From Time to Thyme

By Paula Dunn

Why Did The Surveyor Dig A Hole In The Road?

After I mentioned the Public Land Survey System or PLSS (actually, I’m told that should be USPLSS) recently, I heard from surveyor Gary Kent, who offered to answer some common questions related to the USPLSS.

I have a slight acquaintance with that system from previous research, but I knew there was a lot I didn’t know, so I jumped at the opportunity.

Gary really knows his stuff. He’s testified as an expert witness in cases across the country involving land disputes and surveying practices, he frequently presents programs on surveying at conferences and he’s taught at Purdue University in Indianapolis.

He started with an explanation of the USPLSS and its history.

In the original thirteen states the establishment of property boundaries was a haphazard affair that caused a lot of headaches.

When the Northwest Territory (Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and northeast Minnesota) was acquired, the federal government wanted a better arrangement for describing land and determining ownership before settlers were allowed in.

Thomas Jefferson proposed a grid system that became known as the USPLSS. Under the USPLSS, land is surveyed into six-mile squares called “townships.” (Not to be confused with governmental townships, e.g. Adams Township.)

Each township is divided into 36 one-mile square sections. Each section contains 640 acres. (Usually. Measurements weren’t always precise. Read on.)

Townships are identified by numbers based on their distance from a Principal Meridian, a line that runs north and south, and a Base Line that runs east and west. In Indiana, the Principal Meridian goes through the center of Lebanon’s courthouse and the Base Line lies about 6 miles south of Paoli.

For example, the Hamilton County courthouse is located in Section 31 of Township 19 North, Range 5 East (Section 31, T.19N., R.5E. ) That means the township is 19 townships north of the Base Line and five townships east of the Principal Meridian.

There’s more to that, but I want to get to the mysteries Gary promised to solve, such as why roads like Hazel Dell and Little Chicago originally had a slight jog where they met.

Gary told me townships are always surveyed from the bottom up. When early surveyors got to the top of a township, sometimes their lines didn’t quite match up with the bottom boundary already established in the next township. That created a jog in some roads.

There were three reasons for the mismatch: First, the instruments used — a compass and a chain made of wire links — weren’t that precise; second, conditions on the ground weren’t ideal (this county was very swampy and thickly wooded;) and third, the earth’s natural curve could throw lines off.

Ever heard the term, “back 40?”

Under the Homestead Act of 1862, you could acquire 160 acres (four forty-acre parcels, or one quarter of a section) for just a small filing fee, IF you agreed to farm the land for at least five years. The “back 40” was the most remote parcel of that land.

If you’ve ever wondered why Section 16 on original land patent maps shows no owners, that’s because it was reserved for the maintenance of public schools.

Finally, why do surveyors dig holes in the middle of a road? (No, that’s not the start of a joke.)

Originally, section and quarter section corners were marked with wooden posts. In the mid-1800s most posts were replaced by stone markers.

When roads began to be established, they were usually constructed on a section line so property owners on each side contributed equal land to the road. To preserve the section corner markers — now in the center of the road — the stones were lowered beneath the roads’ surfaces.

Surveyors digging in the center of a road are looking for that marker so they can survey the area properly.

Thanks to Gary Kent for his time!

– Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears on Wednesdays in The Times. Contact her at [email protected]