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A Visit to the Nation's Geodetic Center

by Ernest Cantu Jr., L.S.

What makes the experience of finding one benchmark better than another? High on a hilltop in north central Kansas, there is a bronze disk near the center of the nation that offers the experience of a lifetime: the Meade’s Ranch triangulation station.

Why is this survey station so famous? First established in 1891, Meade’s Ranch was one of the stations in the historic Transcontinental Arc of Triangulation, which spanned the nation (generally following the 39th MEADES RANCH 1891, a close-up of the diskparallel) to connect the geodetic networks of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. At this location, on land homesteaded by William H. Meade, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (C&GS) crew filled a bottle with ashes and buried it about three feet deep. At the surface above the bottle, they placed a marble post with a chiseled cross on top.
In 1901, the C&GS chose the Meade’s Ranch monument as the station from which the geographic positions of all triangulation stations in the country would be determined. Meade’s Ranch thus became the initial point for the United States Standard Datum
In 1922, the existing markers were replaced with a bronze disk stamped “MEADES RANCH 1891,” set in a concrete monument. In 1927, the network of 25,000 triangulation stations underwent a corrective adjustment, creating the North American Datum of 1927 (NAD27). Meade’s Ranch remained the initial point, the geodetic “center of it all.”
In 1948, the concrete monument was found broken and the top slightly shifted. The original concrete monument was cut to about fourteen inches below ground level, and the original bronze disk was reset in a new round concrete monument.
With the advent of satellite mapping technology (the birth of GPS), geodesy required a new datum. In 1983, the network of 250,000 stations and 1.8 million observations was redefined with a point of origin at the earth’s center of mass, thereby adopting the North American Vertical Datum of 1983 (NAVD83). But Stone Reference post to the south, rivet in center, flush with groundMeade’s Ranch retains its place in history. In fact, in 1973, the Meade’s Ranch triangulation station was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
On March 15, 2008, a group of thirty-one people set out to visit this landmark as part of a geocaching event titled the Geodetic Center Tour ’08, sponsored by the Kansas Society of Land Surveyors (KSLS). Using our GPS receivers to track down the correct latitude and longitude, we met at the studio of local artist Evie Wray, a convenient place to stop, gather, and prepare before our trek to the revered monument.
One by one, cars arrived and filled up the circle driveway. The crowd quickly grew, filling up the space indoors and spilling out to the front porch and the driveway. With Evie’s hospitality, eagerness filled the air as people mingled, placed new faces with familiar names, and traded stories of geocaching adventures.
Those who made the trek to the event came in from Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Missouri. Participants ranged in age from tiny tikes to old enough that it was hard to get around. Their backgrounds included land surveying, military surveying, the National Map Corps, geocaching, and, of course, benchmark hunting.
For two geocachers, the tour was a reunion after having not seen each other for almost twenty years. A few people had visited the Meade’s Ranch site the previous year, and one person had been on the past two tours. The Meade’s Ranch triangulation station would be the 300th NGS monument found by one benchmark hunter—and the 1000th by another!
The official festivities began with door prizes, with names drawn from a typical geocache container: an ammo box completely covered with camouflage duct tape. Prizes included Meade’s Ranch lapel pins, t-Meade's Ranch Reference Mark No. 1,  dated 1948shirts, unregistered geocoins—and the grand prize, provided by KSLS, of a new Garmin Etrex H handheld GPS receiver. We had even preloaded 500 waypoints into the receiver, including all geocaches and NGS benchmarks within sixty miles of the Meade’s Ranch station. The perfect prize for these intrepid benchmark hunters!
With the door prizes given out, the time had come for the group to begin the journey to the disk. Climbing into our vehicles, we formed a long line of four-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs, and began our vehicular march to the grand monument that awaited us.
After an easy ten-mile drive down gravel roads, we met up with Kyle Brant, the owner of the land that embraces famous triangulation station. Kyle’s grandfather, Frank Robinson, bought the property in 1936. Because the disk is on private land, access to it is by permission only, so Kyle guided the convoy into the property and up the rest of the way to our goal.
From the property’s front gate, the GPS receiver showed that it was 1.26 miles to the triangulation station “as the crow flies.” However, the drive up to the disk was not straight at all. The convoy of eight four-Meade's Ranchwheel-drive vehicles meandered back and forth as it crawled up the slope of the hill. We followed the gravel pathway (it didn’t really have enough substance to call it a gravel road) as it wiggled up the hill, up the hill, always up the hill.
Reaching the top, everyone’s eyes got wider as the hill leveled out. The view was breathtaking. The majestic panorama from the top of the hill prompted us all to grab for our cameras and point them in all directions. We could see for miles and miles. In the distance, we could even see small towns, looking like urban islands in the expanse of the Kansas prairie.
About a hundred feet away was a curiously lonely orange plastic witness post, inviting the crowd to come and investigate what it had to share. We walked en masse toward the orange marker. There beside it was a monument nearly flush with the ground: a concrete circle two feet in diameter with the center of the circle domed slightly higher than the outside edge. And in the top of the concrete monument, there was the bronze disk.
It was a standard disk about three inches in diameter, with words around the outside edge saying, “U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Triangulation Station.” In the center of the disk were stamped the famous Ernie Cantu & freinds at Meade's Ranchmagical words, “MEADES RANCH 1891.” We had all found the Meade’s Ranch primary station! This was the singular object, the “geodetic Mecca,” that had brought us all together from four different states.
A few feet to the east and west, we found Reference Marks 1 and 2, which were standard disks mounted in stone posts. Also close by, to the north and south of the primary station, were two reference posts, stone monuments flush with the ground with arrows scored into the tops. About eighty feet to the east, we discovered Reference Mark 3, another standard disk in a circular concrete monument flush with the ground, sitting next to a line of tall stone posts that had once held a barbed-wire fence. The tour group buzzed around the site like a stirred-up ants’ nest, looking at all the monuments and the wonderful scenery.
After filling our cameras with beautiful pictures, we departed from the hilltop and made our way back down the hill, through the gate, down the gravel roads, and back to Evie’s studio. There we recounted the adventure over a delicious lunch provided by Evie and Kyle. More stories were told, and finally we bade farewell to each other with wishes to keep in touch. The opportunity to view this historic site was one we’ll never forget, and many of us hope to return to pay tribute again to Meade’s Ranch and the surveyors who helped unite our country.
 
*****

Ernie Cantu is a licensed Kansas surveyor with Professional Engineering Consultants in Wichita, Kansas. He is the Geocaching Coordinator for the Kansas Society of Land Surveyors as well as for the National Society of Professional Surveyors. In his off hours, Ernie likes to go geocaching with his son. His geocaching username is cantuland. Ernie visited Meade’s Ranch with his son on March 15, 2008.

Originally published on July 18, 2008.

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