On a recent topographic survey project, I had been recommended to the homeowner by an engineer. Looking at the site from online aerial photographs and the county website, I prepared a bid which was accepted. It would be a typical survey, except that I had the good fortune to have worked in the area 20 years ago … and looking through my records for old surveys nearby, I found treasure.

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In my old file, I had a blueprint of the original subdivision plan from 1969, a.k.a. the “Summer of Love.” The plan was cited in the deeds, but not recorded. It had a total of 81 lots in sizes ranging from three quarters of an acre to over two acres. Seeing the client’s lot on the blueprint was very uplifting. I had asked for the plan years ago and filed it away. The company that prepared that drawing has since thrown out those old originals, so they are not to be had. Mine may be one of the few copies still in existence.

An Experienced Eye

Reading an old plan requires experience and wisdom. This plan contained more information than it would have if it had been recorded. A trained eye can look at this plan and recognize the ink used for the majority of the careful hand drafting. Then, it would see the pencil marks placed on the plan by either a party chief or the director of surveys.

On this particular blueprint, I saw how at the PCs (points of curvature) there were pencil notes, indicating PK nails at the road centerline and DHs (drill holes) set at 90 degrees to the centerline. Written in were the sort distances measured from the PK nails to the drill holes. Those distances were not equal. I repeat, the tie distances to the centerline PKs were not equal. Even if people were to find the DHs, they could not have simply split the distance to set the centerline.

The road had been resurfaced many times, so that the old PK nails gave little sound. There were also false signals in those areas. It goes well to note that back then, after the concrete curbs were installed, the developer would put down the course base coat of blacktop and that is where those PK nails would have been placed. The drill holes would be set at that same time, and the reference distances measured. Typically in old subdivisions, the field crews ran the centerline in from boundary traverse points and, from the centerline, they would set all of the front lot corners and any control monuments. In my opinion, in such a situation the most accurate points in the interior of the subdivision would be those PK nails and the DHs, as they were the most ancient control marks.

As luck would have it, there had been a recent snowfall and the plows piled the snow onto the curbs and it had frozen hard. I was fortunate to guess where the PC of the curve existed and so scraped the snow and ice, and found a terrific drill hole with nice cuts to show off the old field person’s talents. Unfortunately, the opposite curb had been damaged and the drill hole demolished.

I set a mag nail in the curb line, back-sighted another mag nail set on the curb line 300 feet away, and located my one good drill hole, as well as the curb lines along the length of the 1116.96-foot straight section of that road. That evening, I downloaded the points, and plotted the deeds from the subdivision and rotated my points onto the direction of the curbs. If it were a perfect survey world, the curbs would be good for direction.

Returning the next day, I had rough coordinates to stake out close to the possible location of the drill holes penciled in and, 1116.96 feet from my one strong monument, that fantastic drill hole. On the opposite site of the centerline at the PC was another drill hole. Again, the plan had the penciled distance from the centerline to that drill hole. I would end up prorating 0.38 feet over 1116.96 feet. That would be 3.4 hundredths per hundred feet, which could be due to the original surveyor not accounting for temperature when chaining.

Although I looked for many other lot corners, I only found one pin at a front corner that was not severely bent. Most of the corners were missing. Along the rear lot lines of the client’s lot and those surrounding it was a stream, which over the years obviously eroded away the areas where the back corners could have previously existed.

The pencil marks found on the old plan copy I possess turned poor field conditions into precise land surveying, thanks to my predecessors. If you are working in an older firm, consider that there may be tremendous value in the company’s old mylars, vellums, linens, sepias or project folders.

What to Watch For

I have worked at many places where there were two important plans thought to be the same, but it turned out were not. One was the plan to be recorded, and then there was the plan the company actually used. On the company plan was a lot of penciled-in information.

There might be coordinates on key property corners, so that you could use simple addition and subtraction to allow you to stake the other lot corners. Also, the extended tangent lines might have been penciled-in to give sub-distances from the PC to the intersection of lot lines and the distance from the tangent line to the lot corners. Party chiefs would draw in pins set on the tangent lines and random points on the centerline, and their relationship to the PCs. These shop drawings made work faster and easier for the companies who kept them.

Thanks to the Pennsylvania Society of Land Surveyors, I have had other surveyors give me copies of these prints, and they often make a huge difference. In 1989, I went into business, and have always worked in a CAD/computer environment. I tend to share CAD drawings. Those CAD files contain layers with control points others can use at their own risk.

On the recent job, the old blueprint was created using classic limited calculation lot design. Prior to the 1940s, housing had been laid out in long rows of similar buildings with roads having 90-degree intersections. But post-World War II America was tired of military barracks-style developments. Subdivisions began to include curves and cul-de-sacs.

But there were no computers in the 1950s to perform the calculations. Office staff prided themselves in their large log books, slide rules and adding machines. Lots were usually 90 degrees or parallel. There would be curves in the design, but since curves require calculations, they were used for as few lots as possible while not having all straight roads. Lot lines would be radial to curves and centers of cul-de-sacs, unless noted.

For the blueprint I was using, the designer had mixed up the lot widths to add variety while keeping many of them 90 degrees to make for easy lot area calculations. As much as possible, the designer used whole feet and the bearings were kept to even minutes. Professionals then did not have a mouse or digitizer, and the only programs were on television.

Today, new subdivisions often have unnecessary seconds in the bearings and non-radial lot lines. Roads that should have been laid out parallel to a tract boundary might be a few minutes off. Curves can have odd radius distances, and easements criss-cross lots preventing further development such as for detached garages or swimming pools. Oddly enough, it should be easier to design better today. When bearings and distances are simple, there is less need for those huge long tables of lines and curves.

There may be younger surveyors in training who don’t know what terms like “sepia” mean.

Lessons Learned

I remember years ago when a party chief told me how he went into the office and asked the designers to stop putting the manhole exactly at the proposed road intersections. At that company, the field people routinely moved the manhole off from the intersection, so they would be able to set a control spike. The party chiefs tired of always moving manholes. After some discussion, the office staff understood it was easier for a designer to move the manhole in the design phase of the project.

The field and design connection may be disappearing due to the shortened apprenticeships today. The field people may have as little field experience as the college engineering graduate. It could be possible that neither of them has seen the actual construction of the things they are designing and laying out.

About 15 years ago, I gave away my old blueprint machine. I had called many people before finding anyone who wanted it. I had the same experience with my HP pen plotter when I replaced it with an inkjet plotter that has in turn been replaced by another and, yet again, another.

I had spent quite a lot to purchase the blueprint machine with the big tube (to reduce plan stretch on blueprints), as well as the multi-bulb exposure rack and the cartridge system to scrub the extra ammonia so it could be used unvented in my office. As a happy architect drove away with the relic, I wondered, “What the heck is he going to do with that? In a year, would he too be getting rid of it?” His very old machine was failing and my blueprint machine plus the many packets of paper would keep his antique printing process alive.

An employee of mine calls my last plotter purchase “Spock’s Coffin.” We have come so far, but in the process we’ve lost some of the precious information that was once penciled in on mylars.

Will the field employees know to come in and take the initiative to show their mag nails and draft their coordinates? While I am not proposing to go back to using old hand-drafting methods, there may be younger surveyors in training who don’t know what terms like “sepia” mean, or why they used sepia paper, or that the first old plan in a file might not be the best version to pull out and run through the wide format copier.

Surveyors have been trying to keep it simple for ages. I love seeing the pencil scratchings of field personnel that come through the blueprints I find in my old files. They can also be seen on recorded plans when the field revisions were made before the final recording. It takes experience to know that the light lines are not from a poor photograph at the courthouse, but rather that the main portion of the plan was drafted in ink, which leaves a darker, more defined line.

Lastly, perhaps the greatest reason field people used pencil to update mylar originals was due to the fragility of those Rapidograph ink pens with the tiny control needles, which quickly bent when used by new draftspersons and field personnel. No sane office employee would hand over one of “their” ink pens to a novice.