NOTE: “Peculiar Work,” the title of this blog, is borrowed from an article written by Massachusetts surveyor and cartographer Edward G. Chamberlain a century ago. He was describing his unique avocation, the rewards of which could only be measured by his own rigorous standards. The following essay about Chamberlain is included in my 2012 book, Peculiar Work: Writing about Benton MacKaye, Conservation, Community (see “Books, etc.” page), as adapted from an article that appeared in the May, 2002 edition of AMC Outdoors, magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club.
“All this lifetime of peculiar work will be lost when I am gone,” lamented Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) member Edward G. Chamberlain in Appalachia in 1922, “for no one else understands just how to use it or would have patience to do it.”
A self-trained surveyor who died in 1935 at the age of 90, Chamberlain compiled and drew meticulous panoramas from some of New England’s best-known elevations—whether the Custom House Tower and State House in Boston or the summits of such mountains as Washington and Monadnock. His aim over the course of more than 50 years of this careful, solitary, unpaid work was to chart accurately the hills, mountains, large buildings, and other prominent features visible from dozens of observation points throughout the region.
In Chamberlain’s orderly mind’s eye, the landscape of New England was covered with a spider web of sightlines. Over the years he filled 200 field notebooks with 10,000 angles from 200 lookout points in the six New England states. “My instruments, method, formulas and tables, modified from Coast Survey data, I have invented for my special work,” he once explained. “A great deal of data and of geodesic corrections is carried in my head.” By the time of his death, Chamberlain—”a man of remarkable patience and perseverance,” in the words of AMC leader Harvey N. Shepard—had completed 52 panoramic maps and gathered the measurements for 18 more. Only eleven of the panoramas were published in the AMC’s journal, Appalachia; the rest, along with other maps created by Chamberlain, are filed in the AMC library.
Chamberlain’s work came to mind when I gave a talk about Benton MacKaye, who first proposed the Appalachian Trail. A member of the audience asked whether Maine’s Katahdin could be seen from the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock, well over 200 miles distant. My interrogator cited a 1949 article by MacKaye as the source of this assertion. MacKaye was a long-time resident of Shirley, Massachusetts, from which Monadnock is visible to the northwest.
In fact, MacKaye had made no such claim, but had written that points in each of the six New England states were visible from Monadnock, which he called “the symbol and watch-tower of New England.” And I suspect he may have relied, at least indirectly, on Chamberlain’s scrupulous work to support his statement. Annals of the Grand Monadnock (1936), a book MacKaye owned and often consulted, used one of Chamberlain’s maps to support the conclusion that Monadnock offered that sweeping six-state regional prospect. The book, written by Massachusetts conservationist and longtime AMC leader Allen Chamberlain (a friend, but no relation, of Edward), confirmed that the visible point in Maine was not Katahdin, but the modest, much more southern 692-foot Mount Agamenticus, just inland of Ogunquit, “north of east . . . 76 miles off.”
Edward Chamberlain’s panoramic maps represented only one aspect of his cartographic interests. He had shown up at an 1879 walk to Prospect Hill in Waltham, Massachusetts, sponsored by the three-year-old AMC. He joined the club in 1881, at the invitation of club leaders J. Rayner Edmands and Charles E. Fay. During his more than half-century with AMC, he compiled detailed maps of almost all of the estimated 1,000 club “Saturday walks” in which he participated, mostly in the greater Boston area. The process entailed the creation of five drafts of each map and five full days of work. “These maps are not sketch maps nor souvenir maps,” he explained in an essay written in the early 1920s. “The author tries to make a precise meander survey of every rod of the route, to locate accurately those interesting objects that commercial map makers cannot afford to locate. Also they are intended to preserve old names and historical sites, and are got up with great care.” Chamberlain claimed that he had distributed 35,000 copies of his reproduced blueprint maps and panoramas to his fellow club members.
Allen Chamberlain once asserted that the Saturday walk maps compiled by his friend “possess an unquestioned historic value. Already [he was writing in 1933] some of the earlier maps reveal the cultural changes that have come over sundry portions of the metropolitan area in the past few years, and they will become increasingly valuable as time goes on.”
Since boyhood, Chamberlain had taught himself the tenets and techniques of geodesy, the science of measuring and depicting Earth. During his years as a student at Boston’s English High School, he had been inspired by the work of another legendary Massachusetts surveyor, Simeon Borden, whose triangulation map of the state provided a benchmark for the extension of similar triangular surveys across the United States. Without a professional education or degree, Chamberlain spent most of his early career as a clerk and bookkeeper, while pursuing his mapmaking obsession as a hobby. Among his early projects were extensive observations from the cupola of the Massachusetts State House; a map of the route of the Middlesex Canal, from Lowell to Boston Harbor; and a careful survey of the lower stretches of the Charles River, a project comprising 30 maps.
Chamberlain’s surveying skills were well regarded outside of hiking circles. Eventually, the Massachusetts Topographical Commission employed him during the 1880s and early 1890s to complete an ongoing survey of town boundaries—the only time during his long life that he actually earned his living as a surveyor. Virtually singlehanded, he established the corners of 52 towns. “To the amazement of other surveyors,” Allen Chamberlain recalled at the time of his friend’s death, “and to some extent to their amusement, Mr. Chamberlain was accustomed to carry his transit about in a water pail, the tripod over one shoulder, an axe in his belt, and a one-hundred foot steel tape in his pocket. As he was allowed nothing for horse hire he traveled by foot.”
Chamberlain’s self-discipline and his eccentric, solitary habits were partly the product of his extreme hearing loss; the disability frustrated easy communication and conversation with his fellow AMC members, some of whom regarded their hiking companion as gruff and unapproachable. Describing his procedure for developing the first draft of one of his outing maps, he provided a wry, poignant self-portrait of his sense of isolation among the AMC members to whom his work was devoted. “In the field, from the depot, author records compass direction, counts steps to first bend. Another stop at each little bend, then run to catch up, for party don’t wait, counting paces all the way. Records are made in ½ mile sections,” he wrote. “The author must keep his mind fixed constantly on the survey, never see or speak to anyone, never get acquainted. A slight error, a missing path, and somebody gets lost in a swamp some Sunday afternoon.”
At least some of his tramping companions appreciated his company and efforts, though. To most, he was known as “the active and silent elderly man . . . who accompanied many of the walking parties, mapping in detail the routes of the excursions as he went along,” Allen Chamberlain wrote. “Those who enjoyed his intimacy knew him to be a genial companion and a wittily entertaining talker.”
Chamberlain’s panoramas were distinctive, though. His dedication to panoramic mapmaking reflected a popular approach to the depiction of the recreational and scenic mountain landscapes of New England in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Early guidebook writers, such as Thomas Starr King and Moses Foster Sweetser, included in their publications detailed, sometimes florid descriptions of summit views. “The early guidebooks devoted little time to describing the trail, evidently assuming that the hikers of that day could find their way once they knew where the trail started—or that they would hire a guide,” according to mountain historians Laura and Guy Waterman. “The view from the summit, on the other hand, received lavish attention, reflecting the continuing influence of the Starr King era’s absorption with sublime scenery.”
Before venturing out with his AMC companions to a New England summit, Chamberlain would spend days computing angles, making sketches, and studying photographs and even ads published by hotels and railroads. No wonder, then, his frustration if he wasn’t able to carry out his work: on one AMC trip to Moosilauke in 1890, “it rained every day, and I saw nothing. . . . Others went for a good time and had a good time, rain or shine. To me it was a dead loss.”
On a successful outing, Chamberlain submitted his observations to three tests: “Is the angle correct? Is the description correct? Is there any similar object nearly in line that might be mistaken for it?” He usually repeated this creed in the terse articles in Appalachia that accompanied his panoramic maps, which were drawn in an exacting and unique pen-and-ink style. Four horizontal panels, stacked one atop the other, depict the full 360 degrees of the horizon, with outlines of dozens of features sketched in. His panoramas, he observed, “are not based on photographs, and, intentionally, are not even accurate sketches of the views. They are intended as guides to views, and are purposely distorted in order to better enable visitors to identify the points shown.”
“Many a case of mistaken identity has been rectified through his careful observations,” Allen Chamberlain wrote of his friend’s labors. Indeed, some of his panoramic maps were undertaken to settle longstanding claims about the visibility of one mountain from another; he took a certain wry satisfaction in debunking conventional legends and lore about the region’s geography. In response to an AMC member who asked if Mt. Washington “could be seen from any other point in Massachusetts besides Mount Greylock,” Chamberlain wrote a long, detailed 1922 Appalachia article documenting his claim that Washington “was not visible from Greylock, and that I had seen it only from two Massachusetts points, Wachusett Mountain and Powow Hill in Amesbury.” (The mountain mistaken for Washington from Greylock’s vantage, Chamberlain asserted, was southwestern New Hampshire’s Croydon Peak.)
He also enjoyed telling the story of how he set straight no less august a personage than U.S. Senator George Hoar. The venerable politician had faulted Chamberlain for not including Lafayette and Washington, in the White Mountains, in his published panorama from Asnebumsket Hill, just outside Worcester. Hoar, a resident of that city, “said they had been identified for him by a prominent civil engineer from New Hampshire, and offered to take me up and point them out,” Chamberlain laconically related. “[Hoar] showed me the two Uncanoonucs for Washington and Lafayette, and a New Ipswich [New Hampshire] hill for Kearsage.” Senator Hoar, we are left to assume, accepted Chamberlain’s corrections with equanimity and raised no further objections to the panoramist’s geographical claims or qualifications.
Chamberlain’s panoramas constitute one man’s punctilious, obsessive form of landscape art. Today his panoramas still provide an accurate, entertaining, and informative tool for taking the measure of the landscape, as I have learned while using them on such open summits as Monadnock and Chocorua. A careful observer could, with compass or GPS, some experience, and a dose of intuition, match the silhouettes of mountains and other landscape features with the names and contour lines on a modern trail map or a USGS topographic map. But Chamberlain’s panoramas are considerably more fun to use. They place the observer at the center of a local geographic universe.
Looking outward, over New England ridge and range, as far as the eye could see, Edward Chamberlain carried an idiosyncratic mountain-scape in his well-trained mind. In an 1883 article meticulously describing his observations from the Blue Hills just west of Boston, he commented on the view from the highest summit of that range, which he measured at 635 feet. “For extent and variety combined,” he wrote, “the view is unequalled in this State, except by that from Wachusett, embracing as it does city and country, sea and mountain, pond and river, and all in large measure.” From that vantage point, he noted, he had “identified some prominent building in one hundred and twenty-five villages.”
Is there a lesson in Chamberlain’s almost Zen-like patience, his assiduousness, his evenhanded respect for the gentlest suburban hill as well as the most rugged White Mountain peak? Edward Chamberlain’s endeavors were both solitary and sociable. His fastidious maps were his gift to fellow AMC members, representing the amateur spirit in its essential form. Chamberlain’s concentric cartography—a “lifetime of peculiar work”—was truly a labor of love.
A Note on Sources
Bound volumes and many looseleaf copies of Edward Chamberlain’s outing maps and panoramas are held by the Appalachian Mountain Club Library and Archives, located at AMC’s Highland Center at Crawford Notch, New Hampshire.
Writer and long-time AMC leader Allen Chamberlain provided two sensitive appreciations of Edward Chamberlain and his mapmaking endeavors: “The Club’s Unofficial Geographer,” Appalachia, June, 1933, pp. 490-492; and an extensive obituary, Appalachia, June, 1936, pp. 84-86.
Edward Chamberlain offered a comprehensive discussion of his methods and findings in an article, “Seeing Mt. Washington from Massachusetts,” which appeared in Appalachia, December, 1922, pp. 293-300; the article is accompanied by a panorama from Powow Hill, in Amesbury, Mass., which he described as “the Northeastern Watch-tower” of the state. Some of his others maps and panoramas, with accompanying commentary, were also published in Appalachia. These include (but are not limited to): “The Blue Hills,” April, 1883, pp. 122-129; “Altitudes in Massachusetts,” July, 1885, pp. 132-145; “The Panorama from Bunker Hill Monument,” May, 1902, pp. 50-52; “The Panoramas from Ram’s Head and Prospect Hills,” April, 1901, pp. 334-336; “Panorama from Monadnock,” April, 1924, pp. 446-447; “Panorama from Chocorua,” December, 1924, pp. 75-77; “Panorama from Pleasant Mountain,” June, 1925, pp. 167-168; “Panorama from Asnebumsket Hill,” December, 1926, pp. 497-498; “Panorama from Bellevue Hill,” June, 1928, pp. 51-51; and “Panorama from the Custom House Tower,” December, 1928, pp. 151-152.
Allen Chamberlain, in the original edition of his 1936 book, Annals of the Grand Monadnock (Concord, N.H.: Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests), included a copy and description of Edward Chamberlain’s panorama from that mountain’s summit in a chapter titled “The View” (pp. 108-111). Benton MacKaye’s comments about Monadnock, including the statement that it “is the one and only point in sight of every New England state,” are from a letter to the editor, titled “A Mountain and a Man,” in The Fitchburg Sentinel, dated February 2, 1949. Laura and Guy Waterman, in Forest and Crag: A History of Hiking, Trail Blazing, and Adventure in the Northeast Mountains (Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club, 1989), pp. 195-198, provide a characteristically thorough, thoughtful discussion of nineteenth-century mountain guidebooks, including the era’s emphasis on detailed descriptions of summit views.♦