USCGS Station Q301 at the corner of West Exchange and Mull Avenue (Photo: Jeff Davis)

Akronisms | Where are you, really?

Writing and photos by Jeff Davis

Akronisms is a series highlighting things and places you didn’t know about in our fair city. If you have a question or idea, write to Jeff at jeffdavisDS@gmail.com

You have been lost for many months in the Slough of Despond, also known as the Year 2020. Seeing now a ray of light, but still confounded and stumbling around, you ask, “Who am I?  What’s my purpose in life?  Where am I on the space-time continuum?” You stub your toe, look down, and, lo and behold, there is your answer. 

You have arrived at Station Q301, a brass plaque placed in a glob of concrete by workers from the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USCGS) in 1963. This particular one is in the devil strip at the northwest corner of West Exchange Street and Mull Avenue. 

Station Q301 is one of perhaps 750,000 similar “monuments” placed across the United States by the USCGS, the Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.  Their one-time purpose was to provide convenient local benchmarks for surveyors, so they didn’t have to travel to a permanent location, like the post office or City Hall, to start their work.

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You’ve heard of surveyors. Abraham Lincoln was a surveyor, perhaps drawn to the occupation after his father lost the family farm in a boundary dispute. Lewis and Clark were surveyors, as was Daniel Boone. And, yes, a former resident of Akron named Simon Perkins was a surveyor, too.  

They established an official U.S. coastline for national security and international trade purposes. They created maps and marked off rights-of-way, state lines and townships. They memorialized the boundaries of farms, cities, and mining claims.  They created wealth by assuring ownership interests for highly fertile, waterfront, or otherwise desirable property, then helped take it away when others decided the property was tax-worthy. That type of work continues today. 

But the practical and critical work of modern-day surveyors also means they prevent explosions and such by properly locating utility lines, protect air travel by their attention to the dimension we commonly call “height,” and help determine which streams of Akron’s rainwater travel to the St. Lawrence River and which go to the Gulf of Mexico, among other things.

Few people notice the bench marks left behind by previous surveyors, but there are hundreds throughout Summit County. Some are in the ground, like the one we stumbled upon across the street from the O’Neil House bed and breakfast. Some are in walls, like the ones in the front wall of the Goodyear Research building on Goodyear Boulevard and on the western corner of Miller-South on East Avenue. Some are buried in vaults under downtown intersections. There’s one by the courthouse steps.

The marker under the East Market Street bridge over the B&O railroad tracks seems to represent the site of Akron’s first big train station. But it is also a convenient place to start a survey if your job is to keep the tracks level-  evidently the benchmark’s real purpose.   

The general idea was to place these markers in relatively permanent locations because they would be used like tools, through the generations. Alas, some of these “permanent” locations have disappeared, despite the clear warnings of $250 fines and possible imprisonment for disturbing them. As time goes by, many are erased by road construction, building demolitions, and other forms of destruction, and they pass into history. Generally, they are not replaced. 

But not to worry. These plaques and markers are used only as back-ups now, because the USCGS went high-tech about 20 years ago when the Federal Government made its Global Positioning System available to the general public. It’s not that the GPS system is a more accurate way of doing things — although it can be, according to Jeff Jalbrzikowski, a Regional Geodetic Advisor for the new-and-shorter-named National Geodetic Survey (NGS). It’s just faster and easier to work with than theodolites (those things on top of the tripods), levels, and poles. And there’s a lot less trigonometry involved.

“Either system can get a surveyor within two or three centimeters of accuracy, but the GPS system allows a survey crew to work more quickly.  They don’t have to start their work at one of the reference markers.  They can just go to the approximate site, turn on the equipment, and get their position. So, we don’t visit or maintain the old markers anymore,” he tells us. “We use them as a form of ‘passive control,’ which is basically a back-up system.

“We once used a lot of other reference points, too, like church steeples and water towers. If a crew was too far from one of our other markers, it could often get its scope on a couple church steeples to resect, or triangulate, their position. Those high points are still in our records, but we don’t use them much in field work anymore.” 

Jalbrzikowski, now based at the NGS office in Columbus, knows many of the Akron markers very well, because he graduated from the University of Akron’s Surveying and Mapping program, one of only two such programs in the state.

“There’s a marker on the south side of Ayer Hall that the survey classes used to use,” he says.  We told him about the two inside the fence at Reservoir Park, the marker at the corner of Cuyahoga Street and Sackett, the one on the side of a Kenmore Boulevard building, and the interesting little “drill hole” in the sidewalk in front of the Highland Theater that was once used to align a surveyor’s plumb bob.

But not anymore. Today’s surveyors use GPS devices connected to a satellite network run by the Air Force, the Space Force and the National Geospatial Agency. And though Jalbrzikowski’s agency once employed hundreds of surveyors across the country who spent most of their time in the field, it employs about 170 office-bound specialists today who watch over 2,000 earthbound GPS stations.  

About 80 of those stations are in Ohio, thanks to a large investment by the Ohio Department of Transportation, which uses them for road construction. State legislators tried to cut the program a couple years ago, but rapidly changed their minds when they found the state had three times as many farmers using the system as highway engineers. Farmers using a John Deere 8370R autonomous tractor can drink coffee and do crossword puzzles while plowing, while the built-in GPS and camera system keeps their rows perfectly straight.   

And it will be extremely important if Ohio wants to be a place for autonomous cars and trucks, which would be really tough if they all had to drive to the big “X” in the middle of town by the courthouse to begin their journeys along the space-time continuum.

Jeff Davis is a lifelong resident of the Akron area and is a retired writer, editor and teacher.

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