City of Philadelphia Regulators

December 1, 2001
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Learn about the granddaddy of all surveying companies in the United States.

Second Street and Fairmount Ave., Philadelphia. On the right are Commissioners Hall (Regulator's Office) and Market House.


One of the most frequent subjects surveyors like to talk about is the age of a company or the oldest company in a geographic area. Some companies in the eastern United States date back six generations. But the granddaddy of all companies in the United States, while not in the strictest sense a company, has to be the city of Philadelphia Regulators. If you are not from the Philadelphia area, you may not even know of this unique group of surveyors. To survey property in the city of Philadelphia, the professional surveyor must hire the Regulators to set the property corners. The surveyor, in turn, will do all the other work related to the survey, such as tie buildings, and the topographical information of other related work. Some surveyors think this is an awkward system to have one group setting the corners while another surveyor finishes the job. But, with these surveyors having 300 years of records, it seems a shame to upset a system that has served the city for this length of time.

A Bit of Background

Captain Thomas Holme was appointed by William Penn to be surveyor general of the Pennsylvania colony, arriving there in the latter part of June 1682. On Oct. 27, 1682, Penn himself arrived in the colony making his first landing in Newcastle. After various conferences and meetings, the “Great Law” was passed on Dec. 7, 1682. This set of laws for governing Philadelphia contained instructions for the Regulators. William Penn had, for his time and age, advanced ideas about the planning of his city. It is to be noted that Philadelphia, from its founding, had a controlled system of planning and surveying. From its inception, the planning of the city proceeded in an orderly fashion by some of the best, most proficient men found at the time. The need for controlled surveying in Philadelphia was recognized as early as 1698 when William III authorized the appointing of regulators for streets. The earliest legislation providing for controlled surveying in the city of Philadelphia was the Act of 1710 with the appointment of surveyors and regulators to regulate party walls. A subsequent Act of Legislation, approved Feb. 24, 1721, expressly conferred the power to regulate upon the district surveyor. Power could not be exercised by anyone except the district surveyor and regulator.

An 1885 Act of Assembly divided the city of Philadelphia into 14 survey districts.

Forming Philadelphia

Between 1721 and 1854, as the surrounding areas to the original city developed and were incorporated, provisions were made for the election of a surveyor and regulator in each jurisdiction. The surveyors and regulators of the several municipalities surrounding the old city did not function as a board of an official planning body. It is certain from the continuity of the street system that the system was developed during this period. Prior to the consolidation into the greater system, some means of mutual cooperation existed between the elected independent surveyor and regulator. The duties and responsibilities of the surveyor and regulator were continued by the Acts of Legislature approved Feb. 2, 1854 and April 21, 1855. The Office of Surveyors and Regulators, as generally currently described, was created by an Act of Assembly approved June 1, 1885. By this Act, the city was divided into 14 survey districts and the surveyor and regulator became an appointed position under the supervision of the Director of Public Works rather than an elected official. An Ordinance of Council, approved June 20, 1863, in addition to imposing certain requirements on the surveyor and regulator, also established certain fees to be charged to private individuals for staking out lots and setting curb stakes and fixed fees to be charged against the city for survey work performed. The duties and responsibilities of the surveyor and regulator were continued by the Act for the better government of first-class cities in this commonwealth, approved June 25, 1919 and reaffirmed by The Philadelphia Home Rules Charter on April 17, 1951. (Note that “surveyor and regulator” refers to a single individual.)

Penn’s original city was laid off in the narrowest part of the peninsula between the Delaware and the Schuylkill Rivers, bounded on the west by the Schuylkill River, on the east by the Delaware River, on the north by Vine Street and on the south by South Street or Cedar Street as it was then called. This was the old corporation proper, and until the creation of the incorporated districts, was the area in which the surveyors and regulators exercised those duties imposed upon them by law.

It was believed that the Acts of 1721 and 1782 were included in the Validation Act passed by the first state assembly after the successful close of the American Revolution. The Charter of 1701 provided that the bounds of the city should “extend the limits and bounds, as it is now laid out between the Delaware and Schuylkill.”

Southwark, the first of the districts surrounding the city, was incorporated March 26, 1762. It was bound by South Street, Passyunk Road, Moyamensing Road, Keeler’s Lane, Greenwich Road and the Delaware River.

The Northern Liberties was incorporated March 28, 1803 and extended from the Delaware River to Sixth Street and from Vine Street to Cohocksink Creek.

Moyamensing was incorporated as a township by Act of March 24, 1812.

Spring Garden was incorported as a district by the Act of March 22, 1813. It extended from Vine Street to Coates Street and from Sixth Street to Broad Street. By the Act of March 21, 1827, the northern boundary was extended to a point 200 feet north of the north side of Poplar Street, and the Schuylkill River was made the western boundary.

Kensington District was incorporated March 6, 1820. It extended from the Delaware River on the east to Sixth Street and Germantown Road on the west and from the Cohocksink Creek on the south to the line of the Norris Estate.

West Philadelphia became a borough on Feb. 17, 1844 and was changed to the District of West Philadelphia on April 3, 1851. The District of Penn as incorporated Feb. 26, 1844 extended from the north line of Spring Garden to a line 100 feet north of Susquehanna Avenue and from Sixth Street to the Schuylkill River.

Richmond was incorporated as a district on Feb. 27, 1847. The Kensington District bound it on the south by the Delaware River, by Westmoreland and Emerald Streets, and by Hart Lane and Frankford Road. This District was further extended by the Act of March 25, 1848.

The District of Belmont was created by the Act of April 14, 1853 and extended from the northern line of West Philadelphia to the county line.

Prior to the Act of Feb. 2, 1854, these various districts were under separate municipal governments independent of each other, but by that Act they and the rest of the county were consolidated into the present city of Philadelphia.

The city of Philadelphia Regulators, circa 1806. Courtesy of city of Philadelphia. From The Colonial Surveyors in Pennsylvania by J. Barry Love, Ph.D. Published by The Pennsylvania Society of Land Surveyors.

Board of Surveyors

With respect to the functions of the surveyors and regulators, the Acts incorporating the districts of Southwark and the Northern Liberties were typical. These Acts provided for the election of surveyors and regulators, whose powers and duties were very extensive. They included the planning of the streets system, regulating lines and grades, designing and constructing sewers and drainage structures, bridges and culverts, regulating the laying out of lots and the subdivision of land. These powers closely approximate those of the City Planning Commission and the Board of Surveyors today. The title became District Surveyors and Regulators and has continued to be such in the new municipal charter. The District Surveyors and Regulators of that time did not, however, function as a board or an official planning body.

Finally, the Consolidation Act of 1854, its supplements and amendments, created the Board of Surveyors as the first established planning body for the city. The powers given the Board were extensive, including most of the planning functions of today’s official planning bodies except the power to formulate long range programs for city improvement. Powers did include a measure of advisory control over the city’s budgeting of the cost of these programs over an interim period of several years.

It is rumored that William Penn, in planning the city, instructed his deputy surveyors to lay out each block with surplus measure so that each of the owners of individual lots would receive his proportionate allotment of surplus measure. In Penn’s quaint words: “In order to avoid divers inconvenience which have plagued the Courts of England.” The surplus measure was to be distributed among the lot owners in proportion to their individual frontages. The surplus measure, known as Philadelphia district measure, is generally an additional 3 inches for every 100 feet. In reality, the Philadelphia district standard measure is what the local district surveyor and regulator finds the same to be in his regulation of party lines and property lines in each block.

Distance Standards

In 1923, Edward J. Dauner, assistant engineer of general plans, requested each district surveyor to forward him data on the standard distance as used in his district. The following are the results of his research into this matter.

  • First District: No report.
  • Second District: “100 feet District Standard is equal to 100.20 feet
    U. S. Standard.” Arthur G. Singer
  • Third District: A long, detailed report. One statement that a standard city block with a record distance of 397 feet measures 397 feet. No other conclusion. W. C. Reeder
  • Fourth District: “Standard in this district is generally 3 inches per 100 feet.” F. Bloch
  • Fifth District: “The standard which has always been used in this district is .25 per hundred feet.” Walter Brinton
  • Sixth District: “It would be the merest coincidence if there existed in the 17th century a standard identical with the U.S. Standard, to which an exact overplus of 3 inches could have been added.” Not signed by district surveyor.
  • Seventh District: No report.
  • Eighth District: “The distance allowance in this district is 2 1⁄2 inches per 100 feet, 100 feet district standard being equal to 100 feet 2 1⁄2 inches United States standard.” K. W. Granlund
  • Ninth District: No report.
  • Tenth District: “I would inform you that the standard in general use varies from 2 1⁄2 inches to 3 inches in excess of the so-called United States Standard.” J. H. Webster Jr.
  • Eleventh District: “It is a concrete fact that there is a difference in the measurement between a foot known as the United States Standard and the foot that is used as a standard of measurement in the various Survey Districts of Philadelphia, the latter being slightly in excess of the former. Our practice is to measure the land carefully with a United States Standard tape, prorate the difference, and in this manner we are able to correct for standard, tension and temperature in an operation. This gives better results than any based on a special District Standard Tape.” Geo. W. Hyde
  • Twelfth District: No report.
  • Thirteenth District: “The standard of 100.25 obtains throughout this district except in a few places where it varies from 2 inches to 3 inches per 100 feet as the streets are not always a straight line." W. F. Wingate
  • Fourteenth District: No report.

    You can see by this 1923 study that surveying in the city of Philadelphia is a complex situation. Many special tools were developed by the Regulators including special steel tapes that measured 100 feet 3 inches per 100 feet U.S. Standard. Recently, many of the survey districts have been combined together into consolidated districts with a surveyor in charge. Paul Lonie is the current survey bureau manager. Mr. Larry Cleary is the current city plan officer and recording secretary of the Board of Surveyors.

    This 300-year-old system continues to serve the city of Philadelphia with surveyors that understand the city system. I hope they can continue to serve for many years to come.

    For additional information on the Philadelphia Regulators see the newly published book The Colonial Surveyor in Pennsylvania, available from the Pennsylvania Society of Land Surveyors.

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