Saturday, August 20, 2005


Coast Survey Steamer 'Active' explored in slide lecture


San Juan Islander
August 2005

The U.S, Coast Survey Steam Active after
coaling at Nanaimo at mid 19th century.

Explore the Strait of Juan de Fuca at the dawn of Anglo-American settlement during "Safe Passage: The Coast Survey Steamer Active and the Charting of the West Coast, 1852-1860." Park Ranger/Historian Mike Vouri will present this Power Point slide lecture at 2 p.m., Saturday, August 20 in the English Camp barracks.

Admission is free. A golf cart is available to transport disabled visitors from the parking to the parade ground and back. Contact 378-2902/4409 for more special access information.

The Active, a side-wheel steamer operated by the U.S. Coast Survey to take soundings and transport surveyors, also played critical roles in Indian uprisings, shipwreck rescues and the Pig War crisis of 1859. Vouri will provide an overview of these efforts, as well as discuss the technology of and the challenges of operating 19th century steamboats and surveying equipment. The lecture includes several images of the vessel, as well as maps, charts, photographs and watercolors of San Juan Island that were only recently found in the archives of Yale University.

When the U.S. acquired California after the Mexican War (1848) navigators had to contend with nearly 1,100 miles of coastline using charts dating to Spanish pilots of the late 1700s. Latitude at some points was as high as 15 degrees amiss and this resulted in many a shipwreck. For coast trade mariners, the seas could be treacherous with swift currents, sudden storms and fog that seemed to coax wayward ships upon the rocks.

A small group of surveyors worked tirelessly through the1850's to make the coast as safe to transit as any in the world. Starting in 1853, a team led by Lt. Com. James Alden, USN and topographical assistant George Davidson, fixed positions, at close intervals, along the entire West Coast, including safe harbors. The Active began work here in the Gulf of Georgia region in August 1853. After calling on Gov. James Douglas in Victoria, the surveyors established observatories on the northeast side of Lummi Island in Hale's Passage and Sandy Point. It was from these locations that shore parties made the first U.S. triangulations of the San Juan Islands, while on board the Active soundings were taken in various channels. The ship returned here annually thereafter until the work was finished.

By 1854 a large scale reconnaissance map was published of the West Coast, issued in three sheets and tidal gauges were affixed at Astoria, San Francisco and San Diego.


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