“Clear and warm. Run north eight miles to the Dakota line. Billy came along with the wagon, and we ate dinner three miles from the north line. Then we run out and closed on the State line, three miles from the northwest corner. We then tried to trace the line west but could find no more trace of it until we got to the corner, where there is a large stone monument marked 27 deg. W Long Wyoming, 43 deg. North Latitude. About seven o’clock, we went a mile or so S.E. and camped on Indian Creek. About eight o’clock it began to thunder and cloud up and look black; and pretty soon it commenced raining and hailing and the brightest lightning I ever saw. Some of the hailstones were about as large as hen’s eggs.”
--Harley Nettleton journal, June 22, 1883
The stone monument Harley Nettleton, a chainman on a surveying crew, refers to in his journal marks the Common Corner, which designates where Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming meet. When George Fairfield’s crew, including Nettleton, checked in at the monument it was already nearly 14 years old.
Surveyor Oliver Chaffee placed the limestone corner marker Sept. 6, 1969, and the Sioux County Historical Society commemorated its 150th anniversary over the weekend with a program at the museum in Harrison before its annual Historical Trek.
Chaffee traveled from Omaha by train to the Julesburg, Colo., area with an assistant, arriving there in May 1869, said Dawes County Surveyor Philip Curd. From there he traveled the lines of the southern Nebraska Panhandle, using his knowledge of astronomy to set posts along the borders. By mid-August of that year, Chaffee had set the corner marker of the southern Panhandle border between Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado and headed north.
“What this guy did in 1869 was pretty amazing,” Curd said. Chaffee’s markers were wooden posts, as were many survey markers at the time, but he chose a limestone monument for the Common Corner.
“That was made special in a quarry somewhere around Sioux Falls,” Curd said.
By 1874, the border between Nebraska and Dakota Territory was established by surveyor Chauncey Wiltse along the 43rd parallel of latitude. When Fairfield’s crew arrived to subdivide 23 townships in Sioux County, Nebraska, in 1883 Nettleton began keeping his journal, describing long days, inclement weather and other day-to-day events. Though the crew checked in at Chaffee’s Common Corner, Fairfield actually created a different corner 450 north of Chaffee’s monument, closer to Indian Creek. Fairfield also changed the South Dakota-Nebraska border between the corner and mile post 221 to the east by about three miles, according to documents at the Nebraska State Historical Society.
Later surveys, however, invalidated Fairfield’s work, including one by Joseph Jenkins in 1893. Jenkins work aligned with that of Chaffee and Wiltse, and he placed a second taller monument next to the original limestone marker.
Surveyors often had a challenging time locating previous wooden post markers, so Jenkins set stone monuments instead.
“These things are huge. They’re five to six feet long,” Curd said.
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Surveyors notes and journals from that era offer up a slice of early pioneer life and a wealth of history, he continued. Nettleton’s journal, for example, provides a bit of insight into the end of the open range period. On June 21, 1883, a ranch owner approached Fairfield about surveying along the river while they were in the area. Fairfield agreed to do the job for $5 per mile.
“A lot of these guys (ranchers) were waiting for surveyors to come through because there were properties they wanted to claim,” Curd said.
Old roads and telegraph lines – anything of significance – were marked on the land maps. Notes by a surveyor in Sheridan County mention seeing Dull Knife and his band crossing in front of the surveyors in the mist.
“There’s a lot of history in this area, and you see it on these maps,” Curd said.
Surveyors traveled on foot, walking 15-20 miles or more a day, camping each night.
“What these surveyors did was interesting and it was hard work,” he said.
When Chaffee set the Common Corner market 150 years ago, Nebraska was already a state, but the land was still considered a territory to the north and west. Both the Chaffee and Jenkins monuments were straightened in 1988, in a restoration effort led by Surveyor Rollin Curd, Philip Curd’s father. The rehabilitation included erecting a fence around the monuments, placing a bronze plaque and guest book at the site and an official commemoration celebration on Sept. 6, 1989. A brass cap was also placed on Chaffee’s original monument.
“The monuments were leaning badly, but represented tremendous courage and ability by early day surveyors,” Rollin Curd said at the time, according to an article in the Harrison Sun. “The South Dakota Centennial Celebration seemed a fitting time to restore and stabilize the monuments.”
The 1989 ceremony was the conclusion of two days of events sponsored by historical societies from Sioux County, Nebraska, Fall River County, South Dakota, and Niobrara County, Wyoming. The large brass plaque was presented by representatives from the Professional Land Surveyors Associations of those three states and Colorado.
Last year, the plaque was replaced as it had become nearly unreadable, and the fence and guestbook stand were also repaired. The Common Corner is located on private property, owned by Dan Jordan, and road conditions make it difficult to reach.