Ferdinand Hassler

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No. CCCXLVI --- MARCH, 1879 --- Vol. LVIII


FERDINAND HASSLAR - First Superintendent of the Coast Survey

hassler.JPG (48372 bytes)"In human progress within the present century there has been no greater marvel than the operations of the Coast Survey.  We are apt to lose sight of the perils encountered by our early navigators, when, without charts to guide them over the great highway of waters, and in vessels poorly equipped, they "hove to" at night as a matter of safety.  Whenever a disaster occurred, no telegraphic agency communicated the harrowing details to the remotest corners of the earth ere the next roll of the sun.  Many a gallant craft, drifted from her course by the infinite maze of currents produced by the tides, the Gulf Stream, and the winds combined (now threaded out and mapped), of which mariners then had no conception, was cast helpless upon shores bristling with every form of danger--never to be heard of more.  The various steps through which knowledge of the ocean has been acquired, and the hazards of ocean travel diminished, are illuminated headlands in the history of the world.....

It finally became apparent to the powers upon this new soil that, as an economical necessity, a national duty must be performed.  The United States, with a foreign commerce of six hundred millions of dollars, more or less, in which some twenty thousand vessels were engaged, employing upward of two hundred thousand seamen, to say nothing of the coasting traffic which involved three times as many more vessels and men, and of the passenger ships with their precious burdens entering and leaving our ports from every part of the habitable world, was roused into natural solicitude for life and property.

It was in 1807 that the first effort was made to establish a national Coast Survey.  Jefferson, in his message to Congress, recommended it; and Congress cautiously appropriated fifty thousand dollars.  Secretary Albert Gallatin then addressed circulars to the principal scientific men of the period, soliciting opinions as to the best methods of conducting the proposed work.  Numerous plans were submitted.  That of Ferdinand R. Hasslar, a native of Switzerland, was finally adopted.  He had accomplished a trigonometrical survey of his own country, and, fresh from scientific researches, was esteemed well fitted to superintend the execution of his plan.  His purpose was to determine the geographical position of certain prominent points along the coast by astronomical and trigonometrical methods, and to connect these points with lines so as to form a basis upon which the nautical survey of the channels, shoals, and shore approaches could be made.

The magnitude of the task compelled special preparations.  In 1810 Hasslar was sent to Europe to procure instruments, standards of measures, and other necessaries.  The war followed, and he was detained in England until 1815.  Other delays, naturally attending new enterprises, prevented operations until 1817, when a beginning was effected near the harbor of New York.  Before much had been accomplished, or the first annual report drafted, Congress, in blank dismay at the pressure upon the public finances through the effects of the war, abandoned the support of the work.  There was a lapse of ten years, during which knowledge of the Atlantic coast increased only through detached surveys of a few of its most important harbors by the navy and topographical engineers of the army, and through the services of Edmund W. Blunt and his sons.

Government was finally wakened from its long nap by Secretary Southard, and after much discussion the Coast Survey was re-established, with Hasslar at its head.  He was authorized to employ astronomers and other scientists, in addition to the officers in the military and naval service.  The real work commenced in 1832.  But Hasslar was hampered and embarrassed continually by limited appropriations.  His operations were not of that character easily seen; Congress wondered continually what he was about.  While he was systematizing methods and training assistants, Congress was shrugging its shoulders and clamoring because results were inadequate to the expenditure.  Hasslar was an eccentric man of irascible disposition and great independence of character.  On one occasion a committee from Congress waited upon him in his office to inspect his work.

"You come to 'spect my vork, eh?  Vat you know 'bout my vork?  Vat you going to 'spect?"

The gentlemen, conscious of their ignorance, tried to smooth his ruffled temper by an explanation, which only made matters worse.

"You knows notting at all 'bout my vork.  How can you 'spect my vork, ven you knows notting?  Get out of here; you in my vay.  Congress be von big vool to send you to 'spect my vork.  I 'ave no time to vaste vith such as knows notting vat I am 'bout.  Go back to Congress and tell dem vat I say."

The committee did "go back to Congress" and report, amid uproarious laughter, the result of their inspecting interview.  

When Hon. Levi Woodbury was Secretary of the Treasury, under Jackson, he and Hasslar could not agree as to the compensation to be allowed to the superintendent, and Hasslar was referred to the President at whose discretion the law placed the settlement of the dispute.

"So, Mr. Hasslar, it appears the Secretary and you can not agree about this matter," remarked Jackson, when Hasslar had stated his case in his usual emphatic style.

"No Sir, ve can't."

"Well, how much do you really think you ought to have?"

"Six tousand dollars, Sir."

"Why, Mr. Hasslar, that is as much as Mr. Woodbury, my Secretary of Treasury, himself receives."

"Mr. Voodbury!" screamed Hasslar, rising from his chair and vibrating his long forefinger toward his own heart.  "Pl-e-e-n-ty Mr. Voodburys, pl-e-e-n-ty Mr. Everybodys, for Secretary of de Treasury; v-o-ne, v-o-ne Mr. Hasslar for de head of de Coast Survey!" and erecting himself in a haughty attitude, he looked down upon Jackson in supreme scorn at his daring comparison.

President Jackson, sympathizing with a character having some traits in common with his own, granted Hasslar's demand, and at the close of the next cabinet meeting told the joke, to the great entertainment of the gentlemen present.

Through his entire administration Hasslar was obliged to combat with an immense amount of unenlightened interference; and yet prior to his death in 1843 he had pushed surveys from New York eastward to Point Judith, and southward as far as Cape Henlopen.


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