2006 Original Corner Recovery

A 3.306Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

The year was 1847 and dew was running in intermittent rivulets down the canvas lean-to. The men ate their breakfast of sourdough biscuits, served with a generous portion of salted pork and what was left of the bluegill dinner from the previous evening and washed down with camp coffee. Deputy surveyor John Burt was getting the crew ready for another day of discovery in the western end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His father, William Austin Burt, inventor of the solar compass, was the patriarch of a family of surveyors who crisscrossed the Upper Peninsula. John had been tasked with completing the south and west lines of T45N R42W, while his father worked on the north and east boundary.

This was an area of wilderness relatively untouched by the white settlers but well known to the local natives as a land of abundance. The original survey maps in the area show Native American villages, sugar bushes, game trails and elaborate fence systems, presumably to funnel big game during a hunt. Berries, nuts, timber, fish and wildlife are still plentiful and, if it were not for the occasional road that accesses the region, it would appear much the same as when Burt first arrived.

Fast forward to October 2006 and the Pine Cone Inn at Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin. Here a new band of young surveyors from Michigan Technological University had gathered. What was it that brought them here, on a weekend, during what little remained of the warm weather in the U.P.?

Let it be said, first of all, that the students and faculty of Michigan Tech are a fairly hearty bunch. For starters, the university is located in the city of Houghton on Portage Lake in Michigan’s rugged and heavily forested Upper Peninsula. Outdoor enthusiasts take part in year-round activities that the surroundings offer with its numerous lakes, streams, and of course Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. Houghton receives an average of 250 inches of snow per year making it an ideal winter activity venue ­ in fact, many students ride their snowmobiles to campus! Michigan Tech offers a Bachelor of Science in Surveying Engineering program that has been in existence since 1977. Students receive a quality education and an abundance of practical field experience that utilizes the latest in equipment and software. And the proof is in the pudding: graduates of the program report 100% placement.

Getting Their Bearings
Accompanied by faculty member and licensed surveyor Robert Liimakka, the group met up with Patrick Leemon, Forest Land Surveyor for the Ottawa National Forest, for an early breakfast. Over breakfast Pat distributed a packet containing GLO notes, quadrangle maps and aerial photos of the search areas to each student. The packets were studied and the day’s mission was discussed with Pat providing the particulars of retracement procedures and sharing his own experiences. It would be their goal to attempt the recovery of two original corners set by John Burt. Like bees to a flower, these young men and women are being drawn into the realm of corner recovery, the very foundation of our Public Land Survey System (PLSS).

Renowned inventor and business man Alexander Graham Bell said, "Before anything else, preparation is the key to success." Whether they realized it or not, the students had been preparing for this day most of their academic career. All of their acquired knowledge, skills and abilities had brought them to this point, and many of those skills would be needed for this project. GLO notes, aerial photos and maps in hand, the day’s mission was discussed over coffee. But it didn’t start with making photocopies of historic records.

Geographic Measurement Management
The success of the yearly original corner searches hinges largely on a computer program called Geographic Measurement Management (GMM). This is public domain software can be found on the Internet (http://web.nmsu.edu/~kwurm/Software.html). GMM is the muscle behind the PLSS layer for what will become the Ottawa National Forest’s GIS. GMM is the product of collaboration between the University of Maine, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Once installed on a computer, it is a simple matter of entering the original GLO or subsequent survey notes for the desired area and populating the region with GPS coordinates for control. An adjustment is done on the project file and calculated coordinates are determined for all corners within the area. Any particular section can be subdivided further. The size of a project doesn’t matter ­ it can be as small as an individual section or as large as several counties. It is ideal for retracement because it yields a search area in seconds, and as additional coordinates are entered for control, the adjustment can be rerun to yield new areas to search. The program is capable of calculating closing corner, meander corners and even angle points on a meander line. The program remains true to the BLM manual in respect to the proper subdivision of a section and the restoration of lost corners. You can work in latitude, longitude, State Plane, and grid and ground measurements. It is truly a remarkable piece of software. Sub-meter GPS is fine for this work as it compares favorably with the original surveys. The quality of the coordinates is directly related to the accuracy of the data used to create it. History has shown us that some deputy surveyors have dubious reputations, leaving us with sometimes perplexing issues. (Surveyors of the Public Land in Michigan by Caldwell is an excellent source for information on the deputy surveyors.) Fortunately, John Burt left behind an excellent reputation for the quality of his surveys. His documentation is right on the mark for the individuals who worked in Michigan.

Bay Lake Meander Corner
Fed and full of energy, we hopped in our trucks and headed for property owned by the University of Notre Dame. This biological research facility is surrounded by pristine forests, abundant lakes, and partitioned by flowing streams on the Michigan-Wisconsin border.

With the GMM coordinates entered into a sub-meter Trimble ProXR GPS receiver, our caravan of vehicles wound through the pine forests of northern Wisconsin before crossing back into Michigan and the mixed hardwood stands that are typical of the Ottawa National Forest. We were able to get within a quarter mile of the lake. A quick compass shot pointed the way to our first location.

Sunlight pierced the cloud cover for long periods of time as we passed over a thick blanket of leaves covering the forest floor. In short order we made our way down a hardwood ridge into a leatherleaf bog and the shore of Bay Lake. The water table had risen considerably since my last visit there. Beavers had built higher dams. We were now standing in ankle deep water where there had been dry ground only months earlier, and the East Meander Corner on Bay Lake was nowhere in sight.

The original notes called for a lake intersection at 29.50 chains from the southeast corner of section 36. At that location Burt blazed and scribed a 36" white pine bearing S45º E, 22 links and a 7" white cedar bearing N66º E, 37 links from the corner. It didn’t take long to find several stumps worthy of closer inspection. A few standing cedar snags had clearly healed blazes. However, several things didn’t seem "right" about any of them. The cedars we found were not much larger than the originals in 1847. Although possible, it was not probable. The white pine seemed too far north for a surveyor of Burt’s reputation, and the fact that this was a township line reinforced that concept
. A further search of the area revealed some hemlock and maple stumps, and we were still about 30 feet northerly of the position GMM indicated.

Moving further south along the shore, the number of viable stumps diminished quickly. Pushing through the willow and tag alder was not easy. Each mound had to be inspected to determine if it was the remains of an ancient tree, long fallen and severely decayed. The minutes passed and soon one of the students found a rather large stump. A quick glance was enough to identify it as a conifer. A rather large blaze on the northwest side of the stump revealed axe marks, a measuring notch, and the last remnants of eroded scribing. That was pretty conclusive ­ but what about the cedar bearing tree? By using the COGO routines on a calculator the students determined the bearing and distance between GLO stumps, thereby dramatically reducing the time required during the search process. The students used a compass to find a corresponding stump within two degrees and one foot of the calculated inverse (N31º E 23.5 feet). To further identify the stump, Pat explained that by examining the cross section of the wood’s cellular structure it is possible to positively identify the tree species. Everyone got hands-on experience with a 10X hand lens. These inspections did not reveal resin ducts and the transition from springwood to summerwood was more gradual than in hemlock. These two traits and the fact the wood split easily are prime indicators of white cedar. Cedar aroma could not be discerned over the earthy tones of decay. Published books on identifying wood (such as Identifying Wood by Hoadley, and Wood Structures and Identification by Core, Cote and Day) are good, but supplementing written texts with known samples in various stages of decay is invaluable.

From the two recovered GLO witnesses we located a search area in the lake worthy of excavation. The original notes didn’t indicate a wood post had been set, but we still needed to look. The search was abandoned after quite a long time digging in the sand and gravel in the frigid water. No post point was found. If a post was set in 1847, it either was lifted from its position by ice or was lost to the ravages of time.

It is unlikely that any monument set in the lake would remain undisturbed more than a few years due to winter icing. The best option was to set a witness corner on the township line a safe distance away. This monument was witnessed and the information noted for future recording before heading back to the trucks.

Back at the vehicles, it was nearly noon and voracious appetites were met with a potluck of bratwursts, entrees, and dessert. It was turning out to be a particularly pleasant day. The temperature had warmed, the sun sparkled off Bay Lake in the distance, we had plenty to eat, and the conversation turned to school and survey topics. While the university focuses on technology, ethics and practical skills, it hasn’t lost sight of the need to not just follow in the footsteps of previous surveyors, but to be able to track the evidence left behind by these surveyors. That is the primary reason for these yearly outings.

The Missing Quarter Corner
After lunch, we were off to a second site. Although it was only five miles down the township line, it was nearly forty miles by vehicle. A good hour later we arrived near the South Quarter Corner of Section 31 T45N R42W. After a short hike into a black spruce swamp, we arrived at the computed GMM coordinates. The notes called for entering and leaving a swamp at 36.50 and 43.00 chains respectively. It’s often tough to determine the same location for the swamp edge as the original surveyors. We have found that measuring across the swamp to where we call the other edge and proportioning that distance against the original distance yields good results. The swamp calls verified our GPS position within a quarter chain. There were many dead snags and downed trees in the area. In the original notes, a tamarack post was set marking the corner and two tamarack bearing trees, one at N13º E 15 links and a second at N60º W 56 links, were taken. One tamarack snag immediately stood out. A large healed scar was visible at just the right height for an original blaze. Further examination of the panel from this tree showed what appeared to be the measuring notch. Because of the severe heart rot, it disintegrated in our hands. We were also able to make out axe marks on the panel as well as quarter blazes around the tree indicating others had been here long before us. It’s not uncommon to find other blazes from timber cruisers marking their passage through the area.

In 1880, the European Larch Sawfly was accidentally introduced in Boston, Massachusetts. From 1910 through 1926, it devastated tamarack stands across the north woods. Since this tree showed signs of a healed scar, the tamarack must have been reopened by someone around 1900. This action would seem to indicate of a long accepted position. The inside of the panel was observed for any sign of reverse scribing. Although you could easily make out where the tree had healed against the flattened panel caused by an axe, we didn’t see any raised lettering where the tree would have healed into the scribe marks. Out came the calculators to determine another inverse between the GLO bearing trees. Imagine our delight when again at the measured bearing and distance we found a matching stump, badly decayed but showing the last remnants of a healed blaze. These stumps were within two degrees for direction and one-half foot for distance when compared to the mathematical inverse between GLO stumps.

We swung an arc from each stump, marking the moss covered ground with spray paint. At the intersection of these arcs we began to dig. After removing organic matter from a three-by-five foot area, and well over a foot deep, we could not find the point. Each previous year we were fortunate to find the point of the original post. Alas, it was not to be on this occasion. What happened to it remains a mystery.

Could we have been looking in the wrong location? Not from the standpoint of GLO swamp calls and distances east and west. These eventually compared to within three feet of record. As for the north-south position, the recovered township corner one-half mile west matched within two feet of record! Were the tamaracks we found really the originals? Because of their strong relationship to each other and the fact that no other tamaracks had even the faintest remains of a corresponding stump at the calculated inverse, it is likely that they are indeed the original BTs. What happened to the point? It could have been pulled by human or dislodged by a black bear. Bears often wreak havoc with survey evidence left in the woods. I can’t prove that so it would be pure speculation. Probably, the agents of decay have worked ceaselessly to obliterate all traces of the original post. If the water table in the bog dropped, any portion of the point above it would have begun to decay and a small diameter post wouldn’t last too long.

Igniting the Passion
The authentic retracement experiences provide valuable insight, improve retracement skills and teach caution for these future surveyors not to imagine evidence that isn’t there. We don’t want them to preface their conclusions with speculative statements such as "if this happened, then it is conceivable that…." Their responsibility is to uncover the facts and support their conclusions with as much convincing collateral evidence as they can muster when they are unable to find indisputable proof of the original corner. Usually they will not recover original evidence. In those cases, they must be able to defend their decision with supporting facts.

Each year, it gets harder to find these ancient posts and their accessories. Thirty years ago it was easier. Ten years from now, it will be even harder. Some day, it will all be gone, decayed away without a trace. By then, future surveyors will be looking for the decayed remains of
the trees we blaze today or the standard irons we use to mark our positions. Perhaps some day we just may recover everything with GPS and a math solution. But then, a set of numbers five digits right of the decimal point placed in a shadow box on your office wall won’t have the same appeal.

Next year another group of students from Michigan Tech will embark on a similar adventure to another part of the Ottawa National Forest where they can hone their retracement skills and begin a lifetime passion for this aspect of surveying.

Pat Leemon is employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the Ottawa National Forest. He has been surveying since 1979.

Rob Liimakka is a professor in the Survey Engineering Department at Michigan Tech. He holds a doctorate in civil engineering and a MS in Spatial Information Science and Engineering from the University of Maine, Orono, and a BS in Land Surveying from Michigan Tech.

1845 Geological Map by W.A. Burt

One of the responsibilities of the deputy surveyors was to classify the surveyed lands by mineral content. This 1845 map shows such a classification. In his article " U.P. Surveyors," that appeared in the September/October 1982 edition of Michigan History, author LeRoy Barnett wrote:

"…Surveying activities in the Upper Peninsula continued west in 1844. Douglass Houghton signed a $20,000 contract with the federal government to delimit 4,000 miles of township and section lines in what were believed to be the Lake Superior mineral districts. Burt was engaged to establish the township boundaries, and Houghton took upon himself the task of subdividing these tracts into 640acre squares. On 19 September, near Teal Lake, Burt and his men found their compasses acting in a most irregular fashion. A search for the cause revealed numerous specimens of magnetic ore. The rich concentration of minerals eventually gave rise to one of Michigan’s largest mining concerns, the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company….The reason for [the] decline in the progress of surveying the Upper Peninsula was insufficient compensation. As part of an economy move, the federal government had decided that no contract would be let for more than $4.50 per mile. At that price, no one could be found to accept a job surveying the interior where forests, swamps and brush were so thick that horses or mules could not be used for packing. In areas not supplied by boat, men had to be hired to walk in all provisions and baggage. Moreover, due to the iron deposits in the region, only the solar compass could be used. This device, which was not affected by magnetism, required a fairly high sun, limiting the time a surveyor could work to less than ten hours even on sunny days."

A 3.306Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE