'm not sure when exactly I got interested in the Manhattan Street Grid. Probably in the early "oughts". I think I read some internet stuff at one point and found the "Commissioners Plan of 1811".
The "Commissioners" were appointed by the state to come up with a plan for the future street grid of Manhattan. One John Randel, a surveyor, was engaged to survey the whole Island and subsequently (from 1811 to 1820) survey and mark each future street. I was astounded that the streets were laid out that long ago — and the commissioners even specified which streets were wide, like 34th or 42nd Streets. I remember once sending in a quesion to the NY Times F.Y.I. column asking if any of the Randel markers were known to still exist. My question never got published and I don't remember if the editor ever replied.
Somewhere along the line I learned that some of the markers were iron bolts, but most of them were marble monuments. Most of them were set at the NE corner of the street intersections. I also read somewhere that the farmers and land owners were not inclined to have streets going through their property and they sometimes dug up the markers and threw them away.
I had been wondering if any of the 100 odd iron bolts were still around since they would have been more durable. They were used when bedrock prevented a marble monument from being set. I figured most of either type would have been lost when the streets were developed and the parks were landscaped. Central Park was where I thought there would be the best chance of finding a bolt.
I was fairly haphazard in looking for them — I made some maps of the streets that intersected in the park but I had no idea of where bolts, as opposed to marble monuments, were set.
It was over two year's later that I learned of their discovery and set out to make my own search (next section). And it was not until 2008, that this discovery started to enter the public conciousness:
The location of the bolt in the picture was not specified but it was on a rock outcrop (not buried) in what seemed like an open area with grass around the outcrop. How hard can that be to find?
I had ordered the book over the internet on December 15, 2006 (yes, I keep records back to the founding of the Third Age), and it probably came just before Christmas. What with Christmas and the New Year, there was not much time to study it. But after the New Year I must have gotten a real bug. So on January 10, 2007, I decided it was time to get up to Central Park and find the d*mn thing.
I had lunch that day with my friend Susan. It was a chilly winter day, but with bright sunshine. We had lunch in midtown and I had my camera. At about 1:00 PM I said goodbye and said I was going up to the park to do some exploring and to take some pictures. I headed up one of the Avenues and I decided I would be very methodical in my search for that bolt.
Although I had guessed the bolt was probably in the north end of the park, I figured since I was at the south end I might as well just head up and make my way north through the park, searching along the line of one of the avenues. Since it was winter, the park's trees would be without leaves, so I would have a good chance to sight along the streets off to one side or the other whenever there were good sight lines, starting at 60th, 61st etc. all the way to 110th Street if necessary. It looked like this could be a very long day.
Whenever I came to one of the transverses (at 65th, 79th, 86th, and 97th Streets) which are set below the grade of the park, I had to go over to the park drive, cross over the transverse and then work my way back to the line I was following towards the north and resume my search on the other side of the transverse.
Just as I finished one of these detours, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a miniature sleigh, no, sorry, when what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a rusty old bolt with a cross, and quite square!
Over the next several years, I showed my find to maybe half a dozen friends. I instictively knew that this should not be publicly advertised since vandals or "souvenir" hunters would always pose a danger — to say nothing of the Parks Department which might destroy it if some kid tripped over it and bumped his nose.
After I started I realized I needed a better scheme to conduct my searches. No I didn't try to put all the locations into my GPS, I was still searching using just my eyes and following the lines of the avenues and streets. But to enable me to traverse the various parks where I couldn't see the surrounding streets (either for lack of sight lines due to hills, or in summer when all the trees are in leaf), I made screen shots from Google maps and drew lines across from the surrounding streets and avenues so I could use these as maps with my hand drawn lines serving as the street grid inside the parks. The Randel Farm Maps were not available (unless you got permission to see them down at the Manhattan Borough President's office), so I didn't know which intersections had iron bolts, and which had marble monuments.
We met in the park on October 21th, 2008, and I showed him the marker. But it had been damaged! A corner of the iron bolt had been cut by what appeared to have been a hack saw, leaving several cut marks and a small piece of the original missing. He thought that it was probably hit by a mowing machine rather than cut by a vandal.
Here is what it looked like (Note: this photo was taken about 5 months later in March, 2009. On the day we first discovered it, the cut was much newer looking, with little or no rust). He said he would make sure the grounds keepers would stay clear of this marker in the furure.
And that's where things stood late in 2008.
I took the subway and got to the vicinity about 20 minutes before my meeting time — plenty of time just to walk along the line across the park. When I got there, I realized I was really lucky because with the foliage gone, I could actually see through the trees to the other side of the park where the avenue picked up again. So with map in hand, and my target in sight, I started out. Unfortunately I could not see the cross streets due to the topography so I could only guess where the intersections were. That and given that I did not know whether bolts or marble monuments were used in this segment. So basically I didn't know what I was looking for or where to look for whatever it was.
After about 10 minutes of scrambling around trees and bushes, I came to a spot with large rocks on either side of a little flat spot just strewn with trash. Now since it was a highly unlikely spot for a homeless person to hang out, perhaps this small spot offered just enough shelter from wind, rain and the force of gravity for years of trash to accumulate. You could also say that when you venture beyond Central Park, the parks in our great city don't get a lot of maintenance.
But when I got to this spot, there was a bolt, just like the Central Park bolt, up on the point of one of the rocks!
I had found the iron bolt on a Saturday but did not have my camera. The following Monday I went back and took a bunch of pictures including the ones
On Wednesday March 18, I sent them the following email (editied for clarity and to omit personal and location information):
My name is Richard G., a retired engineer and an avid hiker, runner, history buff and survey marker finder.
One of my goals was to find any surviving Randel monuments. I thought Central Park was the best place to search and explored it off and on from about 2005. I made maps using Google Maps and aligned the streets which would have crossed the park. I'm sure you went through much the same process.
Then Rhonda Rushing's "Lasting Impressions" came out, and there on page 20 was a picture of one of the iron bolts together with a photo of Mr. Morrison. I also found Mr. Rose-Redwood's masters thesis online and and it was clear that the two of you had been working together.
After some searching I found "your" bolt in January 2007:
But much like yourselves, I continued seaching for other bolts both within and outside Central Park.
To make a long story short, I decided one particular park had the potential of having another marker so I made a hand made map (a Google Satellite screen shot with a red line drawn across it) and came up with a simple search strategy.
The time came last Saturday as I was doing a long run with some friends through some of the parks. I planned to meet them about half way. I arrived a bit early and did my search across the park following my so-called map. About half way across, bingo - There was another one! It's similarity to the first one is unmistakable and it was right on the line of the avenue, so I am satisfied that it is authentic. It is pictured in the next photo.
If you find yourself with an afternoon free and feel like doing some exploring, I would be more than willing to bring you to the location of this second find.
I very quickly got a response from Lemuel Morrison:
I saw your e-mail and lept from the conference I am attended and hooked my computer to read your e-mail in detail. That's great that you found another. I am very, very interested.
As for going out on a weekend, let's do it. I do want to go out before foliage comes out so that we can use GPS in RTK mode. That way I can locate it much more easily.
Thank you for reaching out. --Lem
I subsequently met up with "Lem" and he made his measurements of this "Other Bolt". He later introduced me to Marguerite Holloway, who was working on a book about John Randel, and we visited the bolt again. She was equally enthusiastic that a second bolt had been found. We also discussed the damage done to the Central Park bolt and what could be done about it. Over the next few years we worked together in search of other Randel markers in a number of city parks, and the rest, as we say, is history. Unfortunately I have never had a chance to meet up with Rueben, although in his response he said he was anxious to see the new discovery the next time he passed through the city.
Over the years since discovering this bolt I have taken a number of people to see the bolt. One was Celeb Smith whose photos of this find have made their way onto the internet (). I am not aware of anyone who has found this bolt on their own although one person figured out where it was but could not find it (see below). If you do find it, please tell me.
There was also a book, , by Hilary Ballon, editor, published concurrently with the exhibit, of which I have a copy. It is a great resource giving the text of all the pertinent documents. The book has a photo of the Central Park bolt (but does not give its location).
Sometime after the exhibition, they also put together an excellent web site, adding a good deal of material not shown at the exhibition, of the history of all the phases of laying out, surveying and implement the New York City street grid: .
Unknown to me at the time, the Randel Farm Maps, which were kept at the Manhattan Borough President's office, were to be digitized and put online as part of The Greatest Grid exhibit. I had heard earlier from Marguerite that there was a project to digitize them but I never knew how or when that would happen or that it would be connected to the museum exhibit.
The plan took shape in several phases:
Another map, based on Randel's, was published a couple of years later (without Randel's knowledge, permission or attribution —
aka a plagiarization) by another surveyor, William Bridges. This was a copper engraving and was widely available in the years following the issuing
of the Commissioners plan. Here's an online copy of the Bridges Map: .
In the Remarks of the Commissioners, March 22, 1811 (part of the Commisioners Plan) the state commission defined the layout of the streets shown on the map. The Plan specified that streets and avenues would be laid out from river to river and from 1st Street to 155th Street. Randel then surveyed each and every street and set marble monuments (or iron bolts where there was bedrock) at each intersection. He kept detailed logs of the surveys (which took close to 10 years) in a set of 44 "Field Books" and also created 92 highly detailed maps of each area (showing all the monuments set, property lines, houses etc.) called the "Farm Maps". At this point, I had never seen any of the Field Books or a Farm Map.
Astonishingly, he had figured out where to look for it from the Randel Farm Maps, which I had never seen. Quoting him (and editing out the location):
"I pored over the Randel Farm Maps and found a likely suspect. Most of the intersections now exist and their marble monuments would be long gone, but at the corner ... the map notes a "Bolt in N.E. point of a Rock." That intersection is inside a park, and was never graded as a street. … So today I [traversed] ... the park about where I thought those intersections would have been. The rock is certainly there (as is the garbage), but I couldn't find the bolt."
Of course the first thing I did was follow the link he gave for the maps and look for "My" bolt — and sure enough, not only was the bolt shown on the map, but Randel had written a little note about its placement on the rock. Here's the map: Three things struck me:
Since he had already found his way there but not spotted the bolt, I offered to take him there. Unfortunately, we never worked out a date and eventually we lost touch. But thank you Ethan, you were a great help in my searches.
had met Bob P., a member of the Central Park Conservancy, at a reception in June, 2014. He was interested in Randel Monuments and the street grid, especially in Central Park. To say we hit it off would be an understatement. We had coffee one morning a couple of weeks later and he introduced me to Jim M. who volunteered as a guide at the New York Historical Society. A week later (July 22nd), I went to the Historical Society, and with Jim's help I found my way around the library catalogue and did some research on things that interested me. The first was the Old and New Croton Aqueducts as they traversed Highbridge Park (remember Highbridge Park?). See this article I wrote, for what came of that. The second item of interest were the Randel Field Books, which are kept at the Historical Sociaty.
Well, I filled out the form on the library computer, and about 15 minutes later a set of 4 boxes arrived containing 45 notebooks, each about 4 inches by 8 inches. At first they were indecipherable. But slowly I got the pattern and midway through the second box I found a book with the title page "John Randel Junr / Survey of ... avenue / August 1813". Paydirt! This one little notebook detailed Randel's survey of "my" avenue from it's very start all the way north to its end. This would be the last link between my bolt and John Randel. I scrambled through the pages (the cross street numbers were at the top of each page) and finally found the cross street where my bolt was found.
Below you will see portions of two pages: the first one shows the details of the measurements of the segment of the line to my bolt. I'm only beginning to understand all the numbers, but it's beautiful to see it in his own hand — remember, these were hand written in the field over 200 years ago! And there at the bottom of the page, below the measurement from the previous street to my street, it says: "This Falls on Rock". That's our baby!
Now I can unequivocally say not only is my bolt genuine, but that its position was surveyed on Monday September 6, 1813. Now that's pretty impressive.
Invites you to
Before Central Park: Uncovering the Fort Landscape
A presentation on the Fort Landscape that integrates new discoveries about its history, spanning the past 200 years
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
The title was "Before Central Park: Uncovering the Fort Landscape". The subject matter was the British occupation of the area in the northern part of Manhattan during the revolutionary war and the American encampments in the same area during the war of 1812. The invitation had a picture, a watercolor, from 1814 of Fort Clinton (Just east of the East Drive between 106th and 107th Streets, just as the drive starts down the hill) and a photograph taken in 2014, 200 years later, of the same spot.
On the left is the invitation (slightly edited for size).
Being an aficionado of both Central Park and it's place in history (I had written an essay, in 2010, which I mentioned above) I was eager to go.
The presentation had plenty of illustrations including many from the early 19th century.
The historical context, given by Steven Jaffe, pointed out the sorry state of New York City from about 1776 to 1783 under the British occupation. The British had constructed major fortifications in this area and a large number of troops were billeted here over that 7 year period, providing much grist for the archaeological mill. In contrast, when the American's rebuilt and added to the fortifications in the 1812-1814 period, there was considerably less impact on the environment.
CPC's own Sara Cedar Miller then gave an overview of that part of the park and its recent evolution. Interestingly, Robert Moses, ever the builder (of buildings, highways and empires), did little with this area and for much of his tenure it was abandoned and fenced in.
Richard Hunter, whose firm specializes in "Urban Archeology", gave the longest part of the presentation, showing the many diggings that were done and artifacts found including some of the fortification walls and the roadbed of the Kingsbridge Road.
It was very well done and I learned a great deal. And I look forward to sometime in the (hopefully) not too distant future, when this material will enter the public domain in the form of publications, signage, displays etc.
Late in the presentation, my ears really perked up when Richard Hunter mentioned
We had a short conversation after the presentation and I told him of my interest in Randel's surveys and markers — and I got his business card so I could follow up, since I knew some of his work came very close to several of Randel's iron bolts and marble monuments.
Over the next several days we had a brief email interchange. I told him I was particularly interested in a bolt that was near one of the forts of the Fort Landscape. He said they didnít see any sign of a bolt there but at another spot he said he had noticed a small white piece of stone embedded in the grass, and he added, "This might merit a closer look."
|DIMENSIONS:||Overall: 41 x 8 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. ( 104.1 x 21.6 x 21.6 cm )|
|DESCRIPTION:||Upright rectangular marble surveyor's monument with carved number "26" on one face and "4" on another; surveyor's cross-marks carved on top.|
|MARKS||carved: on face: "26" and "4" carved: on top: "+"|
|GALLERY LABEL:||This surveyor's monument stood at the corner of Fourth Avenue and East 26th Street, where it had been placed under direction of the Commissioners appointed by the New York Legislature in 1807 to lay out streets on Manhattan Island north of Houston Street. It was dug up in 1890 during excavations for the old Madison Square Garden and was on display there near the Tower elevator until 1908|
|CREDIT LINE:||Gift of the Madison Square Garden Corporation|
The next thing I did was to carefully check the Randel Farm Map of this area and note any special topographic features (streams, outcrops etc.). The map is to the right and you can see that this particular street intersection was just to the east of a fairly prominant rock outcrop. My experience has been that features like this on these old maps can disappear when landscaping (or the opening of streets) occurs so its existence in the current day park is not a given.
So, with this information in hand it was time to get out there and check things out. The time came the next week, on September 26. I was out for a run with my friend Susan and we stopped at the spot to find this thing, whatever it was. When we got near the spot it was easy to spot; the rock outcrop was there (although much diminished — only the southern portion remained above ground) and the nearby white stone shone brightly in the sun.
We went over to investigate, and I noticed the grass had grown over the stone on the margins, so I scraped and pulled out the grass (forgive me Central Park Conservancy for messing with the grass! ), and what had been a small stone became a medium sized stone. But how big? Susan said stretch your hands across it and we'll figure it out from that. So I did, and she took a shot of my hand stretched across the stone with her iPhone.
When I got home I looked at the iPhone picture she had taken and measured my hand span with a ruler. It was 8 to 9 inches (obviously, I'm no Van Cliburn!). That was very encouraging since that is just the width of the Randel monument in the museum (see above) — but there was no cross engraved on top, just a small hole drilled in the center. But the top was very eroded, so for the moment, I put that discrepancy aside.
Marguerite is an expert on John Randel and has recently published the book, , (W. W. Norton, 2013) which chronicles the career of John Randel. She has worked with Mr. Morrison over the last decade in the search for these markers. I met both of them in my documenting of my find of the second known Randel iron bolt found (detailed above). So I sent off an email to them with what I had found and suggested "let's go check it out."
After some discussion, we agreed to meet there on October 18th. There wasn't really a lot we needed to do.
Lem did the main thing by taking measurements of the stone's location and elevation. He said the satellite visibility was very favorable. He would have to do some post-processing and would let us know as soon as he could run the numbers. He also noticed that the stone was on line with the building line visible beyond the park, something I had not noticed on my earlier visits. He did say the hole in the top center of the stone was unusually narrow for something made in the early 19th century.
After a few days, Lem sent an email and attached this readout from his CAD system (note: grid north is to the right).
He stated: "It looks like a Randel monument. It's within 1' of it's expected location. ...
Attached is what it looks like in CAD. ... The numbers are the technical info from the point as represented in CAD:
Richard responded the same day that "That is wonderful and truly interesting news." He said he was delighted we got to investigate further and to measure the location with GPS and said he has shared our findings with the Conservancy. I heard from Marie Warsh, Director of Preservation Planning at the Conservancy about a week later and they thanked us for sharing our findings and indicated that they would indeed investigate the stone and utilize Richard Hunter's team for the project.
I sent them a good luck email the day before the "dig":
Lord Carnarvon: "Can you see anything?"
Howard Carter: "Yes, wonderful things."
I hope you all see wonderful things tomorrow.
. . .
On that Tuesday, my wife and I flew out to Colorado where we would spend the Thankasgiving holiday with my son and his family and with our daughter. Naturally, while everyone was thinking about turkey and filling each other in on the latest goings on in our families, I kept thinking "What did they find? Was it the real thing?"
To say I was surprised and delighted would be an understatement! Three more marble monuments and another iron bolt! The park is crawling with these things. . Announced in no less than a New Yorker web site article and a "Meetup" for the cognoscenti! Wow!
But anyone who knows me would realize that there was no way I would sit at home waiting for the story to be published or for the get-together to take place. And although Marguerite was true to her word to the Conservancy and didn't tell me where these additional monuments were located, nobody said I couldn't look. Three days later, on the day after Christmas I found one and five days after that on New Years Eve day I found two more. Piece of Cake!
But just knowing these things were there and having a fair idea of where to look — plus my "hawk eyes of a surveyor" — made these finds doable. And ironically, two of the finds were in spots I had searched several times over the years but never saw these monuments. I was looking for iron bolts and I never studied the Randel Farm Maps for this area and just assumed if any markers were left, they would be bolts. Put anothert way, if you're not looking for marble monuments, you won't find any.
So the last email I sent in 2015 was to Marguerite saying I had "found them all". But we would keep this to ourselve so as not to spoil the fun the Conservancy project manager would have sharing the details at the get-together which would follow the publication.
I let a number of my friends and family know about the article and received many responses. The two most often repeated questions were "When are you going to write it up for your blog?" and "When can you show it to me?"
Well, this post is my answer to the first question, and as for the second, I have been asked not to disclose the location of any the monuments until they finalize the plan. So you'll all just have to wait.
But it's now public knowledge that there are more Randel markers out there just waiting to be found, so get out there and start looking!
In the note from the CPC which I got back in December, we were told that in the New Year we will be getting together with some colleagues, historians, and others to share the details of these discoveries. The CPC tried to schedule this in early February, but the weather and ground conditions precluded this. Several months more went by and I was busy with other persuits such as a trip to Washington D.C. in early April for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. When I got back from D.C. I got a note from Marie that the get-together was on again for Friday the 12th. Horray!
On the morning of the 12th, under sun and blue skies, I met with the group. It was about 10 people including Marie and two other CPC folks, Richard Hunter and the two archeologists from his company who had done the work of finding the monuments, Marguerite, folks from the city and the parks department and an assortment of educators, historians and other various experts. And we were not there just to go treking around the park looking at various sites, but also to lend our experience and opinions on how best to preserve and protect the monuments and how best to presnt the discoveries to the general public. I was impresssed by such a well informed and stimulating group which gave valuable input to the CPC on these issues.
But the the most surprising thing that happened was not on the agenda. It turned out that my list of the three additional monuments I had found, was not the same as the CPC list. They had found one that I had missed and I had found one they had missed. So there is another newly discovered Randel Monument out there — that makes five!
After we had cheked out several location where the CPC had found monuments, I led the group over to where I had found the "extra" monument that was not on their list. There was not a little surprise from the group, since it is in a fairly developed area of the park where one would not expect a monument to survive after all these years. We're all still absorbing that news. And one wonders how many more might be out there?
And on that note I'll put away my quill and take a break from John Randel.