under the eyes of the present generation, be considered, of opening up to public use a new line of communication, by means of a railroad or canal. There are thousands of farmers in this country, who, immediately on the occurrence of such an event, have seen the products of their labor practically doubled or tripled in value, through the consequent reduction in cost, trouble, and loss of time, experienced in communicating with markets. There are exhaustless deposits of mineral wealth in every quarter of the country, which from being absolutely valueless, because unavailable, have become sources of rich income to their owners, simply in consequence of the creation of such artificial channels of transportation. Now, as the aliment of commerce is the surplus production of the country, it is self-evident that, if the ocean were to become suddenly impassable, this surplus production would be to the nation precisely what the unsalable produce of the isolated inland farm, and the slumbering wealth of the inaccessible mineral deposits, are to their individual owners. Since it could find no efflux, it could bring back no return. And though, were such a state of things suddenly to supervene upon the arrangements of business as they actually exist, the first ruin would fall, of course, upon the commercial holders of this surplus production; yet it requires no argument to prove that the permanent suffering must fall ultimately upon those who created this surplus– must fall, in short, upon the whole body of producers in the country; and this, too, without any regard to the question whether or not each has contributed his distinct share to the visible surplus, or whether only his industry has been employed and rewarded by those who have actually done so. And any conclusion at which we may legitimately arrive, in regard to the effect upon the national welfare, of an entire extinction of foreign commerce, arbitrarily supposed to occur, is measurably true also in the supposition that the same commerce is obstructed by impediments which embarrass its operations, but fall short of its total extinction.

Such impediments do actually exist in the natural dangers of the ocean border. The sea-coast lies outstretched, a continuous, unbroken barrier, obstructing every avenue through which it is possible for the surplus production of the country to find its efflux or receive its returns; laying the whole industry of the nation, in every department, and throughout the entire extent of its territory– in the pioneer settlements of the West no less than in the busiest of the commercial entrepots of the Atlantic seaboard– under a perpetual and inexorable tax. To effect a reduction of this tax is the present business, as it was the original design, of the Coast Survey; and the interests of the States which lie most deeply situated in the heart of the continent are not less positively involved in the careful execution, and in the prosecution to completion of this great work, than those of any other.

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