Joseph Smith Harris - Coast Survey

Coast Survey

In 1853, Harris took a job as a topographer for the North Pennsylvania Rail Road Company, which was under construction. He left this job after a year, becoming an astronomer for the U.S. Coast Survey. Upon joining the Coast Survey, Harris worked at Station Yard, Philadelphia, in the late fall of 1854 where he was engaged in checking earlier triangulation and astronomic work. By mid-November, this work was completed; Harris was assigned to the Coast Survey vessel Phoenix in the Mississippi Sound. His older brother Stephen was a Sub-assistant on the Survey, and it seems that sibling rivalry played a significant role in his work. Although he displayed many quirks of personality, Joseph Harris was meticulous in his work; his autobiography provides, among other things, an idea of Coast Survey shipboard life in the 1850s.

The trip south was not without its hardships: Harris suffered from diarrhea on the Mississippi River and within a few days of his arrival at New Orleans, he contracted typhoid fever, which nearly killed him. Luckily, he was able to stay with an uncle who was a physician, and who nursed him back to health. After a month in bed, Harris proceeded to the Phoenix, then at Mobile, Alabama, arriving in January 1855. Stephen Harris was put in command of the Phoenix in May. The work of the surveyors was made difficult by the large populations of insects—everything from mosquitoes to flying cockroaches—that inhabited the coastal swamps and marshes, by the dearth of clean water, by the arrest of some of the crew after a brawl, and by hurricanes, all of which are described in Harris' autobiography.

During his year on the Phoenix, Harris and his crew performed triangulation along the coast from Pascagoula, Mississippi, to the entrance to Lake Pontchartrain, a distance of about sixty miles (100 km). With the arrival of winter, the commanders left the Phoenix; when the weather turned colder, Harris was required to lay up the vessel for the remainder of the winter. He returned to Coast Survey headquarters to complete some drafting and other engineering work, and resigned from the Survey in the Spring of 1856.

Harris took a similar position with the Kentucky Geological Survey, but he resigned after one month in July 1856 and returned to the Gulf of Mexico to complete his earlier work. The following March, Harris was hired as an astronomer for the Northwest Boundary Survey.

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