U.S. Coast Survey Had Rocky Start, Now Vital to Mariners

Happy birthday to the U.S. Coast Survey, which is 216 years old on February 10th

It was on this date in 1807 that Thomas Jefferson signed an act to provide for surveying the coasts of the United States. The Coast Survey work has continued from that day forward. Even today, the Coast Survey is active, now as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Ferdinand Hassler (Photo courtesy of Virginia Center for Digital History)

A brief history of the Coast Survey

The process to survey U.S. coasts began when the U.S. looked quite different than today. In 1807, the U.S. consisted of just an Eastern seaboard and 17 states.

The man who started it all was Ferdinand Hassler. Once he got the job to be our country’s first coastal cartographer, Hassler realized he needed better equipment. It took until 1811 for him to get the funds. He promptly went to England that year to purchase the survey equipment. While in England, he got caught up in the War of 1812! Hassler couldn’t return to the U.S. and get started on his first coastline until 1817, six years after he had planned to begin the project. His first map was the New York coastline.

It wasn’t until 1832 that a civilian U.S. Coast Survey was established (which took away authority from the U.S. Navy). Hassler became superintendent.

Here are a few more interesting snippets from NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey:

  • Coast Survey commissioned famed naturalist Louis Agassiz to conduct the first scientific study of the Florida reef system. 
  • James McNeill Whistler, who went on to paint the iconic “Whistler’s Mother,” was a Coast Survey engraver. 
  • Alexander Dallas Bache, great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin, was the second Coast Survey Superintendent. Bache was a physicist, scientist, and surveyor who established the first magnetic observatory and served as the first president of the National Academy of Sciences.

The work of charting our coasts continued through the Civil War, World War I and World War II. The Second World War, unlike any other time in our history, accelerated coastal mapping for wartime advantage. The Coast and Geodetic Survey (C&GS), as it was called during World War II, grew to about 10,000 employees. Many civilian members became commissioned officers. Together, they produced 100 million maps and charts for the Allied Forces. 

Hassler’s triangulated mapping of Long Island Sound. (Photo courtesy of NOAA)

In 1970, President Richard Nixon formed NOAA and folded in C&GS into the new scientific agency. Some of C&GS historical charts, in fact, can still be purchased.

Coastal charts are a huge aids to safe navigation

Thanks to this incredible ongoing effort over the past two centuries, a mariner can order any NOAA coastal chart online. Charts depict the configuration of the shoreline and seafloor. They also provide water depths, locations of dangers to navigation, locations and characteristics of aids to navigation, anchorages, and other features. 

For even greater detail, the 10-volume NOAA Coast Pilot Series can also be purchased. This series includes channel descriptions, anchorages, bridge and cable clearances, currents, tide and water levels, prominent features, pilotage, towage, weather, ice conditions, wharf descriptions, dangers, routes, traffic separation schemes, small-craft facilities, and Federal regulations applicable to navigation.

This wealth of information all started back in 1807, when coastal charting was done completely by hand, thanks to an act by Thomas Jefferson and a determined cartographer, Ferdinand Hassler. 


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