Surveyor's Footsteps: Who's on First?
Professional land surveyors are called upon for expert opinions. One example would be the age, authorship and quality of a monument. This requires experience, which they gain by practicing for many years and through listening to experienced people passing down knowledge from former generations. They will consider many factors when forming an opinion as to how old a particular monument might be. Most crave an original monument set by the original surveyor that is cited in the deed and shown on the plat. But, whose was first?
When talking with friends, I may refer to my “bride.” Most would know I am talking about my wife of 43 years. I like to also use the expression “my girlfriend” and “my wife,” as they all feel correct depending on the occasion. Biblical patriarch Abraham once referred to his wife as his sister, and some would debate why he said that and was it the right thing to do. My father, at 92, enjoys introducing my mother as his “first wife,” when he has been married to her for 68 years, while Mom simmers hearing what she finds as a bothersome joke. It is true; she is his first wife.
What brings this to mind are statements contained in the captions of deeds I read which say, “according to a recent survey by James Irwin in 1902,” or other surveyors long gone with references to a “recent” but now ancient plan. Often, these plats pre-existed the recording requirements now in place at our local recorder of deeds. These statements are copied over and over with each successive purchase of the tracts. As a surveyor, I always enjoy reading them and we all must interpret their meaning. In southeast Pennsylvania you can still read deeds written in perches and rods.
I would like to tell a story about an old surveyor and his methods. I was working as a party chief for a cracker jack land surveyor and my crew was sent out to stake a large subdivision, perhaps 100 acres. It would include a long road running down the center from one end to the other and large lots extending to the existing road at the boundary on the other side of the meandering tract. My initial instructions were to use several pins shown on the subdivision plan and start staking the centerline of the long proposed road. As I rough staked the road I would search for the boundary corners along the way, locate them and nightly turn in my locations to my boss. He would then recalculate the actual boundary and in the morning give me adjusted road centerline geometry based on the corrected centerline and corrected lots.
My employer’s explanation was interesting and reflected his personal knowledge of the survey practices of the original surveyor who prepared the subdivision plan from which we were working. This was in what formerly had been rural farm country and a foot or two here and there were not all that important, at least not to some surveyors. In those days, to cut costs and make things move more quickly, that surveyor might employ stadia methods for measuring his traverse distances. I was astonished. So knowing this, my boss would expect monuments to be 1 to 10 feet off and would use his judgment to interpret the intent of the original subdivision plan and recalculate the lots as we progressed along the new centerline.
The bulldozers followed my lath and rough cut the road. The next day I would adjust my centerline stakes according to the newly created geometry. In those days I was using stadia for some of the topo work I performed. I knew how to reduce stadia slope distances and to add the 1.2 feet (or was it to subtract the 1.2 feet?) to the reading. For the times I used stadia methods, a foot plus or minus did not matter and I never used stadia for traverse and boundary work. I can see how it would be cheaper to perform boundary work and so get contracts for surveys, but I doubt the public understood it was comparing apples to rotten apples. Nobody died due to stadia boundary work to my knowledge, but my employer was forced to actually perform the boundary survey 20 years later. Since he was very savvy, the cost was built into his bid. I have to express I am grateful to have had him explain the whole stadia boundary process. That cracker Jack surveyor is no longer with us but his expertise lives on in the men and women he trained.
Another method of creating cheap subdivision plans locally in the years up to and around 1985 would be to prepare the subdivision plan, use traced USGS contours and supplement the drawing with utility locations to fabricate a plan. In the basement of a former employer, there was an overhead projector and a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood supported with 2-by-4 posts. I was instructed to tape a print of the boundary onto the board, place a USGS quad map onto the overhead projector and then move the projector in or out until it matched the roads, streams or building rectangles. I would then trace along the contour lines. Later, upstairs, I would trace my marked-up print and ink the contour lines onto the mylar sheet. You can bid lower when you replace a survey with the note, “Boundary taken from deed of record,” followed by, “Contours taken from USGS quad map.”
Subsequently, when I am given a plan to work from and I see these notes, I understand it meant the developer saved money while it will now cost me to do the job right and interpret the intent of the subdivision plan while documenting my reasons for why the new lots vary from the old deeds written from the cartoon.
Recently I was asked by a client to check the property line stakes, which her neighbor had a surveyor place along their common line. A year or two previously, I had surveyed her lot. I found many pins and stone monuments, and all but one “got along” with the others. Sesame Street has a song “one of these things does not belong with the others.” That was the case with this pin. These were all urban properties of approximately a half acre and surveyed by the same surveyor in the 1930s and 1940s. Formerly, I was employed by that company, which dates back to early 1900 — the company, not me.
While in the employ of that company, I saw many of their old plans of survey. Some of the plats were drawn on linen as small as 5 inches square to save money. You had to dig deep into the large hanging folders to see those at the bottom so you would have the full research before heading out to the field. In my experience, pins from those eras were hard steel and rusted at the ground level and had an hour glass shape because that area was subject to rain and moisture, and the top stayed near to its original diameter. There have been many times I have found the top bent over under its weight and hanging on by a thin thread. Eventually, after those tops fell, when I would dig them up, they would be a dark colored, pointed, rusty pin. Every time my heart soared knowing it was the original pin by the original surveyor.
That surveyor changed the type of pin used for setting property corners around 1965 to a larger diameter rebar. That company has changed names slightly over the years. It started as the “creator,” then changed to the “creator and son,” added “the associates,” and other company names as the years passed. The quality generally is very accurate and consistent, and improved as the survey equipment and technology advanced.
The firm surveying next door to my client chose to call the odd pin “the pin set by the original surveyor.” I disagree. Adding to this, I returned to the site and dug up a railroad spike at the front corner of his client’s property and inversed to the back incorrectly placed pin. It was 0.57 feet too long. Holding a poorly placed pin would give his client extra ground and interject an angle point in the side line of my client’s property.
After both surveyors fussing over property line stakes, the neighbor just kept his fence a foot inside his lot. Crisis abated, but there now is a contention between surveyors, which I doubt will be thought about further by either client.
Since the time this came up, I have chuckled inside after looking at survey plans found in my research. I notice how a surveyor will not hold a monument that does not produce a title overlap but mark its location relative to where they state the boundary corner to be. This of course calls for placing another pin. If they were to survey the neighbor, they would most likely hold the existing monuments and call it a day while leaving a gap of “no man’s land.”
In the most recent occurrence I’ve seen, the engineer’s fresh subdivision plan referenced holding a stone found, which was referenced on the plan for my client’s lot as held, but when I was in the field, the neighboring surveyor had set a new pin a half a foot into my client’s property. They stated, “stone held,” but probably an inexperienced party chief set the new pin and cap at a completely wrong location. So, in context of the original survey of that subdivision, they now had two points recognized by the original surveyor of the subdivision and the new pin had their name on the top. I feel confident their chief of surveys does not know about the double markers. By the way, the stone that was marked as held was very old.
Will a professional land surveyor giving an opinion 10 years from now say that, seeing as how the original surveyor of the new subdivision held the stone and stated so on their plan and at the same time they were marking lots of the new subdivision set a new pin, both locations must be correct? If you just say the pin set by the original surveyor is correct, they both must be correct. That would provide a line between the two points as the corner line. Somewhere along the line a professional must say the field person made an error. Two points a half foot apart cannot be the same point.
Perhaps in a retracement a surveyor could introduce a short half-foot-long segment. After all, the original surveyor of the subdivision did set the new pin and cap, and they held the stone. That would concretely document an overlap with the lot I was just surveying. Both plans would call out the stone held, but the pin set by the original surveyor would be claiming the land was now part of the new subdivision.
Moving forward into the future and returning to the subdivision plan and finding a pin and declaring it the pin set by the original survey sounds nice, but that does not make it correct. Respectfully, it is his opinion and it differs from mine.
The photo I have included is of a beautiful monument on a corner of a beautiful tract I was recently surveying. It marks a corner of lands of the owner (long deceased) who is cited in the plan referenced in the deed. It must have cost a bit when the former owner had his initials engraved and I doubt anyone would question it was the stone called for on the survey. It was far too beautiful and I just had to take a photo. While it may look slightly blurry, it is not. Time has weathered the monument and it is one of the two I found and located. Do you think I held them?