3. The United States Geological Survey

HENRY ADAMS said of Clarence King that he had induced Congress to adopt its first modern act of legislation, the establishment of a civil — not military — government survey. And when Adams went west to spend a summer in Estes Park and the Uintas he felt that he was spying on the land of the future, and that the future was in the hands of the men of King’s Survey, who “held under their hammers a thousand miles of mineral country with all its riddles to solve, and its stores of possible wealth to mark.” 1

The emphasis upon wealth is characteristic, but not damaging. Adams, if not King, was quite as interested in the riddles. But to think in purely mineral terms of this “first modern act of legislation,” or of the West, was to succumb to the same limitation of vision that afflicted King. In his initial survey of the 40th parallel it was probably legitimate, even necessary; in the conduct of the United States Geological Survey it was not.

King had made the Geological Survey into a scientific advisory bureau for the use of the mining industry. His principal achievement as director was to compile, in collaboration with the 10th Census, a statistical survey of mineral resources and production in the country, a report which he completed after his resignation. This, as Mineral Resources, was thereafter an annual publication. But King had evaded the job of classifying the public lands and had submitted to the frustration of working only on the public domain. His organization had been purely regional, with branch offices in Denver, Salt Lake City, San Diego, and Colorado City. His staff had been the small nucleus left to him from his own and Powell’s discontinued operations plus a few men from the Hayden and Wheeler surveys. His budget had been a modest $106,000 the first year, $156,000 the second.

Now came one whose conception of the future lying under his hammer was far more than mineral, who conceived geology to be no less than the science of the earth, and to include not only the economic mining geology of King but all earth history, earth sculpture, the laws of orographic change, the dawn and development of life, the discovery and mapping of the nation’s resources of land, water, soil, timber, minerals, coal, oil. Powell was a government scientist in a way King never was. He believed more fervently that government should undertake research for human good. He understood scientific knowledge to be not only abstract but practical. Its immediate end was policy implemented by legislation, and its ultimate end was the improvement of man’s lot and of man himself.

Since he had created the Geological Survey practically single-handed, he had a very definite idea of what it ought to be doing, but during King’s directorship he had had no official connection with the Survey and had acted only as a consultant and as a substitute when King was out of the office. The last few months of his first fiscal year as director (from March through June, 1881), and all of his second year, he spent tidying up the jobs that King had left. During that time he undertook only one thing on his own, a thing so characteristic that it could almost have been predicted like the working of a natural law. He acted upon a roily situation as glycerin acts upon certain cloudy liquids: he precipitated, settled, clarified. The first roily situation he encountered as director involved the conventions of geological mapping.

Those conventions in 1881 were as little uniform as the nomenclature of American ethnology. Symbols, conventional colors for the hundreds of kinds and ages of rock, even the names of the great periods of earth history, differed from country to country and from scientist to scientist. European practices, diverse themselves, did not match American, equally diverse. Powell might have waited until the International Geological Congress met in Bologna in the summer of 1881, since it planned to take action on precisely that problem. He might have, but that was precisely what he did not choose to do. Perhaps he feared the influence upon the Congress of Lieutenant George Wheeler, lately deposed and disgruntled. Wheeler was a delegate to the Bologna meeting and he fancied himself as a cartographical authority and historian,2 a judgment in which Powell did not concur. Perhaps Powell disliked the thought of a European system enforced upon American science. Perhaps he saw a chance to count coup and enhance the prestige of the young Geological Survey. Perhaps he was simply moved by his impatient urge to systematize sciences whose very alphabets were uncertain. Whatever his reasons were, he pushed through in a few months a strenuous study of geological map conventions, and in his first annual report (the second of the bureau) he published a system of symbols, nomenclature, and map colors that with some revisions has remained the American standard and has forced considerable modifications upon European conventions.3 Rushing to squeeze through ahead of Wheeler and the Congress, he trod on some toes — he would have said justifiably. He was no Spencerian convinced that Progress and the evolution of institutions come inevitably by a system of laissez faire. In his conception of social evolution, intelligence took hold of its environment.

He could throw his weight where it counted, and damn the toes. Any bullheaded man could do as much. But Powell could also play at sleight-of-hand as deftly as the best. The House Resolution expanding the Geological Survey’s duties nationwide, for which King had unsuccessfully fought, had been frustrated for numerous reasons, but principally because some members of Congress feared federal encroachment on the states even in science, and because the Coast Survey jealously fought it. In the spring of 1882, having cleared up King’s leftovers and reorganized the bureau in his mind, Powell asked a quarter of a million dollars for an expanded program, and he saw to it that a bill extending the Survey’s activities into the states was introduced. That bill passed the House but was killed by scientific States‘-rightists in the Senate, and Powell was exactly where King had been. So he asked his old friend the Appropriations Committee for permission to add a short phrase to the Geological Survey section in the Sundry Civil Bill. The phrase added to the Geological Survey section the words “and to continue the preparation of a geological map of the United States.” 4

That did it. He was past the watchdogs before they saw him move. For to prepare a geological map of the United States he had first to prepare a topographical map: there was no adequate one in existence. And to make a topographical map of the United States he had to go outside the public lands to which King had been confined. A small leak in the legislative dikes can let a lot of authority through. By so simple a trick Powell emancipated the Geological Survey and made it into a bureau with national jurisdiction.

The regional offices that King had established were discontinued, and the Survey reorganized according to the work of the various divisions — geology, topography, paleontology, chemical and physical studies. Hayden was still a taciturn hangover on the payroll, permitted to work at his home in Philadelphia. But the Hayden group was further shouldered aside when Powell induced Marsh, still president of the National Academy, to become head of the paleontology division and allowed him to make his Yale museum virtually the paleontological headquarters of the Survey. Geologists and topographers trained in the Western surveys were at hand — Gilbert, Dutton, Hague, Becker, Emmons, Pumpelly, Peale, Holmes — all King, Powell, or Hayden men. Mapping was directed by Hayden’s topographer Henry Gannett, assisted by Thompson and others of those who had learned surveying in the Plateau Province and the Great Basin. The disbursing officer, McChesney, had been taken over by King from Wheeler: before too long Powell moved his own clerk Pilling into the place. Charles Walcott, destined to succeed Powell as director in 1894, had been brought in from the New York State Survey, and Bailey Willis and other bright young men were steadily fed into the Survey by the universities. The day of the amateur was past.5 So was the day of the twopenny appropriation. In the first year of his directorship Powell contented himself with the $156,000 that had been King’s portion the year before, but the next year he jacked the appropriation up above a quarter of a million, and the next year to a third of a million. In 1884-85 he reached $489,000, and in 1885-86 he topped a half million dollars, fabulous for the time and for a mere bureau.

Even before he got the budget up to where he could feel comfortable about it, he had put himself in an almost impregnable position. The peculiarities of the organic law relieved him of the necessity of specifying individual salaries or expenditures in his budget requests; he got a lump sum. In 1882 he clinched his independence by obtaining from the Secretary of the Interior an authorization as Special Disbursing Agent for the Survey. That gave him a completely free hand in spending, and put all the great and growing powers of his bureau into his one personal fist. From the standpoint of his enemies, and he had them, the Geological Survey was a little empire run by a despot and kept under control by favors, jobs, and publications. Created by a rider on an appropriation bill, its jurisdiction extended nation-wide by a piece of trickery, its staff packed with personal friends and protégés of the director, its scope widened by the inclusion of the Bureau of Ethnology which now became almost an annex run by the same clerical staff, the Survey impressed some as a sign of government responsibility and farsightedness, and others as an unprincipled grab of power. Powell was a Success Story around the capital; he was also, and increasingly, a target.

Mr. Science. The High Priest. But he did not — and nobody ever accused him of this — turn either his power or his inside knowledge of resources to personal gain. And if he consolidated his position as craftily as Grant besieging Vicksburg, he did so in the sure knowledge that power in Washington was characteristically unstable and fleeting, and that only a consolidated position could withstand the inevitable counterattacks.

He did not want to be dislodged. He wanted to last, for he had many things to do. Among them was another of those basic pre-chores that he was always running into, a job of summary and systematization impossible until the continental nation had been opened and reconnoitered, but indispensable the moment it was.

He wanted to map, carefully, with a consistent system of symbols and colors, and on a scale large enough to serve all normal foreseeable uses, the 3,000,000 square miles of the United States.

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