United States Topographical Service Marker

Along East Jefferson Avenue on the campus of Old Mariners Church
near the entrance to the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.


The Topographical Engineers in a bureaucracy that owes its existence to the War of 1812.

The Revolutionary War, for the most part, was fought along the East Coasts, although there were several skirmishes in Indiana but none in what is now Michigan.  President Madison’s theory of the War of 1812 was that United States forces—primarily volunteers—could easily invade and then wrest control of Canada from the British.  That, in his view, would force the British to agree to stop attacking American merchant ships on the high seas and to stop impressing seaman from American ships into the British Navy.  President Madison assumed the British would agree to the demands of the United States in exchange for the return of Canada.

President Madison’s theory of the war did not work out in practice. The war ended, in 1814, was basically a stalemate, but one that was quite favorable to the United States commerce on the seas.  It also gave the United States the ability to remove Indians from the Midwest, allowing western expansion.  One reason that the United States failed to conquer Canada was the impossibility of amassing and then supplying large number of troops who were willing to fight in Canada.  In part, that problem arose because of ignorance of the topography of the United States.  For example, Territorial Governor William Hull intended to recruit troops in the East, Ohio and Kentucky and march them to Detroit where he intended to invade Canada in August, 1812.  He found that he had to build roads from eastern and southern Ohio across the great swamps that covered northern Ohio.  And then, when he assembled men in Detroit, he found it impossible to get food and munitions from Ohio for geographic and logistics reasons.

Congress, on March 3, 1813, established a corps of topographic engineers within the war department with the explicit purpose of exploring routes for the movement of the troops and to conduct surveys for military purposes.  This authorization may have expired at the end of the War of 1812, but in 1816, the corps was once again authorized and assigned to supervision by the Chief Engineer of the War Department.  In 1838, a Topographic Bureau was established, one that included the Corps of Togographical Engineers.  This turned out to be an extremely successful if brief lived governmental agency.

There are extensive histories of this Corps.  Shortly after the War of 1812, the Corps carried out numerous explorations of the Midwest.  At this time, of course, there were numerous military confrontations with Indians as the new American settlers sought to make the upper Midwest safe and prosperous.  By the 1820s, the Corps focused upon internal improvements.  At that time, almost all travel was by water so there were numerous studies of harbors, potential harbors and waterways.  By the 1830s, the Corps was carrying out surveys for canals, roads and then for railroads.  After Michigan became a state, the Corps established an office in downtown Detroit near the site of the historical marker shown above.  The state’s first governor, Steven T. Mason, strongly promoted building two east-west railroads across the state and then northern transportation axis that might be a canal or railroad or some combination of both.  While the state was able to sell some bonds for these internal improvements, they proved to be very difficult to finance.  I believe that Governor Mason prevailed upon the Corps of Topographic Engineers to survey at least some parts of the central rail line that eventually became the Michigan Central Railroad.

Is the Corps of Topographical Engineers responsible for the discovery of iron ore in the Upper Peninsula?  There is debate about this and several individuals have been credited with being the first European to discover iron ore in Upper Michigan.  William A. Burt, the ingenious man who invented the magnetic compass, worked as a surveyor in the Upper Peninsula.  He is credited with discovering iron ore in what is now known as the Marquette Range on September 19, 1844.

The Corps of Topographical Engineers played an important role in exploring and surveying the landscape of the United States west of the Mississippi in its years of existence: 1838 to 1863. Congress, on March 3, 1863, ended the existence of the Corps of Topographical Engineers as a distinct bureaucratic organization since they were merged into the Army Corps of Engineers.

History of the United States Topographical Engineers: http://www.topogs.org/History.htm
Book describing history of this corps: Frank N. Schubert(editor), Nation Builders: A Sesquicentennial History of the Corps of Topographical Engineers: 1938-1863  (University Press of the Pacific, 2004)
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places:  P25,168; Listed October 23, 1957
State of Michigan Historic Marker: Put in place  June 27, 1997
Photograph:  Ren Farley
Description prepared: July, 2012


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