Surveyors uncover history in the woods of St. Louis County
CENTRAL LAKES — A mile off the nearest gravel road in a stand of young aspen, balsam and birch, a four-man crew from the St. Louis County Surveyor's Office hopped off their tracked ATVs and loaded up their backpacks for a walk in the woods.
They brought a chainsaw and hand saws, a compass and GPS units, metal signs and fence posts, shovels and post pounders, spray paint and bright pink ribbon, 200-foot measuring tapes and other tools.
They were looking for the so-called monument that marks the spot where the corner point of this section line is located, one of the basic points from which all property lines in the U.S. are defined.
The monument markers were originally set by U.S. government surveyors in St. Louis County from about 1850 to 1911 — guys in wool hats and plaid shirts carrying chains and a compass and a notebook. They camped in the woods and had little communication with the outside world — but took very good notes that have been preserved to this day.
This particular marker, about 40 miles north of Duluth, was set in July 1875, one of 25,500 corner points in St. Louis County. This spot was re-surveyed in 1971 and again in 1989, county records show. But surveyors at the time weren't clear in their notes if a new monument had been properly planted.
"We're interested in seeing what this one is like, whether it's still there and if we can find it or not," Nick Stewart, director of the county surveyor's office, part of the St. Louis County Public Works Department, said on the way into the woods.
But this particular monument hunt didn't last long. The marker was obvious, firmly planted in the ground between two rocks.
Not far from the monument there was a bent, wind-mangled dead tree with about 10 feet of trunk still standing straight. About six feet up was a small metal sign left by the 1989 crew, a so-called bearing tree or reference marker telling anyone who came here later that the nearby monument was exactly 22.5 feet to the southeast.
Another marker was found on a dead tree lying on the ground. The crew used their measuring tape and notes from bygone surveyors to find even older bearing trees that had died or burned.
"As a former history major, that's half the fun of this job. It's like reliving history, reliving what they did right in this spot in 1875," said Joby Davidsavor, a survey tech on this crew.
The crew even found a scribe, a surveyor's mark, on a partially burned red pine stump, all that remained of the bearing tree marked by the 1875 crew. The red pine had perished sometime over the past 143 years, but just enough stump was standing to reveal history. It was exactly the distance from the corner point that the 1875 crew said it would be.
"It's a little bit like a treasure hunt," said Bruce Anderson, a 35-year veteran surveyor. Except instead of gold, land surveyors find historic references left by crews 50, 100, even 150 years ago.
Loggers, wind and fires had long ago taken all the big trees in this part of the woods.
"This one was surveyed just 30 years ago, but all of the trees they used (as bearing trees) are dead already," Anderson noted. "A lot can change in the woods over the years. It makes the job interesting."
There are monuments like this across much of the U.S., eight monuments around every square mile, spaced a half-mile apart. They are the foundation of the system that divides the nation into grids of quarter sections, half sections, sections, townships and counties. It's been this way for nearly 200 years, and was the basis for the federal government to give land or sell it to homesteaders, timber barons and railroad magnates.
State laws clearly demand that those original markers are the official corners of that grid and shall be the measure used to establish legal property lines.
But over the past 150 years, property has been divided, bought and sold over and over again. As time passed and the markers weren't maintained, the property lines used by owners, buyers and sellers often shifted from the original markers, with incorrect lines often figured off maps, old fences or landmarks.
At this particular marker — in unnamed Township 56, Range 17 North — the section corner as drawn on U.S. Geological Survey quadrangle maps turned out to be a whopping 149 feet off from the original corner the crew found. And the corner as noted on county property tax record maps was 216 feet away from the legal corner point.
"That's actually fairly common, being that far off," said Dylan Otto, a survey tech for the county crew.
Property owners in this area — in this case Potlatch Land Co., Northwest Paper Co. and St. Louis County — have been using the wrong lines for years, maybe decades, to delineate their land.
Slowly retracing steps
While Anderson nailed new bearing signs up for future surveyors to find the spot, Otto took precise GPS measurements at the monument and recorded them. The data will be entered in the county's massive GIS computer database. Eventually, all of the original corners in the county will be updated and marked online. So far, about 8,000 of the 25,500 corner points have been officially certified and mapped.
St. Louis County bolstered its survey staff in 2012 to get more corners certified sooner. The county also contracts with private, licensed surveyors to find more monument locations, especially during the peak scouting periods — in spring after snow melts but before leaves sprout, and in fall after leaves fall but before snow comes. (If licensed, private surveyors document monuments when working for their clients, those also can be added to the officially certified list.)
Surveyors are getting to about 500 to 600 monuments per year, so it will be decades before they finish the state's largest county, some 7,000 square miles.
The effort has upset some property owners when the rediscovered original property lines show half their tennis court or deer hunting cabin is actually on someone else's land.
"People sometimes say we're moving the (property) lines. But all we're doing is establishing the original positions set by the original government surveyors that are the law," Stewart said. "What they had before was somebody's idea of where the line should be, and that idea is sometimes wrong."
The effort to re-establish the original, legal lines will help property owners — as sellers or buyers or even for property tax purposes — know the official, accurate corners of their property.
Stewart urges anyone buying or especially building on land to first hire a private surveyor to certify the legal lines.
"It's a lot less expensive to have it surveyed before than to have to tear down a cabin or house and move it, or doing a land deal to acquire the property you aren't supposed to be on," Stewart said.
County foresters and other land managers also want to know the correct borders of their tracts so they don't inadvertently allow loggers onto other landowners' property.
Much of the county surveyors' work also deals with road and bridge construction, making sure corners and property lines are clearly delineated before work starts.
Mining companies, too, need to know where they have proper right to dig, one reason the county is using some of its mining royalties to help speed up the surveying process.
Wrong side of the line?
The revitalized surveying effort in recent years has caused some headaches for people who bought land based on inaccurate maps, or on the seller's word, or a neighbor's hunch.
"It happens all the time. Sometimes they are hundreds of feet off," Stewart said. "The USGS quad maps that a lot of people used over the years are a good starting point. But they aren't the official tool."
That may have happened to Tim Alvar of Lakewood Township just outside Duluth. Alvar and family members built a cabin in a remote area north of Island Lake on what they thought was land they purchased in 2002.
In preparation for some logging planned in the area, county officials notified Alvar that, based on aerial photos and contour maps, the cabin may be several hundred feet onto state-owned forest land. Two other family deer hunting cabins on county land in the same area also appear to be off.
"There hasn't been a lot of (surveying) activity in some areas of the county like that one for 50, maybe 100 years or more. There's a lack of information available in some areas," Stewart said, noting the most recent written history on property corners in that area is from 1910. "Based on preliminary information, we called him in to let him know there may be an issue when he had plans to do some logging. But we won't know anything for sure until we certify and record the corners for his section. ... We have to let the surveyors finish their work."
That should happen soon, Stewart said.
While the county asks for patience, Alvar said he's angry that the county is spending tax money "moving lines" and causing controversy where none existed before. He says he already knows where the rightful corners are, but that the county won't listen.
"I've spent all winter proving them wrong. I have the documentation. I know where the bearing rocks are, but they won't listen," Alvar said. "They've created a lot of worry for me."
Alvar said he did not have the property professionally surveyed when he purchased it, but said the "judge's family I bought it from said" it was cost prohibitive.
Stewart said that once the original corners are located and recorded in that area, his office, the St. Louis County Land and Minerals Department and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have agreed to work with Alvar to resolve any issue amicably.
That's the point of the county's renewed effort effort to re-establish original corners — to make it easier for private landowners to have their property lines identified. The more corners recorded and certified, the easier, quicker and cheaper it will be to have any particular parcel accurately surveyed.
Now, with fewer than one in four markers re-established county-wide, some property is miles away from the nearest certified landmark.
Those original corner points "are the foundation of the system" we use to define property, Stewart noted. "Otherwise it would be a real mess."
Surveyors Week in Minnesota
Gov. Mark Dayton proclaimed March 18-24 as Surveyors Week in Minnesota in recognition of surveyors' historic and current role in advancing Minnesota, including how they impact residents dozens of times each day. There are about 500 licensed surveyors in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Society of Professional Surveyors.
"Today, surveying is utilized in engineering, aircraft navigation, and mapping and charting," Dayton said in his written proclamation. "Minnesota appreciates the historical contributions of surveyors and the new technologies that are constantly changing this profession."
That includes GPS, 3D laser scanning, robotics, drones, digital photography and other equipment to measure and map boundaries for property, engineering, architecture, mapmaking, construction and other needs. Additional information about surveying, including careers, can be found at mnsurveyor.com.
For more information on the St. Louis County Surveyor's Office, go to stlouiscountymn.gov and search for County Surveyor. To see the closest corner points certified near your property, search for County Survey Explorer, an interactive computer map with all 8,000 recertified monuments marked in green.
County officials strongly recommend having any rural property surveyed before buying or building. While the surveyor's office does not survey for private property owner land sales, they do list more than 20 private, licensed surveying companies in the region who are available to conduct private property surveys.