[Post 2 of a series on Orlando Metcalfe Poe, from the Orlando Poe Collection at Clarke Historical Library. To read Post 1, see March 24, 2010]
Prior to his service in the Civil War, Orlando Poe served as a topographical engineer working for Captain George G. Meade and the United States Lakes Survey. Meade, who would later become famous for his victory over General Robert E. Lee in 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg, admired and appreciated Poe’s work. Poe soon became Meade’s most valued assistant.
The United States Lakes Survey began in 1841 when on March 3 of that year the United States Congress appropriated $15,000 to the Corps of Topographical Engineers to survey the northern and northwest lakes of the United States. Steamer ships were now sailing on the Great Lakes, and safe navigation routes and protected harbors were needed. In the letter that follows, Orlando Poe is assigned by Meade to survey the area around what is now Frankfort, Benzie County, Michigan.
Poe was to survey the “Harbor of the River aux becs scies (pronounced similarly to “oh beck see”),” a French term meaning “of the sawbills.” The French named the river after a species of duck that was prevalent in the area. In the 1850s, Tifft and Co. of Buffalo, New York, was conducting a large amount of commercial trade between Buffalo and the Chicago area. In 1854, one of the company’s sailing vessels lost rudder control and was about to wreck during a storm on Lake Michigan. To avoid crashing on the bluffs, the captain and all onboard used an improvised rudder to sail into the mouth of the Aux Becs Scies River, where they saved the ship and discovered a deep water, land-locked bay, now known as Betsie (an Anglophone interpretation of “Becs Scies”) Lake. The Tifft company requested that Congress make a survey of the area. As a result of this survey and of others in the area, a channel was constructed by the Frankfort Land Company to improve the outlet of the river between Lake Michigan and Betsie Lake, creating the port that is today known as Frankfort Harbor.
Bluffs at Frankfort, Michigan
Transcription of the letter from Captain George Meade to Orlando Poe, describing survey work to be done at Betsie Lake, Michigan, March 24, 1859Office Survey N+N.W. Lakes
Detroit – Mar. 24th 1859
L[ieutenan]t. O. M. Poe
You are herewith detailed to execute a survey of the “Harbor of the River Aux becs scies” required by orders from the Bureau of Top[ographical] Eng[inee]rs.
This harbor it is understood consists of a small lake through which the river Aux becs scies debouches into Lake Michigan. At present there can be carried into it some 4 feet by the natural channel of the river, but parties interested, proposed cutting a new channel from the Lake of the river to Lake Michigan and it is understood this survey is made with a view to demonstrate the feasibility of this project, and also to exhibit the capacity of the Lake as a harbor, & the consequent importance of the improvement.
You will therefore commence your survey about a mile above the mouth of the river, and continue it to a point below the southern extremity of the lake, and include inland the eastern shore of the lake. You will thoroughly sound out the shore of Lake Michigan included in your survey, to the 4 fathom curve, and you will sound out the river from its mouth in Lake Michigan to its debouche into the small lake, minutely sounding the lake in all parts.
You will measure a base at some suitable position & extend a small triangulation over your survey & chain carefully the shore of Lake Michigan, and such other parts as may be required.
Asst. O. N. Chaffee is directed to report to you for this duty and you will take James Clague an experienced leadsman.
You will make a requisition for such instruments and apparatus, as in your judgment it may be necessary to take from here, with the understanding that a boat & crew can be procured there, and also accommodations for yourself & party.
All expenditures will be made in my name duplicate receipts being taken therefore in the usual form, all services to be charged on your pay roll. Funds upon your requisition will be furnished for you.
You will avail yourself of the first practicable opportunity of reaching the spot designated, and will be pleased to use every exertion in your power to complete this duty at the earliest practicable moment.
Your Ob[edien]t Servant
Geo[rge] G. Meade
Capt[ain] Top[ographical] Eng[ineers]
 Northern and Northwest
 Assistant Engineer Oliver N. Chafee. Chafee’s work on water levels, which he tabulated for the Report of the Superintendent of the U. S. Lake Survey, 1860, by George Gordon Meade, was a significant contribution to the study of the Great Lakes.
 James Clague also served as a “computer” for the U. S. Lakes Survey. See Meade, Report of the Superintendent of the U. S. Lake Survey, 1860.
Images of the Letter from Meade to Poe
Click images to enlarge
Further ReadingBevier, Thomas. Images of Benzie County. The Donning Company Publishers. Virginia Beach, Virginia. 1998.
Howard, John H. The Story of Frankfort. Frankfort: City Council of Frankfort, 1930.
Meade, George. Report of the Survey of North and Northwest Lakes. Detroit: Daily Free Press Steam Printing House, 1861.
Taylor, Paul. Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer. Kent: The Kent State University, 2009.
Woodford, Arthur. Charting the Inland Seas: A History of the U. S. Lake Survey. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.