Fabric of Surveying: Surveying in California

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The State of California has a rich and diversified history of surveying. The variety of tasks performed includes cadastral surveying, property surveying, municipal, geographic, mining, hydrographic, road and railroad surveying to name some. Some early California surveyors were notable figures, some were ordinary citizens, and some were even crooks.

It is not known when the state’s earliest surveys were performed. The Anasazi native people in nearby New Mexico engaged in a rather sophisticated type of surveying as early as 850 A.D. Substantial evidence exists among numerous ancient ruins in the Chaco Canyon area to confirm that particular alignments were made, ranged out, and replicated. The angular accuracy of their work using primitive methods was one or two minutes of arc. Distances were likely measured with cords made of yucca fibers. With this surveying capability the Anasazi built pueblos according to a predetermined plan. They also constructed sophisticated astronomical devices that indicated important solar and lunar events. For the same period, nothing like that type of advanced surveying activity has been found in California. It would be shortsighted to say, however, that early inhabitants of the West Coast did not engage in some form of rudimentary surveying activity. Nine centuries would pass before recognizable surveying activity would be performed in California.

Apart from some early coastal mapping performed by visual observation from a passing ship, the first notable land measuring occurred near Monterey and San Francisco during the late 1760s by Miguel Costansó of the Spanish Royal Corps of Engineers. It was at that time, toward the end of the Seven Years War in Europe, that Spain began to actively assert control over Alta California. Presidios were established for military purposes in what is today San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco; twenty-one missions were built and a few private land grants were issued. Little if any surveying was performed for these activities. The first land surveying in conjunction with an urban real estate development occurred in 1797 when Alberto Córdoba staked out the town of Branciforte near the San Lorenzo River in part of what is today Santa Cruz.

Mexico took control of California as it obtained its own independence from Spain in 1821. The new government soon initiated liberal land policies including the granting of ranchos, (large tracts of land) to prospective settlers. One element in obtaining title to a rancho was the requirement of a rudimentary survey. This often consisted of two men on horseback measuring distances with a lariat or rope of fifty varas in length, the equivalent of about 1371/2 feet. The lariat was connected to the bottoms of two long staves that were held by the horsemen. Work progressed in a leapfrog fashion and the mostly ceremonial operation was sometimes attended by the interested parties, including neighbors. The bounds of the survey were typically geographic features or landmarks, such as rivers, ridges, large stones or trees, etc. The land grants were issued free of charge and limited in size to 11 leagues, or about 48,712.4 acres (Figure 1).

The arrival of the American period in the late 1840s corresponded to historic events like the conquest of the land by war with Mexico, the Gold Rush, and in 1850, statehood. Those events brought skilled surveyors to the Golden State with more precise instruments, including a number of dealers and manufacturers. The instrument makers who relocated to San Francisco during the 1850s included John Roach, Thomas Tennent, William Schmolz, Charles Knus, and M. Engel.

The sudden influx of immigrants brought about an immediate need for land development and accurate coastal surveys. Arriving quickly were geodetic surveyors from the U.S. Coast Survey, private surveyors subdividing the public lands, and public works surveyors in the rapidly developing cities. Complicating the surveying of the public lands were the hundreds of Mexican land grants that were poorly surveyed and generally unmarked as to boundaries. The private titles were affirmed through treaty efforts with Mexico, but nobody knew the exact location of the boundaries. The fact that the private lands occupied the best and most fertile lands within the state further complicated the issue as squatters challenged the unconfirmed titles. Their boundaries had to be established according to American standards before the adjacent public lands could b e subdivided and sold. This task was not an easy one as the private titles had to first be proven by the Mexican owners to a special U.S. land commission and then, ultimately, to the courts. It was not easy for the claimants to make proof to officials who spoke a different language and worked under unfamiliar rules. The process was further complicated when some individuals filed fraudulent claims. On the other hand, there were likely a number of valid claims that were rejected by the American authorities. The pressure of identifying and subdividing public land combined with the difficulty in proving the private titles caused much difficulty for the rapidly expanding California population.

Instrument Technology
One of the earliest San Francisco instrument makers, William Schmolz, began offering a surveyor’s transit that was advertised as especially designed for retracing the Mexican land grant surveys (Figure 2). This instrument has the standards attached to the lower horizontal plate instead of the upper. These special instruments were constructed so that the compass card and needle ring remain stationary when the transit is rotated in azimuth with the lower plate clamped. For the first time, this design allowed bearings of lines to be carried directly on the instrument circles. A few other makers including the popular Gurley firm, made instruments of similar pattern. An article "The First Surveyors’ Transits, 1852-1862" by Robert C. Miller describes the construction of these transits. It was published in the August 1993 issue of Rittenhouse journal. Schmolz also invented the method for securing the Burt solar attachment to the surveyor’s transit instrument that became the industry standard. It was the style widely marketed by the W. & L.E. Gurley Company.

California has another claim to instrument technology in the "Frisco Rod." The 3-section leveling rod was developed by the Keuffel & Esser Company shortly after it opened a branch office in San Francisco. It was designed to be light and compact in order to be conveniently carried "in railroad or trolley cars, in a buggy, etc., where rods of the usual pattern would b e inconvenient to carry."

Scoundrels & Role Models
The public land surveys started in earnest with the establishment of the Mt. Diablo Initial Point in 1853. To hasten the progress of surveys, additional Initial Points were also set on Mt. San Bernardino in Southern California and in the Humboldt area of Northern California. Meridians, baselines and township exteriors were immediately laid out followed by the cadastral subdivision surveys. Speed was essential to meet the demand of the many new settlers; unfortunately, it also opened the door to those who took advantage of the laxity of government officials.

Subdividing the government public lands was done by private surveyors working under contract with the U.S. Surveyor General for California. The contracted individuals were given the title of U.S. Deputy Surveyors. The program operated fairly well until the early 1870s when a family of surveyors took over both the awarding of contra
cts and execution of the work. That operation was eventually halted by the administration’s ouster of the Surveyor General, however, a precedent had been set. Now, a bigger dilemma was to evolve from the loose governmental supervision. The new problem was of combined land and survey fraud. This operation extended throughout the 10 western states, courtesy of the infamous group known as the Benson Syndicate, led by John A. Benson (Figure 3). The mid-1880s brought the scandal to light and punitive action was initiated against the perpetrators. Strict enforcement of the contract provisions through independent check surveys was also a strong factor in bringing about higher standards of work. (Editor’s note: Look for a future article on Benson, who is arguably the biggest crook in the history of American surveying.)

Surveying Progress
One branch of government surveys, the U.S. Coast Survey (later the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey), has always performed to a high degree of excellence. Much of that can be attributed to the 19th century leader in California, George Davidson (Figure 4). Davidson was an extraordinary individual who always adhered to the highest standards of competence, performance and ethics. He was a principal participant in the transcontinental triangulation of the late 1890s that established the first chain of geodetic control stations across the continent and terminated in central California. The closing figures of that project were named the Davidson Quadrilaterals in his honor. Under his direction numerous coastal surveys were performed along the nearly 1,500 miles of California coastline. The importance of this project was enormous because much of the early commerce was carried on by seagoing vessels.

Other government surveys were performed to a lesser degree of accuracy. These included the topographic surveys of both the U.S. Geological Survey and those done for military purposes under the direction of Lt. George Montague Wheeler. There was much competition between the various agencies about who could produce the best product, both economically and technically. Actually, some elements of the mapping programs were wasteful because the competing agencies chose not to work together. In the Los Angeles area, two separate baselines within sight of each other were measured for geodetic control by the Army and the Coast Survey.

Surveys for urban development, other than the Branciforte survey of 1797, generally began during the late 1840s. A small number of individuals were given military appointments to work as surveyors during the brief period of military rule following the surrender of Mexican forces to Lt. Col. John C. Frémont in January 1847. The appointments provided exclusive authority to designated surveyors to work in defined districts. One such project was the survey of San Francisco in 1847 by Jasper O’Farrell; another was the survey of Los Angeles by Lt. E.O.C. Ord and Chester Lyman in 1849. An interesting element of the Los Angeles survey included comments by Lyman about the difference in magnetic north as determined by their individual transits. The military appointments of surveyors continued in effect until civil rule became established in 1849 through the adoption of a constitution by selected delegates meeting in Monterey.

Private surveying practice was restricted in the state’s early laws to the individual county surveyors or their deputies. As a result, there was a substantial amount of politics involved in being able to work as a surveyor during the early California period. This restriction was never formally repealed, although the duties of the county surveyor were redefined in 1870 and the new language did not provide for such exclusive authority. The surveying work performed by the county surveyors and their deputies during the early decades usually failed to follow the letter of the law. The subdividing of government townships typically didn’t involve anything more than stubbing in with record dimensions from a single recovered corner. Modern surveyors sometimes fail to take this into account when performing retracement surveys of government sections.

Much new private surveying work followed the general opening up of the practice beginning in the 1870s. The state’s rapid population growth resulted in large numbers of new land divisions in the urban areas, many of which were carelessly surveyed and mapped. A number of 19th century recorded tract maps fail to provide sufficient dimensions to enable other surveyors to locate the individual lots. This of course presents the modern surveyor with a difficult situation and oftentimes some sizeable headaches. The numerous defects in subdivision surveys led to the establishment of the first Land Surveyor Registration Act in 1891. That legislation helped tighten up some of the early surveying work, but not all. New state laws were also added regarding the recording of residential subdivision maps, something that was previously undefined in the state codes.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries brought even more changes. Instrument technology continued to progress with lighter metals and advancements in design. The large surveyor’s compass faded into oblivion, while the Smith solar transit quickly became the standard instrument for cadastral surveys. In addition, the steel tape replaced the cumbersome link chain. Besides the advances in equipment, educational facilities also appeared with dedicated surveying programs; two of the more prominent schools were the Van der Naillen School of Engineering and Heald’s College. These and other advancements resulted in a more qualified California land surveyor, one who was better trained and used superior instruments.

Fence Lines and Case Law
Despite the advancements in technology and training, the property corners placed by the pioneer California surveyors continue to challenge the judgement of modern surveyors. They are often confronted with how to locate property boundaries in areas where earlier corners were set according to inferior standards of practice. The pioneer owners frequently built fences along the property lines identified to them by county surveyors during the 19th century. The disparity in locations between historic fences and current aliquot-part subdivision guidelines becomes critical as recent case law moves toward not recognizing longstanding fences for boundary purposes. Thus the modern surveyor is challenged to mark property based upon current survey methodology that results in differing corner locations than those set under the historic standards of practice. Some surveyors have suggested that fences in California heretofore be mounted on wheels rather than by setting posts in concrete.

Bud Uzes has 51 years of surveying experience and currently operates a consulting business that specializes in boundary litigation. He is active in surveying history and is the author of Chaining the Land, A History of Surveying in California. He once published a price guide for antique instruments and books, and has been a contributing author to Brown’s Boundary Control and Legal Principles. He is a graduate of the University of San Francisco and a Fellow and Life Member of ACSM.

Author’s Note: A variation of this article appeared in Turning the Horizon, published by the Michigan Society of Professional Surveyors Foundation, Issue 1, Vol. 2, Fall 2003.

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