Bona Fide Rights at the Bridge to Nowhere

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In the upper reaches of the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, 4 1/2 miles from the nearest road, sits a highway bridge over a deep span of the river. It is just south of the steepest river gorge in Southern California, called the Narrows. It is the Bridge to Nowhere. The bridge was completed in 1936 by Los Angeles County highway engineers as part of the Camp Bonita-Prairie Forks Road project. With the use of inmate labor, the road and the bridge were part of an effort to provide a new means of travel to the ski resorts near Wrightwood and an additional emergency route out of heavily populated Southern California.

Unfortunately, in the E. Fork of the San Gabriel River, history often repeats itself. In November of 1859, a mining settlement in the canyon known as Prospect Bar was totally swept away by a powerful flood. All mining works were lost. In 1862, a little over 2 years later, a rebuilt settlement known as Eldoradoville met with the same fate. Although mining continued in the canyon, no major construction was attempted in the canyon until 1929 when County Highway Engineers began pushing the road into the canyon. In 1936, the bridge, along with a tunnel on the upstream side of the bridge, had been built. However, March 2, 1938, with the road still under construction, another huge storm swelled the river to frightening proportions. The road was chopped to pieces and the county abandoned the project. In 1979 the highway was officially abandoned. Many years later the tunnel was sealed but the bridge remained.

Note: The first day of our survey work was spent collecting static data for post processing control points. It was interrupted by a fierce thunderstorm. It was extreme and too dangerous for the crew to leave shelter and retrieve our Topcon GR-3 receivers. So we did not. The receivers collected data throughout the storm and, although we repeated the measurements, the data was useable.

The Bridge exists within the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument and also within the Sheep Mountain Wilderness Area in Angeles National Forest. These are steep and rugged mountains with deep canyons containing habitat for rare and unique wildlife, including California condor, spotted owl, bighorn sheep, and long lived limber pines. Yet, the USDA reports that 15 million people live within 90 minutes of its location. The bridge has been used since the early 1990s by a company known as Bungee America. It is one of the few Bungee jumping operations which utilize a bridge for a platform in the country. Herein lies the surveying dilemma. The owner of Bungee America had claimed to own the bridge. The U.S. Forest Service disputed that, based on county records, and requested the Bureau of Land Management to execute a dependent resurvey of the necessary aliquot parts to settle the question. The private land in question is the only remaining private parcel for miles within this township.

The Private Land
The description of the lands to be surveyed involved Mineral Entry Patent No. 342527, granted to E.A. Gray and R.S. Saunders, in 1913, comprising what was known as the Horseshoe and Horseshoe Annex placer mining claims. These are aliquot part descriptions in sections 5, 6, 7, and 8, T. 2 N., R. 8 W., S.B.M.

The Pearson Surveys
The original survey was executed by G.W. Pearson, in 1884. Under normal circumstances, this survey would involve the subdivision of secs. 5, 6, 7, and 8. However, Pearson’s survey was completed during the peak years (1880-1885) of fraudulent government surveys conducted by the Benson Syndicate. The 1887 Annual Report of the General Land Office lists Pearson as an associate of John A. Benson. The 1888 Annual Report contains a list of surveyors who were paid excessive amounts by Benson Associates during the years 1883 and 1884. Pearson was on it. These were only concerns at this point. However it was also discovered that Percy L. Day, National Forest Examiner, surveyed Homestead Entry No. 183 in this township, and in the process searched for public land corners in April and May, 1914. He concluded, from statements made by local residents, prospectors, surveyors, and Forest Rangers, that "no corners have been or will be found in this township". He also searched with Legrand Friel, U.S. Mineral Surveyor, in March, 1915, with the same results. In April 1915, Mr. Day made a third attempt finally concluding "I am convinced that further search is useless". In 1921 the township plat of T. 2 N., R. 8 W., was suspended by the General Land Office. Finally, a 1938 resurvey executed by the General Land Office searched for approximately 110 corners set by Pearson in neighboring townships and did not find one. Clearly, the existence of the subdivision of the township by Pearson was highly suspect.

The Survey Approach
The BLM, which is the only agency that can cancel an official survey, does not easily do so. Every reasonable hope is explored to locate that survey. With that in mind, an evaluation of every line in the township was undertaken to see if the survey could be recovered. Overlays of Pearson’s topographic calls were developed and gross distortions were uncovered throughout the township. Due to the steep and rugged terrain, the difficulty of searching corners without a reasonable search area was in most cases unrealistic. However, the 1/4 sec. cor. of secs. 9 and 16 and the 1/4 sec. cor. of secs. 11 and 14 were a possible exception. They appeared to have a close relationship to each other and both fell near the top of ridgelines between 5000 and 7000 ft. in elevation. These ridgelines could be identified as Bighorn Ridge and Iron Mountain Ridge but where Pearson may have crossed them was uncertain.

The plan was to use the U.S. Forest Service contracted Helicopter, a Bell 205++, to access the ridge lines where these corners were most likely set. Once on the ground, a 3 man crew would search a nearly 1/2 mile stretch of the ridge. One day was spent on each ridge line. The Forest Service helicopter was primarily dedicated to fire operations. There was no guarantee that the chopper would be able to retrieve the crew at the end of the day. Without the chopper, an exit from the ridge on that day was nearly impossible. Emergency supplies were brought along just in case. Luckily, the return trip always happened. In this way the only real possibility of finding an original corner in this township was exhausted. At the conclusion of these ridgeline searches, the fraudulent nature of Pearson’s survey was inescapable.

Need for a Tract Survey
In this case, the primary methods for identifying the patented land are not applicable. There is no survey on the ground which would locate the Patent. At this point the survey approach was necessarily changed. The principles of applying a Tract Survey became the focus. The survey must be in compliance with 43 U.S.C. 772 which in a shortened form says "The Secretary of the Interior may…..cause to be made….. resurveys….. that no such survey shall be so executed as to impair the bona fide rights or claims of any claimant, entryman, or owner of lands affected by such resurvey"

In addition, the guiding principles set down by the Manual of Surveying Instructions, 2009 edition, for the location of alienated lands such as this are summarized in:

Section 6-71 – ………..The question of the good faith of the entryman is fully considered. Where the evidence of the original survey is so obliterated that lack of good faith in location cannot be charged against the entryman and whose claim boundaries may differ from a theoretical location determined by proportionate methods, the available collateral evidence is to be regarded as the best indication of the original position of the claim included in the original description. ………

Section 6-72 – Where the surveyor cannot definitely locate a claim by identification of the original survey, the claimant should be asked to point out his or her boundaries …………an acceptably located claim must have a form agreeing with the original entry, approximately regular boundaries, an area not widely inconsistent with that shown on the original plat……….

Section 6-74 – ………..If improvements have been located in good faith, the tract survey will be so executed…………. as to cover these improvements as nearly as possible,……………..

These principles in mind, the survey focused on documentary evidence and field data to reach the strongest conclusion for boundary determination. Any documents from Los Angeles County which spoke to the historical perception of this boundary were gathered. The Patent Application files from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) contained over 150 pages of background information relative to the patent. The documents were sifted for information relative to the patentees perception of the location of his boundaries. The pertinent information was summarized in a table of Historical Documents.

With the County documents and NARA documents in hand, the field work then gathered as much evidence on the ground relative to those documents. The site of the patent and the Bridge to Nowhere are over 4 miles from the nearest road. The terrain surrounding the site is very steep, loose, and difficult to work in; therefore, the available Forest Service helicopter was utilized to optimize survey time on the site. A Landing zone was identified within 850 feet of the bridge.

Once all the information was compiled, a Report of Investigation, dated February 2, 2016, was written and submitted to the Chief, Branch of Geographic Services at the California State Office of the BLM. The report examined 6 possible Patent locations and discussed the strengths and weaknesses of each. It was the alternative referred to as "Patent 6" which was adopted because of its strength of legal position.

The best source of collateral evidence in this case was determined to be the Mining Claim Locations and supporting documents recovered from NARA. They gave descriptions and direct insight into the patentees perception of location. Most of these documents were produced for that specific reason. In concert with documents of subsequent owners and the current owners testimony, there was found a historical consistency as to location.

The decision for Patent 6 resulted in the Bridge to Nowhere being within the boundaries of the patented land.

The County documents, although graphically representing the private land boundaries in a different location, clearly indicated that they did not know where the boundaries were. Those documents were developed much later than the time of patent and were produced for other reasons (i.e. to gain an easement, to satisfy regulatory requirements, etc.).

The remaining private lands from Patent No. 342527 were given the designation of Tract 37, T. 2 N., R. 8 W., S.B.M. The corners of Tract 37 were labeled as Angle Point Nos. beginning in the NE corner of the Tract. All corners of the Tract were monumented even though reaching most of them was incredibly difficult. Helicopters were not available in May 2016 when corners needed to be set; therefore, the 4 1/2 mile hike to/ from and subsequent hill climbs to set corners were done by foot daily.

The metes-and-bounds survey of Tract 37 containing the Bridge to Nowhere was officially approved August 1, 2016. Detail omitted in this summarized account of the survey can be obtained in the 31 page Report of Investigation, dated February 2, 2016.

Gregory J. Aten is a cadastral surveyor for the Bureau of Land Management with 38 years of experience. He is a licensed land surveyor in Colorado and has been the lead surveyor at the Paso Robles Field Station, Paso Robles, California for the last 20 years.

A 12.315Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE