1872 Nevada border marker receives preservation
by Emerson Marcus, courtesy of Reno Gazette Journal
Over the Truckee River bridge in Verdi off Dog Valley Road stands a 142-year-old cast-iron border marker — a little-known reminder of errors in 19th century Nevada-California boundary surveys and heated land disputes. The border marker, originally placed there in 1872 by surveyor Alexey Von Schmidt and designated on the National Register of Historic Places, was protected in recent decades by a decrepit chain-linked fence with a large dent on its side. Its recent history is marked by graffiti, bullet holes and theft, which officials and locals hope changes with construction of metal fencing this month from a $40,000 California state grant. The area’s past history is equally colorful, including gunfights, botched surveys and emigrant wagon routes where Nevada and California converged in the Sierra. The Sagebrush War A decade before Von Schmidt placed the marker in 1872, citizens of Nevada Territory claimed portions of California near Honey Lake. One of Nevada’s original nine counties, Roop County, spilled into present-day Lassen County northwest of Reno. Territorial legislators felt land east of the Sierra crest should belong to Nevada, the “weaker neighbor,” but they first asked California for permission. That request was denied, but ongoing disputes would take a century to settle. The California Constitution in 1850 established the boundary north of Lake Tahoe along the 120th meridian. But California, with its wealth, rushed through statehood lacking advanced survey, and many just on the western side of the established line either avoided California tax collectors by claiming Nevada citizenship or simply felt more akin to the nearby settlers than they did to Sacramento, their capital. Jurisdictional disputes followed, and few grew hotter than a shooting skirmish between Plumas County and Roop County citizens in 1863. Shots fired after each county arrested officials of the other, including judges and one sheriff. Two were injured prior to a peace being reached in Susanville where two men from each side met. Roop County was dissolved. The brief Sagebrush War — perhaps hyperbole — demanded a need for a more thorough survey. Von Schmidt’s markers Nineteenth century survey technology proved tricky, specifically in determining longitude. While latitude is based on the horizon and fixed celestial points in the sky, longitude is based on the surveyor’s position with Greenwich, England, and given the Earth’s speedy rotation, there is little room for error. There were errors in past surveys, and Von Schmidt sought to fix them — though he didn’t quite get it right, either. Arriving in Verdi with a $40,750.32 contract to survey the stateline for the federal government’s General Land Office, Von Schmidt was supposed to start his survey at the border of Nevada, California and Oregon. Instead, he opted to use data for the 120th meridian at Verdi produced by George Davidson, a geodesist from the U.S. Coast Survey who had had been in Verdi earlier and whose work he knew to be more accurate. “He starts to go north, and says, ‘I’m going to do it differently,'” said Nevada land surveyor and Von Schmidt marker historian, Paul Pace. (Photo: Tim Dunn/RGJ ) The General Land Office demanded he backtrack and follow instructions, which Von Schmidt obeyed, but inklings toward
Davidson’s calculations got the best of him. Unfortunately, Von Schmidt measured incorrectly, putting the iron marker 500 feet west of the 120th meridian, according to Pace. When he reached Lake Tahoe’s North Shore, he was 1,600 feet off, Pace said. “Nevada would be three miles wider (if he went off the federal government’s request),” Pace said. “But that wouldn’t have lasted. That would have had to be resurveyed as well.” Surveys in 1893 and 1899 showed errors with Von Schmidt’s line, especially south of Tahoe along the oblique portion of the Nevada-California border. Disputes continued surfacing in the courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1981 that the boundary between California and Nevada remain the Von Schmidt line. Preserving history Pierre Bayard-de-Volo first saw the marker when he bought property in Verdi in the 1960s. If his memory serves him accurately, he remembers a plaque where there is now a 2-foot crack on the California side of the marker, but no Verdi resident has been able to verify that for him.
In 2006, he called Sierra County Supervisor Peter Huebner on how to preserve the vandalized marker. Then the recession hit. “Pierre (Bayard-de-Volo) thought I was giving up on it,” Huebner said. “I said, ‘I’m not going to give up.'” “I’ve spent 16 years on the board (of Sierra County Supervisors), and this is my biggest personal project,” Huebner said. Last week, the metal fencing was built — costing $15,000 — and extra funds will be used to fix the crack in the marker. A plaque interpreting the marker’s history is also planned, along with another for the Henness Pass Trail — a major emigrant trail through the Sierra — and historic Crystal Peak. At a glance • The Alexey Von Schmidt survey marker was placed on the California-Nevada border in 1872. A recent $40,000 California state grant paved the way to protect the marker, which has a history of vandalism and theft. • The marker has “California,” “Oregon” and “Nevada” on its west, north and east sides, respectively, the year 1872 and notes how it is 120 degrees west of Greenwich, England on its south side. • There is believed to be less than a handful of other surviving Von Schmidt markers, and the known ones do not have writing. If you go • The marker sits on the Nevada-California line off Dog Valley Road. It is open to the public.