Vantage Point: The Fading Hand Writing on the Wall

A 282Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

I am finishing a detailed search to discover if an island in the tidal portion of the river between New Jersey and Pennsylvania is owned by the municipality claiming it, and if so, whether the title runs to high water (the usual presumption) or current low water (as the city asserts). Complicating matters is a title commitment stating that half of this island is owned by Robert Hunter, his heirs and assigns. This particular Mr. Hunter was the Governor of the Province of New Jersey-New York at the time of conveyance in 1710. Was the deed meant for him as an individual, with his official title simply inserted to distinguish him from anyone else, or was the conveyance meant to be in trust for the citizens of the Province over which he had dominion? Were the five shillings paid a nominal sum or fair market value at the time? What was the significance of the required payment of one peppercorn on the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel?

It’s the kind of research I really enjoy, involving digging through archives for old deeds, squinting at them until a few words pop out as decipherable from sometimes elaborately swirly or hurriedly scrawled script, and then decoding the rest of the document from there. This particular project has also required tracing legislative history from 1682 forward to find all references to the island in question and its appointed trustees. Some of the printed Acts are challenging as well. Aside from such usual encounters with words containing a double "s" appearing as a double "f" ("affeffed" for "assessed"), other contemporaneous spellings and word usage and spidery italicized font provide another test of comprehension.

But this is not an article about my latest fun project. Instead, it’s about what we seem to be at risk of losing in our constant chase after the latest time-saving, numbercrunching, expense-minimizing technological advance and related changes in basic education, not just for surveyors.

As modern-day grade schools wonder about the value of teaching students to write using cursive script, I wonder how those who only write and read in block letters or standard keyboard fonts would handle a project such as the one I am wrapping up. Will they be able to read old documents? If not, what will become of future surveyors’ attempts to follow the original intent and the original footsteps? (And for those students who don’t become surveyors, perhaps they will wonder about the contents of those old handwritten letters discovered up in the attic.) For those who can neither read such materials themselves nor know anyone who can, what decisions will they make regarding one of the most closely protected possessions humans hold, their real property interests? This is of major consequence, and yes, it does keep me up some nights after a particularly fruitful day of searching and deciphering.

Many years ago, while part of the advisory committee for a university surveying program, I had a heated discussion with the program coordinator over the plan to drop any discussion of historical instrumentation and measurement from the curriculum. While I don’t believe it necessary to conduct lab classes using transits and tapes and spring balances to make students experts in antiquated measurements, I do firmly believe in the value of one class session during which students have to read a vernier with an eye loupe and pull a steel tape to the proper tension and count the links of a chained measurement. Visual and visceral experience underscores the hugely significant differences between "one chain and twenty-seven links" and "83.82 feet" and between "eighty four and a quarter degrees" and "84 15′ 00"." Without such experience, will they catch that a 66′ discrepancy could have been caused by "dropping a chain," or will they try to adjust it out?

We shouldn’t get stuck in the past, but we should keep an eye on it. And even keeping an eye on it is not enough if we don’t have a clue as to what to do with what we see. Black box solutions are simply tools in the practice of surveying; they don’t ask questions or think for us. The biggest and best resource we have is the one inside our heads, but like any modern A.I. device, this natural version needs to be trained. There are some who will brush off the concerns expressed here. I wonder if they have worked only with typewritten records and haven’t had to track a series of land records that first located, then lost, then once again found that boulder or blazed tree, and then translate field notes written with crow quill pen during the "lost" period to see why the marker couldn’t be found.

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.

A 282Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

About the Author

Wendy Lathrop, PS, CFM

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.