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History of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey: Part 1

M.E. Ostrom, 1988
Originally published in The State Geological Surveys: A History
© 1988 Association of American State Geologists
(revised 1996)

Historical sequence of organizational name

    State Geological Survey, 1853–56
    Geological and Agricultural Survey, 1857–62
    Survey of the Lead District, 1870–72
    Complete Geological, Mineralogical and Agricultural Survey, 1873–82
    Geological and Natural History Survey, 1897–present

Names and titles of organizational directors and dates served

    Edward Daniels, State Geologist, 1853–54
    J.G. Percival, State Geologist, 1854–56
    Edward Daniels, Ezra Car, James Hall, Joint Commissioners, 1857–62
    John Murrish, Commissioner, 1870–72
    Increase Lapham, State Geologist, 1873–74
    O.W. Wight, State Geologist, 1875
    T.C. Chamberlin, Chief Geologist, 1876–82
    E.A. Birge, Superintendent, 1897–1900
    E.A. Birge, Director and Superintendent, 1900–19
    William O. Hotchkiss, State Geologist, 1908–19
    William O. Hotchkiss, State Geologist, Director and Superintendent, 1919–25
    Ernest F. Bean, Acting State Geologist, Director and Superintendent, 1925–26
    Ernest F. Bean, State Geologist, Director and Superintendent, 1926–31
    Ernest F. Bean, State Geologist, 1931–52
    George F. Hanson, Acting State Geologist, 1952–53
    George F. Hanson, Director and State Geologist, 1953–72
    Meredith E. Ostrom, Director and State Geologist, 1972–90
    Ronald G. Hennings, Acting Director and State Geologist, 1991
    Juergen Reinhardt, Director and State Geologist, 1991
    Ronald G. Hennings, Acting Director and State Geologist, 1991–92
    James M. Robertson, Director and State Geologist, 1993–present

Historical development

The origin and history of state geological surveys reflect people’s changing attitudes and concerns for resource development and environmental management.

—Ostrom (1984)

Wisconsin’s geological surveys trace their origin to public concern for economic development as expressed in an editorial in the Madison Argus on October 10, 1848, which urged that the geology of the state be investigated.

It is a credit to the editor of the Argus that in the year of Wisconsin’s statehood he recognized the potential value of a geological survey. Prior to 1850 the science of geology was in its infancy and there had been few geological surveys of the region. At that time the need for geological surveys was voiced principally by miners, who understood the value of geologic maps and scientific information in their search for minerals. Two surveys were commissioned in Wisconsin prior to 1850; both were in the southwest lead region. These two surveys, along with a limited investigation by G.W. Featherstonhaugh in 1835 and an extensive and detailed investigation employing more than 140 men by David Dale Owen in 1839, failed to satisfy the needs of miners, who considered the reports of limited use. The Wisconsin Territorial Select Committee agreed with the miners and in 1840 concluded that little information of practical value was contained in the Owen report. This unfortunate conclusion can be attributed to administrative bungling, which transformed an elaborate and complete report with maps and illustrations into a printed “abridged and mutilated form, minus many important maps, and in insufficient quantity” (Lake, 1962, p. 43).

Interest in creating a geological survey continued during the period of early statehood from 1848 to 1853. However, in 1852 proposals to establish a state geological survey to Congress and to the state Legislature failed under the continued pressure of lack of funds. Then, as now, without the incentive afforded by scientific information, entrepreneurs were reluctant to invest venture capital. Thus, lead mining and production declined and the economic development sought by Governor Henry Dodge and the Territorial Assembly was stalled for want of geologic information. Thus, very early in its history Wisconsin developed a sense of the need for and the role of a geological survey supported by government.

The First Survey: Edward Daniels, 1853-54

On March 25, 1853 the Legislature created Wisconsin’s first State Geological Survey with an annual appropriation of $2,500 for four years. The Survey’s enabling act carried the seed of future legislative discontent because of the misconception that a state geologist and one assistant could “... complete a geological and mineralogical survey of the entire state...” (Lake, 1962, p. 127) in four years. There was no appreciation of the difficulty and man-hours required to conduct such surveys or that the accuracy and detail of geologic maps and reports is dependent on availability of basic information such as rock outcrops, rock cores, and cuttings from wells and exploration drillholes, and on concepts and technologies available at the time of their preparation. It was not understood that geological surveying involves extensive field study, laboratory analysis, and research. Nor was it recognized that geological surveying is a continuing process of integrating and evaluating new information, concepts, and technologies with the old as a basis to provide accurate and timely interpretative maps and reports for resource and environmental decision-making and policy-setting.

Governor Leonard J. Farwell appointed Edward Daniels as Wisconsin’s first State Geologist. Daniels was a “Political Apothecary,” a “Professor in the College at Waukesha,” and a “Lecturer on Kansas Affairs” (Bean, 1937, p. 204). His political interests and inclinations likely contributed to his early departure from office, for with the election of a new governor, Daniels was removed from office.

In the Survey’s first year Daniels spent a considerable amount of time mapping in the lead region of southwest Wisconsin and produced the Wisconsin Geological Survey’s first annual report (1854, 84 pages) dealing principally with this region. In the report he recognized the importance of mineral production statistics and mineral specimens to his work and he urged that these be sent to the Survey. Daniels observed that the lead mines were in transition, that near-surface deposits had been mostly worked out, that lead ore likely occurs in deeper rock formations, and that future mining would be forced to greater depths that would require more detailed scientific information if the industry was to continue.

Daniel’s report was received favorably by the Legislature and a special committee recommended that the state survey be continued. However, on June 30, 1854, Governor William A. Barstow ousted Daniels despite a special legislative committee’s objections and its declaration (1855) that “the removal is unjust to his character and reputation as a man of science.” The majority observed that “...the survey could not function if every change in party controlling the governorship was followed by a change in the head of the survey.”

The dismissal of Daniels concluded the first chapter in the history of the Survey. It was a prelude to “a decade of very stormy relations between the geological survey and the Legislature,” which tended to distract from the more central issue which confronted the Legislature concerning the state's mineral wealth (Lake, 1962, p. 128) .... that is, making broad policy decisions.

The Second Survey: J.G. Percival, 1854–56

Percival photo James Gates Percival, generally referred to by his contemporaries as “Old Stonebreaker,” was appointed to complete the remainder of Daniel's term as state geologist by Governor Barstow in August 1854. Percival appears to have been a peculiar choice for this appointment. Noted as “ragged,” Percival “devoted himself to intellectual pursuits so diligently and intently that he neglected his dress, his living habits, and his money matters” (Lake, 1962, p. 129). However, he was a learned man who graduated from Yale College, wrote poetry in 13 languages, assisted Noah Webster with his dictionary, worked as geologist for the American Mining Company, taught chemistry at West Point, and had been in charge of geology for the Connecticut Geological and Mineralogical Survey.

Two reports of about 100 pages each, in both English and French editions, were issued during Percival’s tenure, which ended after only 21 months due to his sudden death May 2, 1856. During the remaining four months of Percival's term, Wisconsin had no state geologist. Percival's reports were extremely prosy and dealt with detailed descriptions of various geologic formations but did not directly address the question of the location of mineral deposits; therefore, both miners and legislators were dissatisfied. Debate following Percival's death centered mainly on the hiring, firing, and performance of state geologists. The governor was blamed for Percival's poor treatment and for underpayment of the position. Such debate detracted from more fundamental issues which were given only limited attention, such as:

    Was the state government acquiring reliable and realistic data on the mineral resources available for the growth of Wisconsin's economy?

    What was the proper balance between the honest search for reliable information and the desires of particular interests to influence that search for private gain?

    What use should be made of law to regulate and foster the healthy growth of the state's mineral potential? (Lake, 1962, p. 132)

The Third Survey: Hall, Daniels, and Car, 1857-62

Enabling legislation creating Wisconsin’s third survey, a Geological and Agricultural Survey, was passed by the Legislature on March 3, 1857 with an annual appropriation of $6,000 for six years. In the Geological Survey’s annual report, shortly before his death, Percival admonished the Legislature that the Survey should have a single leader to assure the “systematic unity which such can best give the whole.” However, his advice was ignored and the Legislature proceeded to create a situation primed for discord by placing it under the joint supervision of a commission consisting of Edward Daniels (former head of Wisconsin’s first geological survey), James Hall (former state geologist of New York and Iowa), and Ezra Car (Hall's assistant at the New York Survey) (Bean, 1937). There was no clear-cut leadership in the Survey; each of the appointees had strong personalities. They clashed over leadership, budget, programs, and the character and quality of work and reports.

During this period, the governor supported the Survey; the Legislature introduced bills calling for its abolishment several times. Except for a report on the lead district (one of four reports produced by this Survey), the Legislature was dissatisfied with the Survey’s work. The Survey was not producing reports as fast nor were they as optimistic about mineral potential as anticipated. The Legislature's dissatisfaction with the Survey lead to their repeal of the authorization act, thus abolishing the Survey in 1862.

Wisconsin had no geological survey for the next eight years (1862-70). In 1869, in his annual message, Governor Lucius Fairchild restated the need expressed by past governors and Legislatures that Wisconsin needed “a thorough geological survey.” As in the past, the emphasis in this message was on the need for geologic knowledge as a basis for attracting capital investment to develop the state's mineral and agricultural resources.

The Fourth Survey: John Murrish, 1870-72

In 1870, in response to continued concern for decline in lead production and to Governor Fairchild’s pleas, the Legislature approved an act “to provide for the survey of the lead district, making maps, and collecting statistics and specimens from same.” John Murrish, an experienced geologist from the Cornwall District, England, was appointed Commissioner. Contrary to expectations, his report (65 pages, published in 1871) was noncommittal on the question of deeper ores and thus satisfied neither miners nor the Legislature. He refused to overstate his findings; as his predecessors had done, he stated facts, not speculations. In spite of the Legislature’s dissatisfaction, and the fact that several bills to abolish the Survey were introduced, Murrish remained as Survey director for one more year and began the first studies of iron ore possibilities in central Wisconsin and especially near Baraboo in Sauk County and Black River Falls in Jackson County. He collected specimens of iron ore from these areas but, because he lacked more specific information, he refused to predict the presence of ore deposits.

Nonetheless, the prospect for expanded mineral wealth suggested by his specimens was incentive enough for the governor and Legislature to move toward an enlarged survey effort.

The Fifth Survey: Lapham-Wight-Chamberlin, 1873-82

In 1873 the Legislature passed a law creating Wisconsin’s fifth survey, a "complete geological, mineralogical and agricultural survey of the state." The work was to begin in the far northwest in Ashland and Douglas Counties and to be completed in four years. On April 10, 1873, Governor Washburn appointed Increase A. Lapham to head the Survey with four subordinates: Roland D. Irving, T.C. Chamberlin, Moses Strong, and W.W. Daniels. Space was provided to the Survey by the University of Wisconsin, thus establishing a bond which would prove mutually beneficial. This survey was constituted with a significantly expanded capability. Over the ensuing nine years there would be more than 25 scientists--including geologists, mineralogists, chemists, biologists, and an ethnologist--involved in conducting basic resource surveys in Wisconsin. This was the most extensive survey of the state yet conducted and led to products (maps and reports) that were generally well received. The quality of the products led to an extension of the Survey to March 31, 1879.

Lapham died in 1875 and was replaced by O.W. Wight. There appear to have been political overtones to this appointment as expressed by Irving in a letter to Hall in 1875, which stated:

Our geological survey has gone the fate of its predecessors—or rather a worse one. The governor has appointed a disreputable politician to Dr. Lapham's position, leaving the survey still unorganized. We had accomplished an immense amount of work....It is probable that none of it will ever see the light....Wisconsin has most certainly had ill luck with its surveys (Bean, 1937, p. 213).
chamberlin photo

Fortunately, Irving’s fears proved premature as Wight resigned in 1875 shortly after Governor Taylor was replaced by Governor Ludington. Wight was succeeded in February 1876 by T.C. Chamberlin, and the Survey came to be known as the Chamberlin Survey. Chamberlin, a founder of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in 1870, was a graduate of Beloit College (A.B. 1866, A.M. 1869) and taught there from 1873 to 1886. While at Beloit he was appointed assistant state geologist in 1873 and began his extensive work on glacial geology.

The results of the Chamberlin Survey were published in a four-volume set entitled Geology of Wisconsin. The set constituted a major advance in understanding the broad framework of Wisconsin’s geology in the context of that time. However, Chamberlin (1878) understood the limitations of this work and stated that “The work will not be, and in the vein of the extent of the field, its wilderness, and its inherent difficulties, could not be exhaustive, with the facilities at our command.” For the first time—and thanks principally to Chamberlin’s efforts—the seeds for understanding the function of a geological survey were planted, for he made it clear that “a survey is valuable as a continuing service, not only in addressing the frontier of geological knowledge but in serving as advisor to citizens and to municipalities” (Bean, 1937, p. 213).

Publication of Volume IV of Geology of Wisconsin in 1882 concluded the Chamberlin Survey. After completion of this work Chamberlin accepted a position as head of the Glacial Division of the U.S. Geological Survey. In 1887 he became president of the University of Wisconsin, a post he held until 1892 (Bailey, 1981, p. 25).

The 15-year period from 1882 to 1897 is marked by the absence of a geological survey in Wisconsin. The fact that the Survey was allowed to lapse in spite of Chamberlin’s statement that Surveys are valuable as a “continuing service” can probably be attributed to the thoroughness and success of his survey, rather than to dissatisfaction with the products. Clearly, his advice went unheeded. The lapse was quite likely a reflection of a perception on the part of legislators that the survey was complete and that attention and money could be directed toward other concerns.

Another factor that likely contributed to the lapse of a geological survey in Wisconsin was the change in public attitudes regarding resources and social and environmental issues. During the early and mid-19th century the principal public attitude favored exploitation of resources as an incentive to encourage westward migration and settlement. Thus, Wisconsin’s geological surveys were commissioned in the hope their findings would lead to locating and developing mineral deposits. This attitude began to change toward the end of the century as the public slowly awakened to social and environmental problems caused by unharnessed development. For example, the first social adjustments to mining in Wisconsin were introduced in the last half of the 19th century and “consisted principally in efforts to provide protection and compensation for mining-related injury and disease.” The State Board of Health and the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics were created “during this period in response to concern for worker health and safety” (Ostrom, 1983). The Legislature in 1893 also passed a law prohibiting the polluting of streams with “sawdust, lime, or other deleterious substances” (Lake, 1962). Thereafter, mineral development was recognized as a legitimate business but one that should be required to pay its share of the cost of government. Public attitude shifted toward believing that corporations have a responsibility for resource and environmental protection and public welfare. In addition, the state passed an ad-valorem tax on minerals, thus removing the tax-free status of mining companies.

End of WGNHS History, Part 1. Part 2 finishes the the story.