The Chance of a Lifetime

It was the chance of a lifetime: going into the backcountry to search for section corners and quarter-section corners set by surveyors one-hundred and one years before. The fly-in-the-ointment was that the surveyors probably had done their work while perched on a barstool in 1882. Someone knew how to nurse a beer.

In cadastral surveying the place to start is to assume that the survey was done and either the evidence has been lost, obliterated, or simply not found. You begin searching for clues in the field notes that the surveyor took. These notes state the where they ascended, descended, crossed creeks and such along the way to setting a corner. The early surveyors carried a metal tape called a “Gunter’s Chain” to measure distance. (There are 80 chains in a mile and 640 acres in a section.) For instance, the notes might say, “at 25 chains 24 links, crossed a small creek.” You can put the items on a piece of Mylar and overlay them on a topographic map to see if maybe the notes match up in any way to the actual terrain.

Mountain Home State Forest is located in Tulare County, twenty-two air miles northeast of Porterville, CA. It is situated in the middle north fork and north fork drainages of the Tule River. Elevations from 4800 to 7600 feet above sea level. And for over forty years of state ownership, about half of the boundaries were not known. These were primarily in the township of 19S 31E.


A survey crew in 1919

So, based on these field notes and any hare-brained cockamamie idea or hunch, we went out and searched for the rock mounds and sticks and bearing trees (a tree that bears witness to a monument by having a rectangular section of bark removed and the distance and bearing is scribed onto the exposed wood). We did find one: an interior corner that had been missing for one hundred years. When our licensed surveyor (under who’s license we did all our work) went to the spot, the post crumbled in his hand as he dug it out.

To be continued…

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Sections, Townships, and Range

A long time ago (call it 1983) in a place far, far, away (call it Mountain Home State Forest), a small band of courageous neophyte surveyors began a project that many in the California Department of Forestry hierarchy felt to be impossible. We started work on finding, and then marking, the precise boundaries of Mountain Home State Forest.

Not impossible to survey, just hard work

History of Mt. Home
California bought Mountain Home from the Michigan Trust Company on January 6, 1946 for $550,000. The deed delineated all the boundaries based on the section corners and quarter-corners of such-and-such section of townships 19 or 20 south and ranges 30 or 31 east of the Mount Diablo Base Meridian (normally abbreviated MDBM). On paper the acreage of the holding totaled around 4615.77 acres and was, mostly fiction. Mostly fiction because the total area based its value on townships of 36 one-mile square sections. Many of which had never been surveyed.


The US Public Land Survey System
Pretty much all the arable land (remember that term “arable”) that isn’t contained within the original thirteen colonies is supposed to have been placed into a grid known as the Public Land Survey System. Its basic units of area are the township and section.

Within a 6-mile by 6-mile township, the upper right section is Section 1 the section west of number is Section 2. The numbering moves left to all the way Section 6, the section south of Section 6 is section 7 and the number and progresses in a serpentine manner all the way to Section 36. There should be no Section 37.

In the 1880s, surveyors contracted with the General Land Office of the federal government on a per-mile of surveyed line basis to survey the land now known as Mountain Home. In the San Joaquin Valley, surveying went quickly. The land was flat and had few obstacles to get in the way. But the forested mountains were another challenge altogether. Hmm, a federal contract, thousands of miles away from Washington DC, based on the number of miles surveyed in mountainous terrain with trees. What could possibly go wrong?

More tomorrow.

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My Old Day Job

At Mountain Home State Forest - circa 1973

I worked as the assistant forest manager at Mountain Home State Forest from 1979-1986. The old joke asks, “Where do forest rangers go to ‘get away from it all?'” As if working in the forest was not, well, work. I remember days when I’d been stung by wasps, hiked cross-country through thorny buckbrush in the beating sun, emptied overflowing trash cans, cleaned filthy outhouse toilets, listened to campers complaining about the yahoos nearby playing their music too loud, etc. Then, someone with a cold beer in his hand would come up to me as I tried to keep the 1 mil plastic garbage bag–filled with fermenting fish guts that leaked through onto my pants–from breaking and say “damn, I wish I had your job.”

Tomorrow, I’ll write about the meaning of Section 37 and the coolest job I ever had.

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