2015-05-02

Wall Street Journal Article: "Forget Geocaching, Bench-Mark Hunting Is the New Nerdy Hobby"

Enthusiasts search for geodetic survey disks wherever they may be: cities, country roads, a man’s front yard.

By ERICA E. PHILLIPS
Updated May 2, 2015 12:36 a.m. ET
Please click HERE for a link to the full article at Wall Street Journal.



SPRINGVILLE, N.Y.—On an overcast spring morning in this Buffalo suburb, Robert Macomber, armed with a shovel, a hand-held GPS device and a photocopied topographic map, set off into a wooded area near the local country club’s 14th hole in search of quarry that might elude a less determined hunter.

The 62-year-old telecommunications specialist had driven nearly 200 miles from his Canfield, Ohio, home for this expedition. Neither a steep climb nor the surging creek below—high from the snow melt—was going to keep him from his purpose: locating a 3-inch-wide metal disk, pegged to an old bridge abutment and stamped: “U.S. COAST & GEODETIC SURVEY BENCH MARK.”

Before the day was done, he had measured, searched and dug for similar disks outside a Buick dealership, near an old railroad bed, in a friendly man’s front yard and at various spots along a two-lane country road. Of 14 bench marks he aimed to find, he located 11.

“Some guys go hunting, some guys go fishing, some guys play golf,” Mr. Macomber said. “I look for bench marks.”

The disks he found that day are part of a nationwide network of nearly 1 million similarly marked points whose information such as latitude, longitude and elevation are maintained in a government database. Data on these points is used for a variety of surveying and engineering purposes including drawing maps and laying roads or sewer lines. The bench marks—many well over 100 years old—were placed by surveyors atop high peaks, along important roadways, on the sides of public buildings, and everywhere in between.

Bench marks “are kind of like a skeleton or basic framework” for designing the nation’s infrastructure, said Malcolm Archer-Shee, a programmer who works with the National Geodetic Survey’s Integrated Database. The NGS is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is responsible for earth science research, from tracking the weather to monitoring the environmental health of the coasts.

A few years ago, Mr. Archer-Shee wrote a computer program showing hobbyists and professional surveyors where they can find bench marks. The program pulls coordinates and a description of the surroundings from the national database into Google Earth. But much information in the database he used was outdated and the measurements—recorded before the advent of GPS in many cases—were off.

Now, thanks to the work of volunteer hobbyists like Mr. Macomber, the national database is far more up-to-date. Upon locating, or “recovering,” a bench mark, these admittedly nerdy hunters meticulously record the GPS coordinates, the mark’s current condition and the measured distances from nearby points of interest. They then file a report and digital photographs to NGS—known as “recovery notes.”

According to Mr. Archer-Shee, about 80% of the recovery information in the national database is now crowdsourced in this manner.

An avid bench-mark hunter in his own right, he also contributes reports in his spare time. “It’s like a treasure hunt,” Mr. Archer-Shee said. “When you can find one that somebody hasn’t found in 50 years, it’s kind of an ego-boosting experience.”

Many in the small community of bench-mark hunters happened upon the hobby via their interest in geocaching—a sort of high-tech scavenger hunt where players hide an object and list its geographic coordinates on the website geocaching.com. The site now includes a dedicated page for beginning bench-mark hunters.

Jennifer Galas recorded coordinates and photographed a bench mark in Acadia National Park in Maine.
PHOTO:JENNIFER GALAS
Jennifer Galas, who met her husband through geocaching, said several years ago she saw a post on the site linking to the NGS database.

Since then, the Pennsylvania couple has focused their hunting efforts on bench marks. Together, they have located about 1,000. They even seek them out when they’re on vacation.

“When we go away, we don’t necessarily like to look at touristy things,” Ms. Galas said. “We like to find interesting little spots that people don’t know about.”

Kerry Brady and his wife have taken “at least six vacations where bench marks were either the primary or secondary reason for the vacation,” the Beaverton, Ore., man said. And they’ve been successful—encountering more than 500 marks across 23 states.

Mr. Brady says their destinations, among them Eastern Oregon and Northern Nevada, are “not where normal people would go on vacation.” But the couple gets a thrill out of their avocation.

In an online message board frequented by bench-mark hunters, Mr. Brady said he jokes with other users about “filming ‘the happy dance’—where you finally find one you’ve been looking for forever.”

Ken Wachter of San Diego distinguishes that kind of hunting from what he calls “urban bench-marking” or, as he puts it: “the easy ones on the sides of buildings.” Venturing into rural areas with a shovel and a metal detector, he said, is the real deal.

“It involves hiking,” he said. “I’ve dug for bench marks that were a foot and a half buried. That was real exciting.”

Their passion for this obscure endeavor connects them with the nation’s history, many of the hobbyists say. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were surveyors, after all. In the survey’s earliest days, objects like bottles or stone jugs were buried to mark critical spots. Finding those types of bench marks, enthusiasts say, is like finding the “Holy Grail.”

The NGS’s former Chief Geodetic Surveyor, Dave Doyle, has watched the popularity of bench-mark hunting grow in recent years as people “from literally all walks of life” started using GPS devices and sharing their stories online. Mr. Doyle offers expertise to this community, answering questions in the forum and via email.

“This is a fairly esoteric science,” he said. “So every time you find somebody who says, ‘I know what that is,’ you get this big smile and you just want to hug them.”

Mr. Doyle still goes out hunting, too. Recently, he recovered a series of marks in North Carolina that had been set in 1838. “After a while, it just kind of gets in your blood,” he said.

Still, not everyone shares the excitement. Mr. Macomber’s wife, Debora, says when her husband found out about bench marks, “he just became smitten with it, he absolutely went nuts.” In roughly 10 years of hunting, he has sent in more than 6,000 recovery reports. He even looked for a few during their honeymoon in Key West.

He has recruited family members to go out hunting with him over the years, but rarely gets them to go twice, his wife said. “It’s fun for him,” she said, “but it’s not so much fun for everyone else.”

2015-01-25

HS3503 - "M 832"

I took a chance on this mark and didn't expect to find it, or anything really.  This part of Livermore is busy and active, and the City has kept up with the modernization of the central part of their community.  I was quite surprised to come around the corner of the block near the approximate location of the coordinates and see an old corrugated metal building - as described in 1958.

As I looked around, I couldn't find any of the ties described in the original goto description.  I was a bit disoriented as the description called for the mark to be 200 feet northwest First Street.  The coordinates led me to the intersection of First Street and Old First Street, which are very much perpendicular to each other.  To make things more confusing - to me anyway - was the description that the mark was with 37 feet from a railroad rail.  There were no tracks immediately nearby, let alone, right next to the building.

Buildings get moved, street alignments change, but railroads rarely move.  However, as can be seen as Benchmark PID HS3511, they do occasionally. at least the tracks do.  It looked to me as if the entire set of tracks through this part of town had been shifted northerly, but I had no way of knowing how far, if at all.  I don't know if they were, but things sure made it look like they were.  (I know some of the locals would know for sure, but I did ask anyone.)

Since I was there, I focused my finding efforts on the building found at the coordinate location.  My search resulted with nothing found.  After I returned home, and was able to study the maps of the area, my suspicions that this is the wrong building were strengthened, and that building is, in my opinion, not the correct one.

The mark is described as being 200 northwest of the northwest curb of First Street, and 37 feet southeast of the southeast rail of the tracks.  That would mean that the mark, and building, is between the Street and the tracks, at a point where they are approximately 237 feet apart.  Looking at the maps, I could determine where First Street was - where a portion of Old First Street and (New) First Street are in the same alignment.  That alignment is skew to the tracks, and there is only one place where the tracks and the Street are about 237 feet apart (assuming the tracks haven't been relocated).

A return visit two weeks later (on 7 February 2015) found an old service station, now being used as a recycling collection center, at the new calculated location for the mark.  The building was not of the type or vintage that would have ever been covered in corrugated metal.  Also, there were no buildings within 50-60 feet of the tracks in any direction, as far as I could see, let alone, the recycle center building.

I believe this mark has been destroyed.  I'm unable to find any evidence of either its destruction or existence, but there is no evidence of it alongside or adjacent to the tracks.


Published details for Benchmark: HS3503
N 37° 41.017
W 121° 45.917 (NAD 83)
Altitude: 494.4
Coordinates may not be exact. Altitude is VERTCON and location is SCALED.

Location: In ALAMEDA county, CA View Original Datasheet
Designation: M 832
Marker Type: bench mark disk
Setting: massive structures
Stability: Probably hold position/elevation well.

Documented History (by the NGS)
01/01/1947 by CGS (MONUMENTED)

01/01/1958 by NGS (GOOD)
DESCRIBED BY NATIONAL GEODETIC SURVEY 1958 AT LIVERMORE. AT LIVERMORE, IN R2E T3S S9, ALONG THE SOUTHERN PACIFIC COMPANY RAILROAD, 200 FEET NORTHEAST OF THE NORTHEAST CURB OF EAST FIRST STREET, 37 FEET SOUTHEAST OF THE SOUTHEAST RAIL OF THE MAIN TRACK, 30 FEET SOUTHEAST OF THE SOUTHEAST END OF A WOODEN BOX CULVERT UNDER THE RAILROAD, AT THE WEST CORNER OF A LARGE CORRUGATED METAL BUILDING (FORMERLY THE CENTRAL CALIFORNIA POULTRY COMPANY), SET VERTICALLY IN THE NORTHWEST CONCRETE FACE OF THE FOUNDATION, 6 FEET NORTHEAST OF THE WEST CORNER OF THE FOUNDATION, AND ABOUT 0.2 FOOT ABOVE THE GROUND.

01/01/1974 by NGS (GOOD)
RECOVERY NOTE BY NATIONAL GEODETIC SURVEY 1974 RECOVERED IN GOOD CONDITION.

Found details for Benchmark: HS3503
Searched for it 08:30, 25 January 2015. The benchmark was not located but may remain in place. Most of the described ties to the benchmark have been removed however, the corrugated metal building remains in place. At this point it is unknown if the westerly corner of the corrugated building is the original westerly corner of the corrugated metal building, or if a portion of it has been removed. The area has been groomed with gravel, and the corrugated metal siding comes all the way to the ground. No concrete foundation can be seen, however it may still exist and the mark may still be intact.

No new coordinates were taken.

HS3503 "M 832" - Benchmark setting: "corrugated metal building".  View west across Old First Street.
HS3503 "M 832" - Benchmark setting: "corrugated metal building".  View southerly at the northerly corner of the building.
HS3503 "M 832" - Benchmark setting: "corrugated metal building".  View southeasterly at the northwest face of the building.
HS3503 "M 832" - Benchmark setting: view behind the gate.  The metal siding touches the ground; no concrete foundation is exposed.
HS3503 "M 832" - The benchmark is described as being 200 feet northwest of the north curb of First Street and 37 feet southeast of the southeast rail.  The coordinate location, and the metal sided building near the location, are southeast of First Street.  It's not the correct building.
HS3503 "M 832" - The benchmark is described as being 200 feet northwest of the north curb of First Street and 37 feet southeast of the southeast rail.  This is the only place where the northwest line of First Street and the southeast rail are approximately 237 feet apart.  There is no building, or wooden box culvert under the railroad, in the area matching those described in the benchmark datasheet.  (Map View)
HS3503 "M 832" - The benchmark is described as being 200 feet northwest of the north curb of First Street and 37 feet southeast of the southeast rail.  This is the only place where the northwest line of First Street and the southeast rail are approximately 237 feet apart.  There is no building, or wooden box culvert under the railroad, in the area matching those described in the benchmark datasheet.  (Aerial View)