U.S. Geological Survey

Beginning the Second Quarter-Century

In 1904, as the U.S. Geological Survey began its second quarter-century, the United States was in the early stages of a period of profound change just as it had been when the Survey began in 1879, but many of the problems facing the Nation in 1904 were very different from those of 1879. During the Survey's first 25 years, the United States had become an urban industrial world power. The population had increased from 48.9 million in 1879 to 81.8 million in 1904. The number of manufacturing establishments and the value of manufactured products had more than doubled during this period, and the value of the mineral products had increased from $365 million in 1879 to more than $1 billion in 1904. At the same time, settlement of the West had proceeded so rapidly that by 1890 the frontier had disappeared.

During this age of change, which began in the early years of the century, national policies that had prevailed in the late 19th century were abandoned, social and economic reforms were enacted, and the role of the Federal Government was developed. In fact, the whole fabric of American life was altered. More than one historian has noted the correlation between this period and changes in the use of energy. Whether or not changes in the use of energy affected American mores, clearly they affected the development of natural resources, especially the fossil fuels and water, and these in turn resulted in changes in the geological sciences.

The most obvious change was the increased interest in nonmetalliferous resources, including the fossil fuels. For several years, the Geological Survey had been reporting that an increasing proportion of the value of the annual mineral production of the United States was being contributed by the nonmetalliferous resources. In 1898, when problems began to develop in the coal industry that caused consumers to turn to other kinds of fuel, Director Walcott had suggested to Congress that a thorough investigation, including practical tests, be made of the coals and cokes of the United States so they might be used to the best advantage, in his own way echoing King's statement in 1880 that mineral resources should be used with the utmost scientific economy. In 1901, oil became a major Survey interest after the successful drilling of a well at Spindletop, 20 miles southeast of Beaumont, Texas, inaugurated a new era in the oil industry.

Figure 21. Spindletop oil field, near Beaumont, Texas, discovered in 1901, inaugurated a new era in the use of energy resources.

At the World's Fair in St. Louis in 1904, celebrating the centennial of the Nation's first great acquisition of western territory, the Geological Survey was given an opportunity to demonstrate the value of the more comprehensive investigations of coal and coke, which it had been proposing for many years. For the department of mining and metallurgy at the exposition, which the Survey had agreed to organize, appropriations totaling $60,000 were obtained for analyzing and testing coals and lignites "to determine their fuel values and the most economic method for their utilization for different purposes."27 The coal-testing program almost immediately began to produce significant results, and after the fair was over, it was extended and became part of the regular Survey program. At the same time, a similar program for the testing of structural materials was begun. Construction of large public works by the Reclamation Service and the Panama Canal Commission, among others, made the program Walcott had proposed in 1898 of immediate value.

In 1905, the Survey also obtained additional funds to increase its field investigations of iron and coal, the staples of industry, about which there was some concern, and a new program of mapping western coal deposits was started. As the emphasis in the Survey's program in economic geology shifted to nonmetallic resources, specifically fuel resources, a new Section of the Geology of Fuels was set up in the Geologic Branch.

Figure 22. Floods in the Passaic River basin, northern New Jersey, 1902-1903, were among the earliest studied by the Survey.

On March 7, 1904, just 4 days after the Survey celebrated its silver anniversary, the Second Public Lands Commission, appointed in October 1903, submitted its preliminary report. The Federal Government, 118 years after the Land Ordinance of 1785, still held title to 1 billion acres of public lands, most of which, as in 1879, were west of the Mississippi River. President Roosevelt had asked the Commission to report on the condition, operation, and effect of the land laws and to recommend such changes as were needed to effect the largest practicable disposition of the public lands to actual settlers, requests not unlike those Congress had made of the Commission of 1879, but he had also asked that the Commission recommend changes in the public-land laws "to secure in permanence the fullest and most effective use of the resources of the public lands."28 The recommendations in the preliminary report bore chiefly on the control, use, and disposal of forest lands and the control of water, and no consideration was given to the mining laws even in the final report although the Commission recognized that changes were necessary. In the spring of 1905, Congress transferred the management of the forest reserves from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture. The classification of the forest reserves was then transferred from the Geological Survey to the newly renamed Forest Service. As the Reclamation Service was becoming less dependent on the Geological Survey and would become independent in 2 years, by the middle of 1905, most of the public-land management responsibilities had been shifted from the Geological Survey.

In 1906, unexpected problems forced a change in the Geological Survey program. When the appropriations bill came up in the House, a Representative from Iowa challenged the authority in law for the Survey to make a map or gage streams except in the national domain, which he clearly believed to be the public lands, and precipitated a 2-day debate. In the end, only the appropriation for water resources investigations was greatly reduced, but on the day that the appropriations bill was passed, President Roosevelt ordered the Secretary of the Interior to report as soon as possible the coal lands where the coal deposits were believed to be of such value that the lands should be withdrawn from entry. Evidence had been uncovered that much coal land had been fraudulently acquired, and the Roosevelt administration was about to embark on the conservation of mineral resources in dramatic fashion. A month later, some 66 million acres of potential coal-bearing lands were withdrawn from entry until the Survey could determine their extent, location, and value. The "classification of the public lands" in the organic act took on new meaning.

In the spring of 1907, Walcott left the Geological Survey to become Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Before he left, there was a reprise of the 1906 appropriations debate in Congress and several organizational changes within the Survey. The Reclamation Service became an independent agency, and F.H. Newell left the Survey to become its Director. The fuel-testing and structural-materials-testing programs were combined as the Technologic Branch under Joseph A. Holmes. C.W. Hayes, the Geologist-in-charge of Geology and Paleontology, was given a new title and commensurate responsibilities as Chief Geologist of the Survey, in charge of divisions of Geology and Paleontology, Chemical and Physical Research, Mining and Mineral Resources, and Alaskan Mineral Resources.

Figure 23. George Otis Smith, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, 1907-1930.

George Otis Smith, the Geologist-in-charge of the Section of Petrography of the Geologic Branch, succeeded Walcott as Director in May 1907 and continued as Director until December 1930. Smith had joined the Survey after receiving his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1896, and he was barely 36 years old when he was appointed Director. His Survey career had not been particularly distinguished, but he had come to the attention of the new Secretary of the Interior, James R. Garfield, in 1906 when Smith had served as chairman of one of the subcommittees of a Presidential commission that sought to put the operation of Government agencies on a modern businesslike basis. Smith was particularly interested in a business policy for the public domain. He also believed that the work of the Survey should be primarily although not exclusively practical.

A combination of circumstances ensured that the work of the Survey for many years did indeed become primarily practical. For the first 20 years of Smith's directorate, appropriations were essentially static while funds from outside sources steadily increased, especially for the topographic mapping and water-resources programs, which were largely practical in nature. The classification program was extended as the Roosevelt conservation program developed but Congress steadfastly refused to appropriate additional funds for the new form of classification. It was necessary to divert personnel from research programs to the classification program, and an exodus of geologists from the Survey for more challenging positions in industry, which began in the first year of Smith's directorate, resulted in residual impoverishment. Within a few years, the profession began to look down on the Survey as a "department of practical geology."29

Figure 24. Land-classification and ground-water studies were combined in New Mexico, 1909.

The extension of the classification program began at the behest of geologists working in the California oil fields who urged the Director to act to safeguard oil development on the public lands. At the time, title to oil-bearing lands could be obtained only under the Mining Act of 1872, which required that a discovery be made before the land could be acquired, discoveries required drilling, which cannot be done in secret, and potential oil lands were being obtained fraudulently under other laws to take advantage of the oil companies' work. On Smith's recommendation, the Secretary of the Interior in August 1907 withdrew some potential oil-bearing lands in California from agricultural entry, pending classification. In December 1908, newly discovered western phosphate lands were withdrawn from entry, and the Land Classification Board was established in the Geologic Branch to administer the new responsibilities for classification. Within a few months of the Board's formation, the Survey was assigned responsibility for classification of lands under the Enlarged Homestead Act, and a program of hydrographic classification was added to that of mineral-land classification.

Figure 25. The panoramic camera, used in the early 1900's in Alaska, marked the beginning of photogrammetric methods of mapping by the Survey.

The classification program was only part of the Survey's involvement in the rapidly developing Roosevelt conservation program. An Inland Waterways Commission, appointed in March 1907 to prepare a comprehensive plan for use of inland waters, in the fall of 1907 suggested a Conference of Governors at the White House to dramatize the need for conservation. From the Governors Conference in May 1908 came the National Conservation Commission that in the record time of 5 months, with the aid of Government scientific agencies including the Geological Survey, prepared an inventory of natural resources, containing not only estimates but predictions of times of exhaustion of various mineral resources.

Conservation, however, became a controversial issue, politically and scientifically. Originally, conservation had referred primarily to the prevention of waste or destruction of resources and was thus considered a scientific or technological problem. In Europe, however, where natural resources had long been used with the utmost care, it was natural for the government to exert some control, and there conservation was part of political economy. The conservation inaugurated under Roosevelt differed from European conservation in being almost completely restricted to the public domain and, by the withdrawal from entry of millions of acres of public land, locking up the resources rather than regulating their use. Politically, it arrayed East against West and progressive against conservative; paradoxically, the progressives rather than the conservatives favored conservation. Scientists were also divided; while some stressed the need for research, others urged government control.

Under William Howard Taft, who succeeded Roosevelt as President in March 1909, the conservation movement provided the setting for a battle between progressives and conservatives. Taft was as committed to conservation as Roosevelt but, being a strict constructionist of the law, believed it to be his role to give the Roosevelt program the force of law. His Secretary of the Interior, Richard A. Ballinger, was of like mind. In 1910, Congress undertook an investigation, ostensibly of the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior with regard to certain land claims in Alaska but in reality of loose construction of the law as typified by Gifford Pinchot, the Chief Forester and Roosevelt confidant, and of strict construction as typified by the Secretary of the Interior. The Director of the Survey strongly supported the Secretary, cheerfully accepted greatly increased responsibilities for classification of the public lands, including evaluations of waterpower sites, and sought and eventually obtained the withdrawal of oil bearing lands in California and Wyoming. Although Secretary Ballinger was exonerated by Congress, he was condemned by the public and resigned in 1911. Congress, however, had resolved the question of the legality of the withdrawals by passing the Pickett Act in 1910. Thereafter, the resources of all withdrawn lands except the coal lands, which could be sold after being classified and appraised by the Geological Survey, became unavailable.

Figure 26. Coal-land classification and geologic mapping were combined in North Park, Colorado, 1911.

In May 1910, while the Ballinger-Pinchot investigation was still underway, Congress established a new agency, the Bureau of Mines, designating the Technologic Branch of the Geological Survey as its nucleus, a designation later changed to require the transfer of the structural-materials testing to the National Bureau of Standards and the mine-accidents and fuel-testing investigations to the Bureau of Mines. George Otis Smith served for a few months as Director of the Bureau of Mines as well as of the Geological Survey until Joseph A. Holmes, who had been head of the Technologic Branch in the Survey, was made Director of the Bureau of Mines. Unlike the spinoff of the Reclamation Service in 1902, which had been accompanied by an increase in the Survey appropriation, this second spinoff from the Geological Survey resulted in a decrease in the appropriation and a greater loss of personnel than the transferred elements of the Technologic Branch.

The Geologic Branch by this time was making an effort to combine some fundamental research with the classification studies. When Chief Geologist Hayes resigned to become the vice president of an oil company in 1911, his successor, Waldemar Lindgren, insisted on the opportunity for research and a reduction in the administrative burden of the office. In 1912, the Land Classification Board was separated from the Geologic Branch and made an independent branch. It had no funds of its own, however, and had to subsist on assessments on the the funds of the other branches. When Lindgren left in 1912 to become a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, paleobotanist David White, even more committed to research, became Chief Geologist. In 1913, to draw attention to the research aspects of the branch's work, a new Professional Paper series, "Shorter Contributions to General Geology," was begun.

In 1914, the Survey faced a new problem. Congressmen from Eastern, Midwestern, and Southern States, reacting to the concentration of Survey work in the public-land States--much as Congressmen 2 decades earlier had reacted to the emphasis on general geology--filed bills to require a more equitable distribution of work, especially of the topographic mapping and water-resources investigations. In retaliation, a Congressman from California proposed an amendment to the appropriations bill to restrict the geologic work of the Survey to the public lands. The House passed the amendment but, fortunately, the Senate and the Conference Committee rejected it.

U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior
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