Makers of Geodetic Markers


Site Administrator
Sep 17, 2002
I found this on a geodetic marker site.

"Making Their Markers" by Chris Martell:

People who climb Mount McKinley, race sled dogs in the Iditarod, explore the South Pole, or plan to follow the trail of Lewis and Clark have at least one thing in common: The metal work of a Madison company will keep them on course.

Berntsen International, headquartered in a corrugated blue building in a field off of Highway 51, has made about 100,000 of the metal markers found on everything from national historic monuments to village boundaries. Many are rigged with magnetic devices so satellites will receive signals from them, and everyone from astronauts to motorists will know exactly where they are through the Global Positioning System.

The 16-employee family-owned company has its products affixed to 50 states, 90 nations, parts of the ocean and, eventually, outer space. The markers can be engraved in thousands of languages and dialects, thanks to translating software, and many have artistic elements.

At all Olympic events, race distances are set by Berntsen markers, and there's one at the famous "Four Corners" - the spot where Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona meet. "That one is getting worn out because tourists want to stand on it, so they can say they were in four states at one time and have their picture taken," said Phil Peterson, who founded the company with a former partner in 1972.

Berntsen medals with Mickey Mouse faces mark boundaries at Disney properties, as well as a long list of Indian lands, the Ice Age Trail, the Nile River Valley, the Alaska Pipeline, the Bering Land Bridge in Alaska, the Panama Canal, the Appalachian Trail, the Singapore geodetic network, and the new Hong Kong Airport, which is being built in the ocean. In Saudi Arabia, they identify oil wells, and on the Atlantic barrier island of Cape Hatteras, one marks the position of the landmark lighthouse. Soon, a mark they procuded will be set at Kitty Hawk, where the Wright brothers made their first flight.

A string of 16 Berntsen markers will also mark the route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The first has already been set on the lawn at Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson, who established the Corps of Discovery. The 12-inch brass marker was inspired by the "peace and friendship" medals Jefferson had made for Lewis and Clark, who gave them to Indian chiefs and warriors they encountered on their trek across the continent. The others will be placed at significant Lewis and Clark stops across North American, ending in Oregon.

Since the company was established, Berntsen has developed relationships with government agencies that use markers.

"If they go to Mars, (our medals) will go, too," Peterson said. "Maybe not in my lifetime, but that's the plan."

"Government agencies tell us what they need, and we figure out how to make it to their specifications," Peterson said. For the space program, because weight is an issue, markers might be made of titanium. Aluminum, stainless steel and other mild steels are used as well. Marine brass, which was used at Monticello, can last about 500 years.

While some of Berntsen's markers are used to pinpoint legendary sites, most wind up imbedded in less glamorous soil, defining roads, utility lines, legal boundaries, or to monitor the movement of the earth.

"It's one of the few businesses that is growing during the recession," Peterson said. "That's because surveying, annexing and levying taxes is how governments get their money. The more land that is surveyed and marked, the more tax money they can collect."

And for that reason, markers are frequent targets for malicious mischief. "A lot of people try to destroy them because they are a symbol of the government, and they're infringing on their rights," Peterson said. "But if they do, they're wasting their time, and their tax money," he said, explaining that some of the markers have stems that reach up to 90 feet into the soil, and some have prongs set in deep columns of cement.

And all that makes them a lot more reliable than the sort of markers earlier surveyors had to use. "People used to mark land by putting notches in trees," Peterson said. "That was a problem because trees would fall over or get cut down. If people try to dig our markers up, they're going to have to have a lot of trouble."