Pahrump, NV (erection pending DOT approval) SR372, 1 mile E of CA state line October 5, 2003
Allexey Waldemar Von Schmidt
and the Von Schmidt Line
A tale of the old west
A tale of cunning
A tale of surveys
A tale of government contracts
A tale of explosions
A tale of water and fire
Written by Clamphistorian Mark Hall-Patton, XNGH, 1919
For the occasion of the Fall Doins of the Queho Posse Chapter of
The Ancient and Honourable Order of E Clampus Vitus
October 3-5, 6008 (2003 in the common tongue)
Under the leadership of Noble Grand Humbug
Doyle "Loanshark" Jensen
Von Schmidt State Line
This plaque has not yet been installed. It will be installed after negotiations wiht Nevada Department of Transportation are completed.
Allexey Waldemar Von Schmidt was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1821. His parents were Russians who decided to immigrate to the United States. They settled near Vincennes, Indiana, in 1827.
Allexey grew up in the relative wilderness of Indiana. Where he got his training in civil engineering, specifically surveying, is not clear from the historical record I have been able to examine. While later in life he claimed to have taken his training in some of the most prestigious schools in the east, a later writer for the Society of California Pioneers was unable to find proof of this claim. Given his life and efforts, there may be a reason for this difficulty.
Allexey was caught up in the gold fever that swept the nation after 1848, and decided to move west. In 1849, he was part of a party that traveled from New York to Mexico aboard the Pleiades, a schooner. While they had planned to continue to California aboard the vessel, it was impounded by the Mexican authorities in Mazatlan and declared unseaworthy. Being stuck in Mazatlan, they decided to look for alternative methods to make it to California.
They no longer had a specific vessel in mind, and when the Fanny, an 85-ton bark originally built in Holland arrived, Von Schmidt's group joined others from Mississippi, New York and Philadelphia to make the journey. The bark was small, but Captain Dubrodt agreed to take them, if they could find sufficient provisions in the Mexican countryside for the extra travelers.
Von Schmidt and a friend, Major E. A. Sherman, were members of the foragers who were able to add 25 cattle, 40 sheep, 30 hogs and 500 chickens to the stores on board the Fanny. According to a biography in the files of the Society of California Pioneers, these were paid for to the satisfaction of their Mexican owners, though, of course, no proof exists of said payments.
The trip from Mazatlan to San Francisco began on April 23, 1849. After battling storms, gales, head winds, and eventually shortages of food, they arrived safely on May 24th, 1849, a journey of 31 days. Von Schmidt had arrived in the west, and was determined to make an impact.
Realizing that money would be made in California not by mining, but by supplying needed services, Von Schmidt became involved as a Deputy United States Surveyor. His first jobs were surveying the land-grant ranchos of Californios, both for them and for those Americans who had already begun purchasing the lands for miniscule amounts.
Among the land grants surveyed by Von Schmidt was John Charles Fremont's Mariposa Land Grant. Interestingly, the survey Allexey completed included some areas not formerly included in the land grant. Allexey's survey was completed in 1852, and after the survey, the ranch included part of the gold belt of the Sierra Nevadas. The informal name of the land grant was the "frying pan grant" because of its odd shape.
By 1855, Allexey's efforts were concentrated on surveying the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada range, mainly in the Mono and Inyo county areas. He was working for Col. John C. "Jack" Hays, formerly of Texas, and now Surveyor of Public Lands in California. He was to survey the public lands east of the Sierras and south of Mono Lake, including townships 1 to 12 south and 31 to 35 east.
The survey took about a year. His party included R.E.K. Whiting, compassman, Joseph Jefferson, E. Ross, E. Maginnis, and J.W. Newton, chainmen, and Henry Gardenier and E. S. Gersdorff, axmen. His field notes were later examined by W. A. Chalfant while writing his Story of Inyo. Chalfant quoted Allexey's remarks about the land he was surveying.
"Land entirely worthless with few exceptions. The only portion of any value is near the banks of the little streams of water coming from the Sierra Nevada mountains. This valley contains about 1,000 Indians of the Mono tribe, and they are a fine looking set of men. They live principally on pine nuts, fish and hares, which are very plenty. On the western edge of the valley I found great quantities of grouse, other game is very scarce. On a general average the country forming the Owens Valley is worthless to the white man, both in soil and climate."
Later, in 1856, Thomas J. Henley, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in California, reported:
A.W. Von Schmidt, Deputy United States Surveyor, relative to the Mono Indians living on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, in Mariposa and Tulare counties (the area of present day Mono and Inyo) says: "They are a fine looking race, straight and of good height, and appear to be active. They live in families scattered through the entire valley, and get their living in various ways, such as it is. Game is very scarce; some few antelope are to be found in the valley, but the bow and arrow is not the proper instrument for game of that description, even if it were plenty. Hares are also found in some portions of the valley, which form their principal article of food in the meat line; but their principal article of food consists of clover and grass seeds, also of pine nuts, which I am told fail sometimes.
They can also get fish, of a small size, in Owens River (the lakes Owens and Mono are both salt and have no fish.) But with all this they are in poor condition. The families being divided off and each having his own hunting ground causes some to go without food for days. One chief told me that sometimes he had nothing to eat for six days at a time. I estimated the number to be about 1000 in the entire valley. They are in a state of nudity, with the exception of a small cloth about their loins, and so far as I can see are in want of every article of clothing."
Allexey's next major surveying project was the Panamint Valley, just west of Death Valley. Oddly Allexey found significant tracts of arable land, over 11,000 acres in a valley where no arable land is known to exist. It is interesting that the only surveys of land which would be paid for by the federal government were surveys of arable land. In fact, the California Boundary Commission blasted Allexey's work in 1861, calling his survey a "shameless fraud." Given that Allexey had already been paid for his work, and that he was later hired to resurvey the line the California Boundary Commission had created, I'm sure he laughed all the way to the bank.
Allexey probably did not have to worry about how long the money would stay in the bank, however. He was noted for his lavish expenditures. He noted at one time that he enjoyed spending money since, after all, he could always make more.
In April of 1860, Allexey had found a new venture for his talents. He had become the Chief Engineer of the Spring Valley Water Works, which was organized to supply water to San Francisco, and to control the entire watershed of the bay area. He stayed involved in Spring Valley Water Works until 1864, when he left to become Chief Engineer for the Bay Cities Water Company. During this period, in 1863, Allexey laid out Camp Stanford for the State Militia. He carried the title of Colonel, often being referred to as Col. Von Schmidt, because of his long involvement with the State Guard and Militia as a Colonel and Engineer. It was also claimed that he had served as a Lieutenant Colonel on the staff of the Seventh Militia Regiment for New York City, before ever migrating to California.
It was also in 1863 that Allexey first proposed using water from Lake Tahoe for a community's water source. This was in a proposal to Virginia City, which was rejected by the Board of Aldermen, who did not think the project was feasible. Allexey refocused his view westward, where it had been all along, and began working on one of the greatest ongoing gambles of his career, a dream that was never fulfilled. In 1865, he also founded the Lake Tahoe and San Francisco Water Works Company to exploit the waters of Lake Tahoe, with an eye toward eventually selling the lake to San Francisco for its water source.
Allexey's plan was to build an aqueduct from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco. He began surveys for the project, which would include a canal from Tahoe City, where the lake's outlet was located, to Squaw Valley. There he would build a tunnel through the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the North Fork of the American River
His plan ran into legal difficulties, as Nevada officials claimed he had no right to exploit the waters of Lake Tahoe. He went to both the California Legislature and the U.S. Congress to get laws passed allowing him to proceed with the idea. In Congress, the bill never made it out of Committee, and remained an elusive dream. Nevada opposition to the idea, which would recur throughout Allexey's life, was strong, as evidenced by an editorial by Joe Goodman of the Territorial Enterprise. He suggested that Allexey had better bring 20 regiments of militia with him when he began work, as he would need them to quell the uprising which would result.
In the face of such opposition, Allexey continued to work on other projects. He did build a water works for Hamilton, Nevada, in early 1868, and later received the contract to build the Hunter's Point Dry Dock in San Francisco. This he accomplished within the year, opening the dry dock on November 11, 1868. The success of his building plan for the dry dock, which involved tunneling under the bay, filling the tunnel with explosives, and setting them off to excavate the area, proved successful and led to his next work.
This was the contract to remove Blossom Rock from San Francisco Bay. The rock, named for the HMS Blossom, which, according to local lore, had run into the rock in 1826. It was named and plotted by Captain Beechey of the Royal Navy after this incident.
Allexey proposed demolishing the rock by use of explosives. The federal government had allotted $50,000 for its removal. Allexey, who was asking for $75,000 for the effort, got the job, and the extra funds. He was to take the rock down to 24 feet below mean low water level.
In October of 1869, Allexey began work. He had a 32 square foot timber structure built and floated to the rock. Within it was a 10 square foot cofferdam, which was held in place by the larger structure. The larger area was filled with ballast rock once the cofferdam was in place. Eventually a six-foot in diameter iron shaft was placed in the center, and all the outer layers filled with cement and rock, building an airtight area. Fifteen men lived on the rock during excavation, but only one at a time could work in the shaft.
Eventually, a shaft was sunk 30 feet into the rock, and side shafts were excavated outward. The final area excavated was about 140 by 60 feet and 12 foot high. This was reinforced with timbers, and 38 sixty-gallon ale barrels, as well as a few old iron tanks, were waterproofed with asphaltum, filled with nitrate of soda powder, and placed in the chamber. On April 23rd, 1870, water was allowed to flow into the excavated chamber, and the community of San Francisco turned out to see the explosion. According to Colonel R. S. Williamson of the Corps of Engineers,
"One turn of the battery crank and the explosion instantly follows. A column of water, variously estimated at from 200 to 300 feet high, rose majestically in the air. The diameter of the body of water thus thrown up was probably 200 feet. Around the base of this column was another simultaneous outburst of water, probably 70 feet high, whose flood seemed to role outward. High above the mass of water could be see rocks and pieces of timber. The highest jet of water was that which came through the shaft, and appeared as black as ink."
Unfortunately, Allexey had only taken the rock down to 14 feet below mean low water level, and had to work for another six months to get soundings which appeared to show the rock had hit the 24 foot level.
After these successes, Allexey was ready to return to his dream of Lake Tahoe as a water source for San Francisco. He was back in San Francisco, serving as President of the Society of California Pioneers, an organization of residents who had come to California before 1850. He apparently enjoyed his year as President, but he did not neglect his business interests. He made a formal proposal to the City of San Francisco to supply 20,000,000 gallons of water to the city daily, in return for a mere $10,000,000 and monopoly control of the city's water works. By the end of 1870, Allexey had acquired control of land at Lake Tahoe's outlet at Tahoe City for $3 per acre, and built the first dam at the site.
In 1871, the Board of Supervisors for San Francisco accepted Allexey's proposal, but it was vetoed by Mayor Selby, who did not like the idea of giving the monopoly over the water sources for the city. Selby was also worried about possible lawsuits over San Francisco's rights to the Lake Tahoe water.
As was typical for Allexey, when he ran into a roadblock on one project, he would start another. The border between Nevada and California had been set by law when Nevada entered the union, but the survey, which had located the border, was flawed. Remember, this was done by the same California Boundary Commission that had had the audacity to question the 11,000 acres of arable land Allexey had surveyed in the Panamint valley ten years before.
A new survey was ordered, and Allexey was chosen to conduct the work. He started at the north end of the line, on the Oregon end of the Nevada/California border, and located the starting point. He actually started from Verdi, Nevada, and worked northward to find that the original starting point for the 1863 boundary was more than 3 miles east of where the earlier survey had placed it.
Working south, he surveyed as far as Lake Tahoe during 1872. This part of the line is still in use today as the official boundary between Nevada and California, even though it is off just slightly from where it should be. The United States Supreme Court, in 1980, directed California and Nevada to live with this part of the line, even though they acknowledged it was not quite where it should be, because it had been in use for over a century at the time.
The rest of the border was surveyed in 1873. This southern portion, otherwise known as the oblique line, was much more of a problem for Allexey. Allexey started where he had left off, on the shore of Lake Tahoe. He surveyed where the 39th parallel should bisect the lake, and set out monuments on either side of the lake at that point. He then rented a boat, the Truckee, and was rowed to the center of the lake, where the north/south line should intersect the 39th in the lake.
The idea was a good one, but he was slightly off in his calculations. He also claimed to have set two granite monuments along the shore of the lake, as well as some iron ones. A few of the iron ones were actually placed, but not all, though he was paid for them. The granite monuments were the original ones placed in 1863. Allexey just had the 1863 date chipped off and an 1873 date and his name put on the monuments. Again, though, he was paid for the erection of new monuments.
Allexey then started south. The line was to run southeast straight from the junction of the 39th parallel and the 120th meridian in Lake Tahoe to the junction of the center of the Colorado River and the 35th parallel, a line of over 600 miles. Allexey worked his way south, eventually ending close to where the Ives survey of 1863 said the Colorado River was bisected by the 35th parallel.
Unfortunately, the river had moved in the ensuing 10 years. Allexey requested a clarification, and was told that he should use the current river location. The 1873 river channel was over a mile from the 1863 location, so Allexey moved his end point over.
This meant, though, that the line no longer reached the correct end point, so Allexey had to resurvey. Rather than resurvey the entire line, Allexey went about 270 miles in his survey, where he ran into his original surveyed line. He decided to end his correction there, leaving a pronounced angle in the supposedly straight border along the oblique line between Nevada and California. As Bruce Metcalf, a railroad historian noted,
"The routine for retracing a line and making corrections to the original survey was one well understood by surveyors of the nineteenth century. Von Schmidt, however, was working on the short end of a fixed price contract in an area of no perceptible economic value, with knowledge that the last surveying team was caught in an early snowstorm and had suffered severely. He elected to correct the line not back to its start at Lake Tahoe, but only about a third of that distance, producing a 'straight line' with a pronounced kink in the middle."
To locate the 35th parallel, Allexey noted in his field notes that,
"There being no telegraphic facilities at this point, I concluded for the time being to assume the longitude of that place as determined by Lt. Ives in 1863…run a line to Ives's point, then establish the intersection of the 35th degree of North latitude with the middle of the channel of the Colorado River by a series of observations, correct my line back, should I find error in the longitude, and mark and establish the true line in the field, ALL OF WHICH WAS DONE."
In the subsequent resurvey of the oblique line in 1893-1899, the surveyor quoted the above passage, and noted that,
"The line as reproduced by the Coast and Geodetic Survey fails to confirm the terminal phrase of the above quotation."
None-the-less, Allexey located and placed a cast iron monument at the terminal point of the survey, and took his pay. That monument later figured in an interesting request for reimbursement. W.H. Salisbury wrote to the Coast and Geodetic Survey asking for a reimbursement of $100 he had spent on their monument. It seems he found the monument in the bank of the river where it had fallen after being undermined during high water. Figuring it was important, he hired a group of Mojave Indians to help him move and re-erect the end post. He noted that he had set it up on a prominence further back from its original location, apparently not aware of the need for the monument to be where the end point of the line was. When the resurvey of Allexey's line was completed in 1899, the monument was found to be 150 yards northeast of its original location.
Allexey's line, now known as the Von Schmidt Line, was superceded by the new survey in 1899, but continued to be a source of confusion for many years. The new survey actually crossed the Von Schmidt line in two places, courtesy of Allexey's willingness to cut corners in his corrective actions. The two states continued to argue about which was the correct line, as land was involved.
In 1980, the matter finally went to the United States Supreme Court. The case, California v. Nevada, 447 U.S. 125, was heard and the matter finally adjudicated. A Special Master was appointed to review the history of the case, and make recommendations to the Court. James Thompson, Special Deputy District Attorney, assisted by Richard H. Bryan, Larry D. Struve, and Harry Swainston argued for Nevada, while Jan S. Stevens, Assistant Attorney General of California, assisted by George Deukmajian and N. Gregory Taylor, argued for California.
The ruling was eventually that the two states would have to live with the lines as drawn. The portion of the Von Schmidt line from Lake Tahoe north was deemed the border between California and Nevada, even though it was acknowledged to be slightly wrong by the law. The southern, or oblique, border was held to be the one surveyed in 1893. The Special Master, in his notes, stated,
"It later turned out that his corrections were not complete, and his line was not entirely straight. But linear or not, his work did generate a boarder. And, although neither State adopted it by statute, the Von Schmidt survey won gradual acceptance in both California and Nevada.
By the 1880's, however, substantial doubts about the accuracy of the oblique segment of the Von Schmidt line were voiced in Washington. As a result, Congress appropriated funds in 1892 for a new survey of that segment. The survey was undertaken…It yielded a new oblique line and determined that the one charted by Von Schmidt had been neither straight nor accurate…"
Allexey's line has figured for over a century in land title disputes and interstate land disputes. Even the GIS, a branch of the Fish and Wildlife Service today, has a special designation in its listing of Political Boundaries it recognizes. Listed under section 090 0203 - Historical Line is the following comment;
"This code applies only to the Von Schmidt line along the California and Nevada border. Any other historical lines shown on the map (such as the boundaries of old Indian, military, or lighthouse reservations) are not collected in the DLG, unless the limit public lands, in which case the are collected in the U. S. Public Land Survey System."
After his involvement with the border survey, Allexey became involved in shipping. He owned two ships, the schooner Ariel, and a barkentine call the Frances Palmer. These were active between San Francisco and Acapulco and other South American ports. He continued to work on the San Francisco harbor, inventing a pump for dredging and pile driving. He worked on the Oakland part of the harbor as well.
He was also noted for his fearlessness. During the 1877-78 Dennis Kearney Anti-Chinese riots in San Francisco, Allexey is credited with raising a local militia group and keeping arms for the group in his home. When a riot was threatened, he, it is said, raised his men and they confronted the Kearneyites.
His own reaction to danger can be gauged by an incident on a stagecoach ride through Trinity County. The coach was held up, and Allexey climbed out on the step on the opposite side of the stage from the robber, who became distracted by an armed man aiming at him. The stage was able to take off, and Allexey would have shot the robber, except for the fact that the robber fell over the embankment of the road. Allexey then caught up with the Stagecoach, and was later presented with a $1,000 gold watch by Wells Fargo and Company for keeping the strongbox safe.
Throughout his life, Allexey continued to work on his efforts to sell Lake Tahoe to San Francisco, making his final pitch to the city in 1900. His personal life was filled with tragedy. His eldest son died at the age of 19 in a maritime accident. His wife Francis Mott, whom he married in 1853 in Benicia, California, died in 1875. The couple had seven children, three of which were stillborn. Another son committed suicide.
Allexey continued to promote his efforts throughout his life. He was not a saver, using his income to spend lavishly and live well. His later years, living in Alameda California, were, as noted in his obit, "spent in humble surroundings." In the same obit, it was opined that, had San Francisco bought into his scheme for a water source from Lake Tahoe, maybe the city would not have been destroyed by the great earthquake and fire which happened one month before his death. While obviously this opinion does not take into account the broken water mains and other problems that helped the fire, it was an opinion that apparently Allexey held before his death.
It is not clear from the records whether Allexey Von Schmidt was a member of the Ancient and Honourable Order of E Clampus Vitus, but he should have been. He was willing to take on huge projects, and see them through to the level of completion required by the letter of the contract. He was willing to take a stand, and have a good time while doing so. May the members of the brotherhood never forget him.
I would like to especially thank Patricia Keats, Library Director for the Alice Phelan Library of the Society of California Pioneers for her help with making available the Society's biographical file on Allexey Von Schmidt.
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