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As It Was: 1878: Surveyor Places Instruments on Mount Shasta Summit

In the summer of 1878, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey sent Benjamin Colonna to place precision instruments on the 14,179-foot summit of Northern California’s Mount Shasta.  He spent nine days and nights there, subsisting on cold food, except coffee and some toasted cheese.  He lost 15 pounds and yearned for hot soup.

He wrote a detailed account of the assignment, noting that his 750-pound outfit was carried nearly to the summit from Mount Shasta City “on the backs of 20 stout Indians” accompanied by their women, babies and skinny dogs.  He said they considered the summit “an emblem of purity, nor will they defile it even with tobacco-juice.”

He signed a badly weathered climbers’ register and copied some earlier entries, including “If anyone catches me up here again I hope they will pitch me over into the McCloud River” and “I hope all fools will reach this place in due time,” and “(we) promise not to come here again.”

Perfect weather on Aug. 1, 1878, allowed his instruments to measure direct-line distances to similar devices on far-off mountain summits, including 292 miles to Mount Helena, at the time a world surveying-distance record.

Sources: Colonna, Benjamin A. "Nine Days on the Summit of Mt. Shasta." NOAA History: A Science Odyssey, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Central Library, 8 June 2006, www.history.noaa.gov/stories_tales/shasta.html. Accessed 29 Apr. 2017.

Kernan Turner is the Southern Oregon Historical Society’s volunteer editor and coordinator of the As It Was series broadcast daily by Jefferson Public Radio. A University of Oregon journalism graduate, Turner was a reporter for the Coos Bay World and managing editor of the Democrat-Herald in Albany before joining the Associated Press in Portland in 1967. Turner spent 35 years with the AP before retiring in Ashland.