My 4th great-grandfather was John Colvin (1752-1814), a Scotsman who came to the Albany area of New York State in the 1770s, fought in the Revolutionary War, and became a NY State assemblyman in 1811. My line followed down from him through his son David (born 1779). Another Colvin line was established through David’s brother James (1776-1846). That branch includes a lawyer, surveyor, and explorer named Verplanck Colvin (1847-1920). Verplanck was an early conservationist and responsible for the formation of the Adirondack Forest Preserve, a 6 million acre protected reserve in upstate New York. Like public figures of today, he was praised as well as panned in the press of his time.
A lawyer by profession, Verplanck originally began exploring and creating topological maps as a hobby, both in his home state and as far away as the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. By 1868, he was concerned enough about the affects of deforestation on the northern NY State water system that he publicly called for the establishment of “an Adirondack park or timber preserve”. He applied to the state to sponsor him to lead a survey project in the Adirondacks, to accurately map the natural features of the area, much of which was still unexplored. The state granted him the sum of $1000 to begin.
Starting in 1872, Colvin’s crew of 100 men had to brave difficult terrain, mountain lions, and harsh weather conditions. Along the way, he perfected the use of the triangulation method of surveying, to very accurately record the heights of Adirondack mountain peaks. He employed some ingenious pre-electronic techniques to obtain measurements, such as setting off an explosive charge on a mountaintop, so that all of his crews spread out through the wilderness area could synchronize their watches. Precise times were needed to calculate longitudes and latitudes using the position of the sun.
While Colvin is admired today, in his time he was the object of some criticism. One particularly harsh but entertaining article was published in 1891 in the NY Sun. The author discounted the need for any survey at all, and called him a “a fussy, verbose, and interminable bore”, a “blower of the Colvin horn” who “became “a crank on the subject of the Adirondacks”. He was accused of using vast amounts of tax payer money to fuel his own ego:
“…This survey was to be a survey only, and … Mr. Colvin was to act as a surveyor, make maps, put up landmarks, and the like. Mr. Colvin took no such narrow view of his commission. He organized himself into a geographical, botanical, ethnological, geological, meteorological, mineralogical, and astronomical society, a literary bureau, and a general gossiping and self-admiring commission. There was incidental surveying, but so purely incidental that it is hardly worth mentioning.”
Similar to complaints on oversharing in social media today, the journalist was critical of the details Colvin included in his survey reports, grumbling that “He tells what they had for supper that night, as indeed he tells what they had for every meal for eleven years”. The writer could also do without Colvin’s enthusiastic descriptions of the natural beauty found in the Adirondacks, complaining about “all this twaddle and frippery and tomfoolery spread over hundreds of pages, with only a little about surveying”, and finally that
“Mr. Verplanck Colvin is not economical of words or space. The State of New York is paying for it all, and Mr. Colvin doesn’t care how much it costs”.
In reality, the $1000 granted to Colvin for his surveying and mapping task was woefully inadequate for the eventual costs of the project. He estimated that he spent $175,000 of his own money to fund the work, which would be over 5 million dollars today. After his considerable accomplishments in advocating for wilderness preservation, his work for NY State ended in 1900 when then-governor Theodore Roosevelt transferred his responsibilities to another state official. He attempted to launch one more great project, a “New York Canadian Pacific Railway”. The railroad never materialized, and Verplanck Colvin died quietly and out of the public eye in 1920.
- Adirondack Almanac, The Triangulation of Verplanck Colvin, 2015
- All Over Albany, Forever Wild, the advocacy of Verplanck Colvin, 2018
- The New York State Conservationist, Feb/March 1954
- Adirondack Experience The Museum on Blue Mountain Lake, Verplanck Colvin person record, 2017
- International Federation of Surveyors, Verplanck Colvin, American Wilderness Surveyor and Savior by Kermit Remele, FIG XII International Congress 2002
- Summitpost.org, Verplanck Colvin Surveyor, Explorer, Early Environmentalist, 2020
- NY Sun article, Verplanck Colvin, Bore, October31, 1891
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