Benchmark preservation

Published 2:00 pm Friday, March 26, 2010

One of the oddest legacies of the old Albert Lea High School building once to the west of Central Park and between Clark and Water streets is a small bronze disc called a benchmark that’s embedded in concrete. This particular landmark is now in a display case at the present high school at 2000 Tiger Lane. And how it got from its original location to the display case can be credited to a high school teacher and a local doctor.

Right at this point an explanation of this and other benchmarks around the nation is in order. An encyclopedia entry says they serve as “a permanent and recognizable point that lies at a known location. … Surveyors and engineers use benchmarks to find the elevation of objects. They also use benchmarks to lay out roads, bridges and other structures at a predetermined elevation.”

The benchmark now preserved at the present high school is a circular brass plate 3 1/2 inches wide. It was installed by the federal U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey on June 14, 1931, in the sidewalk near the steps of the Clark Street entrance to what was then Albert Lea Central School and just to the north of the Euclid Avenue intersection.

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Right at this particular spot the city’s elevation is engraved on the bench mark as being exactly 1228.144 feet above sea level.

For nearly 79 years the small brass plate was an interesting, somewhat unusual and often overlooked part of local life. All this changed in 2006, according to city records, when the former Albert Lea High School was demolished. That’s when Ken Fiscus, the high school’s earth science teacher, and Dr. Mark Ciota took action to save this benchmark.

“Dr. Ciota told the foreman this bench mark should be saved. Not long after that the bench mark and its concrete base was delivered to the new high school.” Fiscus explained.

Fiscus added that the concrete base weighs about 80 pounds. Incidentally, the present first floor elevation for the new high school, according to an architectural drawing, is 1,250 feet above sea level.

There are several other federal bench marks in the Albert Lea area that were installed in 1931. One is on the south wall near a boarded up doorway on the south side of what was once the Milwaukee Railroad Depot (now the Liquor Depot). Another is just north of Graceland Cemetery and across Wedgewood Road. Still another is near the railroad crossing on County Road 74 northwest of the city. Of these three, the only one that can easily be observed is on the wall of the depot building next to South Broadway Avenue.