By Mark Bennett
CLARK COUNTY, Ill. — The last few minutes of sunlight flicker through the trees along the Wabash River bank.
Bob Colvin isn’t enamored with the scenery, at the moment. He’s bothered, but undeterred by mosquitoes that have just detected a rare appearance of humans in this remote spot, thick with woods, weeds, sand burs and grasshoppers. Colvin uses a golf tee to scrape moss and dirt from an engraved inscription on a stone marker.
Eventually, its message is revealed …
“159 MILES AND 46 CHAINS TO LAKE MICHIGAN.”
Colvin looks up and tells a newspaper reporter, “You’re looking at something very few people have seen — not in a long time, anyway.”
Maybe less than two dozen people in the past 185 years, he estimates.
Yes, one of Illinois’ most historic and relevant landmarks is also all but forgotten. The weathered monument, originally set in 1823, marks the beginning point of the straight, Illinois-Indiana state line. To the north, that border runs 159.359 miles to a far more visible monument in Chicago, just outside the gates of the Commonwealth Edison State Line Generating Plant. To the south, the Wabash River’s lower 200 miles divides the two states until its confluence with the Ohio River takes over that duty.
Now, surveyor groups in Indiana and Illinois want to protect the monument site. That happened at the border’s north end, where the Lake Michigan state line marker was restored and repositioned in 1988, and declared an official Chicago landmark in 2002. The 15-1/2-foot tall obelisk is that city’s oldest existing structure.
At the very least, the Indiana and Illinois surveyors want to set up a fence around the obscure southern state line marker. “It’s something that we want to get done, because we’d lost that point for years,” said Bob Church, executive director of the Illinois Professional Land Surveyors Association.
Near Dog Run Holler
The quest to rediscover that boundary point wasn’t exactly an Indiana Jones mission. Still, Colvin, a lifelong surveyor, ended decades of speculation of the stone’s survival when he literally stumbled onto it in December 1986.
“I was pretty thrilled the first time I found it,” the 61-year-old Colvin recalled last month, “because we weren’t even sure it still existed.”
Back then, his boss, Dale Francis — founder of the Paris, Ill.-based engineering and surveying firm Francis Associates, which Colvin now runs — told Bob he’d always been interested in locating that monument. So, while working on a different project, Colvin asked the locals at a Marshall, Ill., job site if they’d ever seen or heard of that boundary stone. He ended up talking with Emory Elliott, who ran a fishing shack near the Darwin Ferry.
Elliott didn’t know the stone’s exact location, but knew where it should be. The clue was a fence post near the river’s edge. Fishermen understood that post stood parallel to the state line, indicating to boating anglers the last point where an Indiana or Illinois fishing license was valid. Armed with Elliott’s information, Colvin went on an expedition to find the stone.
Reaching the target area, east of Marshall in Illinois and west of Prairieton in Indiana, is an adventure. Colvin, who’s visited the site numerous times in the past 22 years, still relies on highly detailed surveyor maps each time he goes back. On a return trip last month, he stopped his four-wheel-drive SUV at a rural Clark County crossroad to study the map.
“When we get to Dog Run Holler, we’re almost there,” he told a passenger, before laughing.
After winding through the countryside, Colvin reached a narrow dirt road and turned onto it. Until just a few weeks earlier, remnants of the June flood left that path impassible, and probably submerged the monument. In two spots, lingering mud holes proved tricky. Then it ends, giving way to a vast stretch of ground, covered with recently planted trees — a federal government set-aside land, Colvin explained. About a mile of walking followed until he found the general vicinity of the stone.
Tall weeds hid the marker, which was originally 5 feet, 6 inches tall, and 18 inches square, with a curved top. Annual flooding has piled up silt and leaves around it, so that only the top 2 feet remain exposed.
Finally, Colvin whistled when he relocated it last month.
On his initial search in ’86, the monument almost revealed itself to him. “I just was walking around [looking for it], and tripped over the dang thing,” Colvin remembered.
Stone holds mysteries
An act by the sixth Illinois General Assembly authorized Guy W. Smith to create and set “a hewn stone, of at least five feet in length and fifteen inches in diameter” and be placed on the line dividing the states as “it leaves the Wabash River,” according to a 1987 Tribune-Star story about Colvin’s rediscovery. As that legislature directed, “INDIANA” is inscribed on its east face, and “ILLINOIS” on its west side. Its north surface describes the distance, in surveyor terminology, to the northern border point: “159 MILES AND 46 CHAINS TO LAKE MICHIGAN.” Surveyors measured distances with chains, which are 66 feet long and include 100 links 7.92 inches in length.
The marker contains some mysterious oddities. Someone carved “E.G. 1939 NOV. 4” into its crown, apparently 69 years ago. And the stone’s original engraver, perhaps Smith, inexplicably etched the N’s and the D backward in “INDIANA.” Residue left by rising Wabash waters has accumulated around the stone, nearly covering some of its inscriptions.
A six-man search team in 1927 went looking for the state line stone, and they found it buried in mud. A year later, on Sept. 4, 1928, teams from Terre Haute and Paris reset the border monument, according to a 1987 recount by then-Vigo County Historian Dorothy Clark. They also set two new limestone reference markers, 15 feet to the south and north of the monument, to help future surveyors locate the spot. But river mud now threatens to overrun those 2-foot, 6-inch stones, and covers half their vertical “INDIANA” and “ILLINOIS” lettering.
Legal, historical significance
Preventing the site from disappearing is the goal of the Illinois surveyors and the Indiana Society of Professional Surveyors. They hope to erect a fence around the monument during a 2009 gathering of a national group — the Surveyors Historical Society. They hope to base that meeting in Marshall next June, if its newly restored Harlan Hall is available. During that rendezvous, they also plan to use modern global positioning system equipment to see how close the original 19th-century surveyors came to plotting an accurately straight north-south state line.
“Surveyors like to think we’re within an inch in a mile,” said Roger Wheatfill, administrator of the Surveyors Historical Society. “But in those days, they may have been off 30 feet. But it doesn’t matter.”
Those discrepancies wouldn’t matter because territorial law recognizes the original surveying markers and points as the legal borders, regardless of their flaws.
The state line stone near Marshall was set, most likely, due north of the old Indiana territory capitol building in Vincennes, Wheatfill said. Men plotting out Illinois and Indiana 185 years ago probably used an astronomic system, he added. They used fixed celestial points, such as the North Star, to set directional lines for state borders and townships.
The land west of the 13 original United States was plotted under a method devised by Thomas Jefferson, Church explained.
A monument such as the one on the secluded Wabash bank is a lasting reminder of that legacy.
“We’re just trying to make people aware of the history of the thing,” Wheatfill said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (812) 231-4377.