Web exclusive. Rural Appalachian surveyors faced many challenges, some of which are humorous.

Landscape near Pikeville, Ken.

When speaking of chronological age, the southern Appalachian mountains, with ridges softened by the passing of time, are proverbial grandfathers to the Rockies. And like a wise grandfather, these mountains hold a nurturing personality and lonesome mystique all their own, sometimes providing a tough lesson in resourceful living and sometimes making us laugh with funny stories. The early settlers of the region became acquainted with this personality and set up homesteads. Likewise, a person making his or her living from the land here today gains a strange familiarity with the flora and topography of the Appalachians.

For a land surveyor, this familiarity can be a blessing or a curse—or both. The challenges faced by a surveyor in this region come not only from the landscape itself, but from those who have come and gone before. Historically, those who settled in the mountains of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee were a resourceful people, dependent upon the land and little else. Every available bit of time and energy was dedicated to making provisions for the family. A man once joked that a subsistence farmer who inhabited this region as recently as a half century ago used a mule to farm 40 acres of steep hillside so he'd have enough corn to feed the mule.

As modernization crept into the region, the people became less dependent on acreage, and large tracts were divided and divided again, with little regard for precise measurements. This move away from agriculture is evident today in the piles of rock originally cleared for farming in what are now stands of yellow poplar. With farmlands gone and large tracts growing smaller each year, today's surveyor bears the burdens of earlier inaccuracies. By default, the chore that lies ahead of many an Appalachian surveyor is this: to correct these failings as much as possible.

Luke Hatfield, owner of Johnson Engineering, Pikeville, Ken., holds a prism while working in the Appalachians.

Natural Obstacles

Ken Mills, a former president of the North Carolina Society of Surveyors (NCSS), knows well the physical challenges to his profession in the region. The NCSS is in the process of creating a book on the history of surveying in North Carolina to which Mills is a contributor. “In North Carolina alone,” says Mills, “the mountains cover approximately 6,000 square miles with an average elevation of 2,700 feet and with 21 mountains taller than [New Hampshire's] Mount Washington.”

Though small by Rocky Mountain standards, the hills of eastern Tennessee and Kentucky and western Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina have a greater diversity of flora than their kin in the western United States. What these mountains lack in height they compensate for in blackberry brambles and thickets of rhododendron (locally known as “hells”).

This kind of terrain puts obvious demands on a land surveyor who must constantly deal with slope corrections, slow travel through unforgiving vegetation and dense canopies that render GPS useless. As repeated by Chris Daniel, Assistant Professor of Surveying at Mayo State Technical College in Paintsville, Ken., “The Good Lord made plenty of flat land in east Kentucky, but he put it all on its edge.”

Poor Quality of Land Descriptions

Difficult terrain and crude instruments no doubt resulted in less than ideal land descriptions by early surveyors. Few modern deed researchers in Appalachia haven't had a chuckle or two over the wording in these documents. Professional surveyor Dewey Bocook, also of Paintsville, Ken., laughs about two line descriptions he has encountered. One described a line going “down to the stump where Bossy dropped her first calf,” and another goes “to where a block of ice stood in the road.” Another, which he heard about from colleagues, defines a line as going “along a road the distance it takes to smoke two cigarettes.” It becomes obvious that accuracy wasn't a pressing issue at the creation of early deeds.

According to David Atwell, of Vaughn & Melton Engineers in Middlesboro, Ken., “the single greatest challenge to the land surveyors in the southern Appalachians is the quality of land descriptions. The original surveys for land grants were made with a compass if at all. Overlaps in original surveys were common, and after the original surveys, many tracts were divided without survey.”

Other factors contributing to the poor quality of land descriptions included a lack of slope corrections in early surveys, missing reference points, local names for tree species and the sloppy quality of hand-copied deeds, all of which make things difficult if not impossible for the surveyor.

Both the challenging natural features in Appalachia and poor land descriptions greatly lower the overall cost effectiveness of surveying.

Educational Lags

According to Phil Carter, senior member of the Tennessee Board of Examiners for Land Surveyors, education is the one area that will establish the speed for the profession’s journey into the 21st century. “We've got to have better ‘book learning’ from our professionals than we ever have before,” says Carter. “You've got to spend a short amount of time gaining a large amount of knowledge. I'd say education will be the one area that hamstrings the profession over the next few years.”

While Carter commends the Tennessee educational system for raising the standards of professional, university level education in recent years, he estimates that, on average, university surveying programs lag 5 to10 years behind the profession.

Chris Daniel at Mayo State Technical College can testify to this lag. His school's program received their first GPS unit in August 2000, while surveying colleague Dewey Bocook has been using Trimble 4700s and 4800s in his practice for the past ten years.

Eddie Case, Hatfield's assistant, peers through a total station in an Appalachian field.

Technological Relief

While GPS has done great things for the surveyor's negotiation of difficult terrain, at least at the private level, it does have its limitations. “Appalachia may be at a slight disadvantage with regards to GPS,” says Cliff Middleton, FBN Project Coordinator with the National Geodetic Survey (NGS), “due to a relatively small number of Continuously Operating Receiver Sites (CORS).” Middleton adds, “efforts are underway for the development of CORS in Appalachia, and I do believe several may be in operation as a result of efforts by educational institutions and state governments.”

It should be noted that some local areas of Appalachia have distinct advantages over other parts of the country. As noted by Phil Carter, surveyors in his area benefit greatly from the monuments established by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

With the obstacles to overcome in these southeastern hills, professional surveyors are eager to seize any and every opportunity to make their professional lives simpler. Carter tells of his conversation with a Hewlett-Packard salesman a few years ago. This salesman used pushpins to mark the location of HP total station sales on a large U.S. map in his office. Expecting to see the greatest number of sales around metropolitan areas such as Nashville, Atlanta and Memphis, this individual was surprised that the tri-city areas of Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol hosted the greatest number of purchasers.

Simply put, the land surveyors of the southern Appalachians are blazing a trail from the past to the future, armed with whatever technology lies within their reach. Correcting yesterday's shortcomings will be the greatest challenge of all, and though technology can only do so much, these professionals are eagerly anticipating the journey ahead.