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Surveying was a rough business

Tom Harper looks over the old surveying equipment that he is helping set up in the Becker County Historical Society and Museum as part of a traveling exhibit. DETROIT LAKES TRIBUNE/Vicki Gerdes1 / 4
Tom Harper looks over the old surveying equipment that he is helping set up in the Becker County Historical Society and Museum as part of a traveling exhibit. DETROIT LAKES TRIBUNE/Vicki Gerdes2 / 4
Tom Harper looks over the old surveying equipment that he is helping set up in the Becker County Historical Society and Museum as part of a traveling exhibit. DETROIT LAKES TRIBUNE/Vicki Gerdes3 / 4
Tom Harper looks over the old surveying equipment that he is helping set up in the Becker County Historical Society and Museum as part of a traveling exhibit. DETROIT LAKES TRIBUNE/Vicki Gerdes4 / 4

Shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, the leaders of the fledgling United States of America realized that the land west of the original 13 states – ceded to the new government by the Treaty of Paris in 1783 – was, quite literally, uncharted territory.

“The federal government owned all the land at one time,” says Tom Harper, the principal land surveyor for Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) District 4 in Detroit Lakes.

Having incurred some serious debt during the war, the Continental Congress decided to use the public sale of land in the Western Territories to pay off the debt.

“Before the land could be sold, it had to be surveyed,” Harper said. “So they (Congress) contracted with various surveyors to do the job.”

In Minnesota, this work was completed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. “I think the last (township) was done in 1911,” Harper said.

The sections and townships plotted during that original Public Land Survey are still in use today – even though modern Global Positioning System (GPS) plotting has shown that some of the points and lines used to establish that grid weren’t laid out quite as straight as those early survey maps might indicate.

“We can’t correct it,” Harper says. “People bought this land, and we can’t move the (survey) lines to where we think they should be just because we can measure things better.

“Once that monument (the stake or marker used to indicate the exact location of a surveyed point on the grid) was set, that’s where it stayed. Once it was accepted (by the U.S. Surveyor General), it was final.”

A comparison of a map from that first land survey and one using modern GPS plotting of the same terrain – in this case, Becker County’s Evergreen Township – forms one of the focal points of a new traveling history exhibit set to open this Tuesday at the Becker County Museum in Detroit Lakes.

Titled “Creating the Great Minnesota Township Grid,” it is sponsored by the Minnesota Association of County Surveyors (MACS). The exhibit, which will be on display at the museum through the end of April, also includes some of the equipment used in those early land surveys, such as a solar compass, measuring wheel, survey stakes and measuring chains.

“The museum actually has one of the original instruments used during those early surveying days,” says Becky Mitchell, executive director of the Becker County Historical Society and Museum. “We included it in the exhibit.”

“It might not be the same one (used for the first Becker County survey), but they used one just like it,” Harper said, noting that the museum’s artifact, a one-legged surveyor’s compass, likely was not part of the original survey because “it’s in too good a condition – it didn’t see the same hard use.”

Harper said he became involved with the MACS exhibit because he has some friends in the association. “It was being moved from Grand Rapids to Detroit Lakes, but the museum wasn’t ready to set it up – so I stored it for a month at the MnDOT garage (in Detroit Lakes).”

Harper was recruited to help set up the exhibit at the museum, and to make a presentation about it as part of the Historical Society’s Brown Bag Lunch Series. That presentation is set to take place at noon this Wednesday, Jan. 13. The public is invited to attend.

“Pack a lunch or call us at 847-2938 by 10 a.m. on Wednesday and reserve a lunch from La Barista for $8,” Mitchell said. “Pay when you arrive at the museum.”

Harper said he will discuss such topics as why the original Public Land Survey was done, when it came through Becker County, and how surveying methods have changed since then.

The original land surveyors used steel chains, exactly 66 feet in length, to measure the survey lines. Known as Gunter’s chains, they were each made up of 100 links, with a link measuring 7.92 inches (201 mm) long. Eighty chains constituted one U.S. Survey Mile. Each section measured 1 mile by 1 mile in size, and each township was 6-by-6 miles.

“When I started surveying, I used a steel tape measure,” Harper said. “Then we started using optical instruments, and we thought that was the greatest thing in the world, it would never get better. Now, we use satellites (i.e., GPS).”

Harper, who has lived in Detroit Lakes for “a little over 17 years,” said that he was a construction inspector on a survey crew when he first started working for MnDOT.

“I went to college, but not for that (surveying),” he said. “I sort of fell into it at work, and I really enjoyed it.”

So about 15 years ago, he went back to college and got licensed as a surveyor.

“I enjoy the variety,” he said. “A surveyor needs to be good at math, good at research, willing to walk through swamps and forests, and be a little bit of a detective. For an engineer, there’s always a mathematical answer. With surveying, there isn’t always a perfect answer.”

For instance, on the Evergreen Township map, “An 1870 surveyor claimed one line was 80 chains (1 mile) long. Today, when we measure it, it’s ⅝ of a mile,” Harper said.

How did this discrepancy come about? “I have a theory of what they did, but no one’s here that was there (for the original survey) to tell what really happened.” he said.

The most popular theory, he added, is that “there were a lot of shortcuts taken, and lines that weren’t quite measured right.” In some instances, metal deposits beneath the surface of the land might also have thrown off the surveyor’s compass and caused the lines to veer off course – in some cases, quite badly off course, so the surveyors would try to correct the aberration as they went along rather than go back and start over.

“They were paid by the mile,” Harper explained. “It was a lot easier to change your answer than to go back and re-survey a mile.”

Not that he blames them. “I don’t think I could have been a surveyor back then,” he admitted, noting that they often worked in extremely rugged conditions. “We have electricity, paved roads, running water… they had none of that.”

The discrepancies between that historic work and the hyper-accuracy of modern technology is where the detective work lies – and it’s what makes the work so interesting.

“It’s a topic a lot of people are interested in,” Mitchell said. “We’re thankful they (MACS) contacted us and were interested in bringing this exhibit here. It also gives us an opportunity to display some of our artifacts that support that history.”

For more information about Wednesday’s Brown Bag Lunch presentation, or about the land survey exhibit, please call the Becker County Museum at 218-847-2938.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 18-plus years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Detroit Lakes School Board. 

(218) 844-1454