Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America

By Edwin Danson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 13
The Pencil
of Time

THE MORNING OF the summer solstice in 1765 dawned bright and clear as Mason and Dixon mounted their horses and set off from Christiana to join up with the hired hands at the Peach Bottom ferry. Riding slowly through the heat of the day, they passed along the dusty country roads, then turned north. Peach Bottom village, its ferry long gone, can still be found at the end of a lane nestled along the rocky shores of the Susquehanna a few miles north of where the West Line crosses the broad river. The survey team and the wagons with the victuals, stores, and tents; the tree cutters and chainmen; and the stewards and cooks assembled in the village the next morning to set up camp by the river.

During their sojourn in New Castle County, Mason and Dixon had devised a new stratagem for setting out the direction for the West Line. As they did not have a precise means of measuring horizontal angles, Mason used the night sky as his compass. However, an alternative method for setting out an accurate horizontal angle is to construct a large right-angled triangle on the ground. In this way a small angle can be calculated in terms of the sides of the triangle; the longer the triangle's sides, the more accurate the result.

When the surveyors first reached the Susquehanna, the latitude observed with the zenith sector had been 580 links too far north of the true line. In order to correct this, and bring themselves back into the line, they resorted to arithmetic proportions and a long, thin triangle. First, they set out a radius of 1.187 miles westward across the wide river from the point where the zenith sector had stood on May 19.

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