Retired Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor Pete Zapadka remembers a thought that crossed his mind in 2008 as he wrote a news release for the first annual hike that follows the footsteps of surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon along the banks of Dunkard Creek. This first trek into the past at Mason-Dixon Historical Park near Core, W.Va., just happened to be the 240th anniversary of the days between Oct. 8-20, 1767, when the line that would help define a nation was stopped in its tracks by frontier conflict and a last marker was placed atop Browns Hill.
Zapadka climbed Browns Hill to see the marker for himself in 2007 and was struck by how unknown to the general public this rare bit of history was. He decided to organize a hike the following October, “to lead people to what I call the most historic site in the region that no one visits. And I realized when I was preparing the news release that hey, if we keep holding these events we could have a big celebration for the 250th anniversary of the most significant boundary in the United States.”
Honoring that marker is the reason the park was created in the 1970s – nearly 400 acres of wilderness, trails and rustic features straddling the state line, three miles from Mt. Morris. Here is where Mason and Dixon, who were contracted by the British Crown in 1763 to settle a land dispute between the Penn and Calvert families, made camp on Oct. 8, with their scores of ax men, wagoners and a delegation of tribal chiefs of Six Nations. A warpath of unfriendly tribes had been crossed and later that day, the chiefs declared they “would not proceed one step further West.” The surveyors considered their options, then stayed long enough to survey to the next high hill and place an oak post surrounded by stones there before heading back to Philadelphia. Their line was 21 miles, 769.1 feet short of the point the Crown had commissioned – which would one day be the western corner of Pennsylvania.
Zapadka, an amateur astronomer with an eye for celestial history, is a big fan of that line, because he understands how astronomy was once the guiding light when it came to dividing up the curved surface of our planet.
“They used satellites to coordinate their position on earth, just like our modern GPS,” Zapadka explains. “We use satellites that we’ve launched; they used the satellites of Jupiter – which has four moons they would have been able to see with their 18th century optics.”
Land surveyor Marten Fransson, who came from Linkoping, Sweden, to pay his professional respects in 2016, agrees about the impact Mason and Dixon’s line had on the events of the time and beyond. “It covered a great distance and the accuracy of the surveying is brilliant with the technology and mathematics they had.”
After that first hike in 2008, a colorful crowd of re-enactors, surveyors, hikers and history lovers of all ages began turning up each year on either the second or third Saturday of October to “cross the line” and stand in the field where the surveyors camped after their third and final crossing of Dunkard Creek. It was a chance to dialog with re-enactors from the West Virginia Humanities Council, listen to Zapadka describe the history of the line and if up to it, hike the steep trail to the stone that surveyor Cephas H. Sinclair set in 1883 when he resurveyed the line.
This year, Zapadka’s epiphany is about to come true – the park is celebrating “Mason-Dixon 250” Oct. 13 to 15, with an impressive array of re-enactors, surveyors, crafters and frontier activities, all done with a tip of the historian’s hat to the science, culture and politics of the 18th century. The weekend includes a family festival, with a quilt show in the park’s two restored log cabins, food, crafts and historic demonstrations by artisans from Mason-Dixon Line states and live music in the park amphitheater.
The night sky-inspired music of Jenny Wilson Jazz segues into a star party at dusk on Saturday, with astronomer Diane Turnshek and her students from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh bringing telescopes to observe the satellites and stars that guided Mason and Dixon.
Doug Wood of Nitro, W. Va., in the persona of Ostenaco, an important Cherokee ally of the Virginia military during the French and Indian War, will be there, along with his wife, Dianne Anestis, as his indigenous partner, and fellow historian Ed Robey, who reenacts North American chieftains and European woodsmen with details as precise as historic journals and first-hand accounts will allow. They will be joined by others portraying various characterizations of the time, including the “Geographer to the Army, 1777-1783,” a group of surveyor re-enactors close enough in time to fit right in, Zapadka says.
Two books will be for sale during the festival – Zapadka’s favorite reference book “Drawing the Line” by English author Ed Danson, who is planning to attend, and a reprint of the journal that Charles Mason kept as they made their way west, full of astronomical ciphering and the day-to-day notations that allow re-enactors to tell it like it really was.
Mason and Dixon came to America in ships with ballasts filled with English stone, quarried to mark the one- and five-mile points along the line, starting in Philadelphia. But when the mountains near present day Hancock, Md., loomed, stone markers were abandoned. The remaining line was marked haphazardly with oak posts shored up with piles of rock as ax men cleared a path more than 30 feet wide through virgin timber. Later surveys that finished the line would replace them with sandstone markers, and Zapadka has spent a decade finding them and adding their location to his website, exploretheline.com.
Zapadka’s plans for this year’s celebration captured the attention of surveyors from Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, who are working with park director J.R. Petsko to create an historical feature where the line crosses the road along Dunkard Creek. Beyond is the Pennsylvania side of the park where the last encampment was made. During the festival, it will be filled once more with historic re-enactors who are camping out and living life as it was in the 18th century.
“Back then, surveyors went out at night and lay on the ground to observe. They used a zenith sector – a kind of telescope. Mason and Dixon’s zenith sector rode in a wagon on a feather bed,” Rick Casteel of the West Virginia Society of Professional Surveyors points out.
On a muddy Saturday in August, Casteel was one of a dozen surveyors at the park who had arrived from three states to set fieldstones on the state line that festival-goers will cross on their way to the last encampment. “We’re setting them as markers to show the distance of a chain, which is 66 feet. Rods are 16.5 feet. It will give the public a place to actually see the line and how it was measured.”
Casteel and other professional surveyors will be camping out and using historic equipment to demonstrate compass and chain, transit and tape and celestial global positioning, along with the equipment being used today – lasers, scanning technology and drone surveying. They will do surveying with students from local high schools and colleges all day Friday, hoping to inspire that certain kid who loves math and science as much as being in the great outdoors, Casteel adds. “While we look to the past at some great achievements in the art and science of surveying, we must remain vigilant and keep an eye to the future of the next generation. With the developments in technology over the past couple of decades, the field of surveying is wide open for the best and the brightest students of today.”
The centerpiece of the installation they were busy setting up with transits, shovels and wheelbarrows of gravel that day is the broken white sandstone-limestone base from Crown Stone 75 that once stood near the tiny town of Harney, Md. It was relocated from Taneytown History Museum in Maryland to add a last historic touch – a piece of English stone that finally made its way across the mountains to the Western end of the Mason-Dixon Line.