The man who set the bolt in that rock—or who, more likely, instructed his men to fracture the rock with gunpowder, plug the hole with lead, and anchor a 1-inch-square, 6-inch-long bolt— was named John Randel Jr. Hired in 1808 by the three state commissioners to plan the grid and then in 1810 by the city government to implement the grid, Randel hiked the island’s hills, waded through its creeks and marshes, and let the tide rise up to his shoulders for more than a decade as he laid down the grid plan. He measured each block, each street, each avenue with a precision that remains admired and relied on today by engineers, planners, and surveyors such as Morrison.
Despite his important role as inscriber of the grid, Randel, who lived from 1787 to 1865—a long life for that period—has been a historical shadow. A few scholars of cartography, urban planning, and infrastructure have in general briefly described Randel in their books as an eccentric, litigious fellow who was involved with many of the major infrastructure works of his time. Randel was indeed strikingly busy. In addition to surveying Manhattan and pinning the grid to the land, he surveyed and divided portions of wild terrain in upstate New York, and he designed towns there as well. He trudged hundreds of miles, laying out turnpikes and surveying routes for several of the country’s earliest railroads: the New Castle & Frenchtown in Delaware and Maryland, the Ithaca & Owego in New York, the Lykens Valley Railroad in Pennsylvania, the Delaware Railroad Co., and the Central of Georgia. For some of the railroads he served as engineer in chief, innovating and improvising solutions for the many problems that arose on these early American ventures. Randel sounded the Hudson River south of Albany, assessing how ships might more easily make the voyage up- and downriver from that important port. One winter he risked his health to map the islands of the St. Lawrence River. He was among the canal pioneers; he worked on the Delaware & Raritan Canal, the Erie Canal, the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal and did surveys for a Pennsylvania canal. He invented remarkable surveying instruments, an earth-toting tram, and was one of the first to dream up, design, and advocate for an elevated railroad in New York City. He had visions for suburban planning, for traffic flow and roads in Manhattan. He consulted on Baltimore’s water delivery system and New York’s sewage system.
Randel also created some of the most beautiful and detailed maps of his time, several of which are cartographic gems. On the nineteenth floor of One Centre Street, in the Manhattan borough president’s office, in the small room where the island’s official maps are kept and consulted hundreds of times every year, are ninety-two remarkable sheets of paper, carefully stored in four boxes. Each measures 32 by 20 inches; assembled, they would form a map 11 feet wide and 50 feet long, a map depicting the marshes, meadows, inlets, rocks, hills, barns, cider mills, property lines, ice houses, lanes, streets to come, fishermen’s shacks, and every other structure on, as well as natural feature of, Manhattan in the early nineteenth century. Another map sits in the collection of the Library of Congress, encased in Mylar. It is a 27-by-39-inch map of Manhattan that is part trompe l’oeil, in which the island sits on a scroll unfolding on top of a map of the northeastern states, while over the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn a small map of Philadelphia unfurls. Randel artfully crafted three maps as one, and it is the only map known to combine this view and in such a manner. His precision and exactitude won him a legacy but also heaps of trouble, and his long life was fraught with conflict and disappointment.
Randel was both emblematic of his time and a visionary well ahead of his time. He was of the Enlightenment, born into a culture and a period in which reason and measured action were prized and dominion over the natural world—through exploration, experiment, science, cartography, and infrastructure—was celebrated. His was the era of laying lines on the land—lines for communication, for transportation of people and goods; lines for establishing nationhood, statehood, and individual ownership. Those are the lines, the geometry, that define much of the American landscape today. Randel also lived long enough to see the waning of some of the Enlightenment values he embraced and the ascension of the Romantic era. During his middle and old age, profound shifts in thinking about land, nature, and cities emerged; some of the most significant shifts took place in New York City and New York State, where Randel did much of his work.