Tim Cady, a Maine Licensed Land Surveyor, points to a long-lost granite marker that was recently discovered at the former Hancock Barracks in Houlton. The marker is part of the Aroostook County Meridian Line, a long-forgotten marker system used  to calibrate surveyors' compasses. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — Three long-forgotten granite monuments in southern Aroostook County, once used to calibrate land surveying equipment with the stars, may soon be restored thanks to local surveyors.

Known as the Aroostook County Meridian Line, surveyors once used the three granite structures — set in a straight line about 25 feet apart — to calibrate their compasses for accuracy, focusing on astronomical true north as their  guide.

Houlton’s markers are the only such monuments in Aroostook County and one of a handful of meridian lines remaining statewide. Tim Cady, a Maine licensed surveyor and a member of the Crown of Maine Chapter of the Maine Society of Land Surveyors, said he was aware of three other such markers — in Ellsworth, Belfast and Orrington. With advances in technology, the modern-day significance of meridian lines is largely historical.

A large rock serves as a monument to the former Hancock Barracks in Houlton. The barracks were a 19th-century fortification that was an active United States Army post from 1828 to 1847. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

Meridian lines were established in 1869 under Maine Law, which required all counties to construct and maintain them. In 1987, a revision to Maine’s law exempted Aroostook County from its maintenance obligations, but the county still owns the property where the markers sit.

Surveyors across the world used meridian lines to calibrate their equipment. The meridian line in Greenwich, England, represents the Prime Meridian of the world, at Longitude Zero (0° 0′ 0″). Every place on the Earth is measured in terms of its angle east or west from this line.

A meridian runs north-south, selected as the zero reference line for astronomical observations. By comparing thousands of observations taken from the same meridian, it’s possible to build up an accurate map of the sky.

As technology became more sophisticated, the need for such calibration tools fell to the wayside, as did the condition of the three granite blocks that constitute Aroostook’s meridian line, and why they were needed in the first place.

The condition of Aroostook’s meridian was brought to the attention of the County Commissioners Wednesday afternoon.

“You learn something new every day,” County Administrator Ryan Pelletier said. “This is the first I heard that we own this property in Houlton.”

Located at the historic Hancock Barracks on Garrison Hill in Houlton, the three monuments are a tribute to a long lost practice of surveyors calibrating their equipment based on the stars. Hancock Barracks was a 19th-century fortification that was an active United States Army post from 1828 to 1847. At the time of its construction, Hancock Barracks was the farthest northeast garrison and housed 200 soldiers, whose duties were to protect the border from any Canadian invaders.

“When these [monuments] were established, counties were responsible for their financial upkeep and maintenance,” Pelletier said. “Obviously over time these can sink into the ground and need repositioning.”

Today, only two of the three monuments are standing. But the third was found in a wooded area in October 2021, Cady said.

At some point, the marker was bulldozed out of the way by someone who was not aware of its historical significance, Cady said. The surveyor group hopes to restore the third marker to its original positioning, with the blessing of the County Commissioners, then maintain the meridian line.

“There is certainly some historical significance to these markers,” Cady said.

Tim Cady, a Maine Licensed Land Surveyor, examines one of three granite markers that serve as the Aroostook County Meridian Line. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

The original foundation to the third marker has been unearthed, thanks to help from the Houlton Public Works Department, and Cady said the base seemed to be in reasonably good condition.

“If any money needs to be expended to restore the foundation or put a concrete cap on it, would the County be willing to provide some funds to do that?” Cady asked the Commissioners. “We would really like to see it preserved for the history of Aroostook County.”

Commissioner Paul Underwood said the request could certainly be a consideration for the 2023 budget, but the group took no official action on Cady’s request.