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H. A. Seran, Lieutenant-Commander, U.S. C. & G. Survey


U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey

no. 1, June 1930, pp. 37-43)

About 8:00 o'clock in the evening of June 30, 1907, direct from a Picture of H.A. Seran and another man at campfire.fresh water college in Ohio, I reached Washington, D.C., for the first time. An appointment as Aid in the Coast and Geodetic Survey and instructions to report for duty on July 1st were carefully folded in my pocket.

Upon reporting to the Assistant Superintendent and taking the oath of office. I was ordered to duty in the Computing Division. The Computing Division in those days was an entirely different division from what it is to-day. Among others was Mr. Doolittle, a famous computer and the originator of the Doolittle method of solving equations. He was at this time quite old and in order to know when to stop work in the afternoon, he had an alarm clock in his office which sounded off at 4:30. Needless to say, this alarm could be heard throughout the Division. It may have been the forerunner of the signal which is given on the Auto-call today, which tells those who have not already done so to put on their hats, coats and galoshes preparatory to trying to work their various ways home through the jam of traffic, red and green lights, busses, street-cars and trucks. Mr. Doolittle always wore carpet slippers in the office. That type of footwear must be extinct as the dodo bird to-day for it is never seen except in fancy dress costume.

Another computer was Mr. Dennis. Years before he had been in the field force, and among others who had served in his party was the then Superintendent, Mr. O. H. Tittmann. Two lady computers were very much in evidence, Miss Beall and Miss Pike. The former was engaged principally upon astronomic computations and the latter in the computations in connection with precise levels. The Chief of the Computing Division at that time was J.F. Hayford, afterwards Dean of the School of Engineering at Northwestern University.

For a reason which seemed plausible at that time, but which would be regarded as foolish to-day, smoking was not permitted within the sacred confines of the Division. Strange to say, not many of the computers smoked, so the rest rooms were never too crowded to find space when the craving became insistent.

The Chief of the Computing Division called the Chief Computer, A. L. Baldwin, now the genial district manager of the Northwestern Life Insurance Company, and told him to put me to work. Mr. Baldwin passed me a bunch of record books, a cahier of field computations, a progress sketch and a copy of Wright and Hayford's "Methods of Lease Squares" and told me to adjust that scheme of triangulation. The triangulation was a small scheme up the York River, Virginia, which had been observed by the present Chief of the Division of Geodesy, Captain Bowie. How easy it was for Baldwin to say that, but what consternation it caused in my mind. Adams Manual on Triangulation Adjustment had not been written or even thought of at that time, and as I had had no instruction in least square adjustments, I had to do no small amount of digging to find out just what I was supposed to adjust and how I was to adjust it.

There were eight other Aids who, like myself, had just been appointed and we all struggled together. Kurtz, Maynard, Stanton, Swick, Wells, Colbert, Garner, Purton and myself were scattered all over the Division, trying to look busy, but more engaged in trying to size up the whole situation.

Fortunately, we all received orders to the field during the month of July before the specter of least squares had completely squelched us.
line drawing of the matchless

Captain Heck in those days was wiredragging New England coasts in the summer and Florida coasts in the winter and always had a bunch of youngsters in his party. Four or five of our bunch were ordered to his party; the others were scattered all over the States. Purton and I drew orders to report to the Commanding Officer of the Schooner Matchless at Saxis, Virginia, for duty. That party was engaged in a hydrographic survey of Pocomoke Sound on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, at the same time orders were issued to Captain O. W. Ferguson to proceed to Saxis and relieve Captain O. W. Ferguson to proceed to Saxis and relieve Captain Vinal as Commanding Officer of the Matchless. Purton and I were to receive our training in Coast Survey ways and methods under one whose appointment in the Service was reputed to be due to his ability as the best precise leveler in the United States.

The steamer to Saxis sailed from Baltimore in the late afternoon. Captain Ferguson,

Purton and myself had gone to Baltimore earlier in the day for a final try-on of uniforms which were being made for us by the New York Clothing House - our old friend Jessie Rosenfeldt, whom practically all officers meet sooner or later.

We reached Saxis wharf, Virginia, about noon the next day. The Matchless was anchored about a quarter of a mile off the wharf but Captain Vinal, who had been informed of our arrival, had a small boat awaiting us. This permitted us to go directly aboard.

To a lad coming from the fresh water lakes and rivers of Ohio, the Matchless appeared wonderful. Retrospection shows the dark bilges and forecastle, the stuffy and smelly wardroom and cabin, the inadequate toilet facilities and other antiquated and unpleasant features, but at the time she looked like a yacht to me.

In order to give me a proper initiation, while sleeping with my port open, the first night the Matchless swung to the tide and shipped a few gallons of Pocomoke Sound water into my bunk, drenching my bed and myself and making it necessary for me to crawl in with Purton for the balance of the night.

Our first working day Purton and I were sent out with the launch hydrographic party for instruction in measuring angles with a sextant. Jim Marsh, the Mate on the Matchless, was in charge of the hydrography and he kept Purton and me checking the angle he was measuring for a couple of days before he would allow us to shoot an independent angle. After about 15 minutes' practice we both assured him we were able to carry on, but he only smiled. To look back on it now I'm not at all certain it would have been safe to have taken us at our words, altho subsequent experiences in the Philippine Islands with native members of the crew who spoke very "few Englishes" who could shoot sextant angles with best of them make me think that possibly we would have gotten along all right.

Our first Sunday aboard we appeared on deck in our new uniforms, which had arrived only the night before. Say what you please, the old close-fitting blouse with its tight collar was a neat appearing rig. Purton and I would not have exchanged places with the President of the United States that day. True Purton heard some scurrilous remarks on the forecastle deck, but we were in much too good a humor to take them seriously.

We remained at anchor off Saxis about four months after our arrival until the survey of Pocomoke Sound was completed. During our stay there we managed a trip or two to Chrisfield and also Pocomoke City. Chrisfield was a city built largely on oyster shells and the buzzards were so thick overhead that a random shot in the air most likely would have brought one tumbling down. Pocomoke City was a great cannery center and at that time the country fair was held there. The Jamestown Exposition was held that year and I took a few days' leave for a "look see". Memory of the Exposition is pretty dim, so there must not have been much of interest. I stayed at the Inside Inn and well remember the quarter mile or so of mud flats that stretched Bayward in front of the Hotel at low tide.

When the Pocomoke Sound survey was finished we received orders to proceed to Solomon's Island, Maryland, for general surveys around the mouth of the Patuxent River. Our little cruise across the Bay was uneventful, altho we ran into a head wind and made very little progress against it. At that, we reached the harbor off Solomon's early the next morning and dropped anchor. I came out of my bunk in a hurry on the way in when I heard the leadsman sing out "3 feet". We were actually skirting the edge of the middle ground so closely that he got that sounding. Captain Ferguson went ashore soon after we arrived and arranged for a berth at the dock. We moved to the dock that morning and settled down to a life of Reilley for sometime.

On this survey we had both hydrography and topography to do. As neither Purton nor I had ever run a plane table, Captain Ferguson's first work was to give us some instruction. After a day or so he sent us both out, each with a plane table outfit - needless to say, it took us some time to get onto the hang of things, but in due time things were humming, with two topographic parties and one hydrographic party leaving the Schooner's side at 8 o'clock each morning.

Before this project was completed we received hurry-up orders for a survey of St. Mary's River near the mouth of the Potomac River. Early in January, 1908, we sailed from Solomon's Island to Miller's Wharf, Smith Creek, and in the dead of a severe winter we tried to do hydrography and topography. To sketch topography when your fingers are so cold that they can not grasp the pencil is some difficult task, and artistic effects under such circumstances are out of the question. To sound through ice so thick that the lead can hardly break through it would not be regarded as good, or even passable practice, to-day.

Purton and I were relieved from duty on the Matchless while this work was under way by Hawley and Siems. Our first intimation that they were coming was when they blew aboard about 2 o'clock one morning looking for a place to sleep. Purton and I were ordered to Washington office en route to the West Coast. Purton was assigned to the McArthur and I to the Patterson. On my way to the West Coast, some leave was taken and this, my first visit home after entering the Survey, was a memorable visit. You may imagine the way I described the work of the Coast and Geodetic Survey to those in Minerva, Ohio, to whom a theodolite was some sort of a lantern, and a sextant some sort of an immoral instrument. My prospective trip to Alaska caused a great deal of comment and envy, especially among the fellows with whom I had associated in high school days.

The complement of officers on the Patterson the season of 1908 was greater than

she could accommode. Thirteen wardroom officers were assigned to the ship, which had only ten single staterooms. That meant that the three junior officers had to sleep on cots in the wardroom and pile their clothes wherever possible. As I was one of the three, I don't recall my first ocean cruise as a cruise of joy or pleasure. To add to our discomfort, the cots had to be clear of the wardroom deck by 8 o'clock in the morning. As one of us had the mid-watch from mid-night to 4 a.m., his sleep that night was nothing to brag about.

Of the officers aboard the Patterson that year, few remain in the Service. Captain Hodgkins passed away some years ago; the Executive Officer, Clifford Quillian, is in the insurance business in Seattle and maintains contact with the most of the personnel around Seattle; the second officer; Henry Beck, is Superintendent of Lighthouses in Charleston, S.C.; the four mates, Stanford, Whitehead, Thomas and Duffy, have scattered to heaven knows where; the doctor, Marchand, is in one of the Departments in Washington; the Chief Engineer, John Wyer, is on duty in the Philippine Islands; of the six Aids, Stanton, Wells, McChristie, Vinal, Franks and myself, I am the only one left in the Service, and the only one of the others with whom I have maintained any contact at all is Franks. He is now with a firm of construction engineers in Chicago.

The orders that year called for our sailing from Seattle on March 1st and proceeding to Dutch Harbour via Kodiak. The Yukon, which had been laid up at Dutch Harbor for some years, was to be placed in commission, brought to Kodiak Island, and used on the surveys that year. We did not sail on March 1st, and on March 2nd we commenced receiving telegrams from the office wanting to know the reason for the delay. We finally got away from Seattle on March 8th. We stopped at Victoria, B.C., to stock up the wine mess - another old institution that has gone the way of corsets, petticoats, etc. - and also stopped at Alert Bay for coal. From Dixon Entrance we sailed direct for Kodiak. After a brief stop at the town, at which time Vinal was put ashore in the company house on account of being ill, we went on to Dry Spruce Bay where a camping party was established to work while the ship went on to Dutch Harbor. Quillian was left in charge of the camp, with Wells as topographer and Stanton and McChristie to aid him with the hydrography, triangulation, signal-building, etc.

The Patterson reached Dutch Harbor on April 16th, after an exceedingly rough trip. Frequent anchorages were necessary along the coast and outlying islands. At that time there were six feet of snow on the lowlands; some of the drifts reached to the eaves of the houses. Under such conditions the work of placing the Yukon in commission got under way rather slowly and it was not until the middle of May that we were able to launch her and commence thinking of the return trip.

For some unknown reason, Captain Hodgkins decided to leave Dutch Harbor on Sunday and about eight o'clock that morning gave orders to get everything ready for getting under way. Practically the entire crew refused to turn to - this resulted in his setting the whole bunch ashore at Dutch Harbor only a few days after the monthly mail steamer had left for Seward. With the aid of the cooks, messboys, etc., the launches were hoisted, ship prepared for sea and we left Dutch Harbor in the afternoon. The Yukon trailed along behind the Patterson. Mate Whitehead had been placed in charge of the Yukon and Mate Thomas and Aid Franks detailed to the Yukon for the return trip.

Our month's stay in Dutch Harbor was rather pleasant. There were three employees of the North American Commercial Company -the only inhabitants of Dutch Harbor - living in the company house and we did considerable entertaining back and forth. Among other things, the Company provided a billiard table so billiards were in order practically every night. We also managed a few stag dinners which, with the embellishments that were possible in those days, resulted in lots of fun and usually a headache the next day.

After a more or less uneventful return trip, the Patterson and the Yukon reached Uyak Bay some time the early part of June. The Yukon was left in Uyak to make a hydrographic survey of the inner harbor, while the Patterson went on to Kodiak for coal and mail. Mate Thomas was placed in charge of the Yukon for this work with Franks and myself to assist him. The Yukon barely sat on the top of the water and at times at anchor she would get caught between wind and tide and just about roll us out of our bunks.

The Patterson returned from Kodiak in about a week with our first mail since leaving Seattle. On board the Patterson as a passenger was Captain H. C. Denson, who was to assume command of the Yukon, and Aid E.C. Kinnear, who also was assigned to the Yukon. Kinnear had come to Kodiak on the Explorer.

Denson having command of the Yukon gave rise to a very funny situation which caused amusement to all of us throughout the season. Captain Hodgkins flew a blue pennant on the mizzen of the Patterson to indicate and signify the "Senior Officer Present". There were four ships working in that section of Alaska that year. In addition to the Patterson there were the Explorer under the command of Dibrell, the McArthur under the command of Rhodes, and the Yukon under the command of Denson. The Yukon was by far the smallest unit; she was little more than a launch. As soon as Denson assumed command, he hoisted a red pennant to signify the second in command. All during the season then the Patterson cruised with a blue pennant and the Yukon with a red one.

At the close of the season, on account of the crowded condition of the wardroom of the Patterson, permission had been received to return the officers of the Yukon and the surplus officers of the Patterson to Seattle on commercial steamer. Hence, Denson, Stanton, McChristie, Kinnear and I had the fun of traveling on the old Portland. We were in Valdez on October 24th and it was 25 below zero.

Seattle looked good to us, even though the usual rain obtained when we landed.

There were a lot of young officers in Seattle that winter and we had a delightful time. Thanks to Mrs. Bender, the step-daughter of Captain Hodgkins, we soon had loads of friends. Dinner parties and dances were frequent. In a month or so our social whirl was rudely shattered by orders for field work during the winter. The Patterson was to engage in current observations off Mukilteo, the McArthur was to take up a survey of Port Angeles, the Gedney was to revise the surveys of Tacoma and the Explorer was to proceed to San Francisco for surveys in the vicinity of the Farallones. With this scattering of the ships and subsequent detachments and shifts of officer personnel, the bunch soon scattered; some never have met again to this day.

As I have been writing these lines, I've tried to think of the funniest incident that happened on my first Alaskan cruise and I believe the following wins, hands down: The wardroom mess of the Patterson had purchased a phonograph and a number of records before leaving Seattle. We had among other records one of "The Sextet from Lucia" - a 12 or 14-inch record - and "Red Wing", a 9-inch record. The phonograph was secured at the after end of the wardroom where there was little light. Someone had been playing the record of the "Sextet from Lucia" and had not removed the record. Dr. Marchand some time later decided he wanted a little music. He picked up one of the 9-inch records, placed it in position, started the phonograph, said something about being tired of the "Sextet", took off his 9-inch record, and spent some time looking for "Red Wing". When he had found it, he put it on the phonograph again, started it, and to his consternation, the same strains of the "Sextet from "Lucia" were heard. It was a long time before he recovered from the shock or before he could be kidded about his fondness for Grand Opera.

Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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