Surveyor Storytime with Noah: Digging Up the Past

7 min read

I started working as a surveyor as soon as I got out of college back in 2003. Throughout my career, I have had the privilege of working in many different avenues of survey work. Early on, I was involved in a lot of construction surveys. From new subdivision sewer and paving to houses to large commercial buildings, I got to be part of a crew that provided precise locations on the ground where future permanent structures would be built. It was cool to drive around town and know that I played a critical role in the construction of many structures and well-known buildings that I passed every day.


Shortly after that, I began gaining more experience in topographical surveys. I learned a lot about surveying during this time as my crew chief taught me how to create 3D maps of the portions of the world where we were working. I learned how to “draw” the land using both GPS and robotic total station equipment. This “map” was then given to our engineers so they could design the subdivisions, parking lots, and commercial buildings for which I had previously provided construction locations. It really began to open my mind to how surveying was a huge, integral part of engineering that I had previously taken for granted.


While I found a lot of satisfaction in knowing how my contributions helped lead to the completion of these projects, I found (and I think many surveyors would agree) that some of the most satisfying work comes from another aspect of surveying—boundary surveys. Ownership of land is a goal that many Americans seek to achieve, and many consider it as important as health and freedom. Because such great value is placed on land ownership, knowing the exact boundaries of one’s land becomes a matter of great importance as well. Surveyors are, therefore, often called upon by landowners to locate the extent of their property.


Locating the boundary of a property often requires the surveyor to research the property’s history, which includes reviewing deeds and previous surveys that indicate the original location of the property. Current standard practice among surveyors is to place an iron monument at—or just below—the ground’s surface to identify the corners of a property. This was not always the case, though. Looking back over the last few centuries, surveyors used many different methods to identify property corners. A common method in the Midwest was to bury a stone of a particular shape and size vertically in the ground. These stones often had markings chiseled into them to identify them as land survey monuments. Anytime I find a monument set by a previous surveyor, there is a sense of discovery and satisfaction. However, finding an original monument that may have been set in the ground more than 100 years ago is rare and very exciting! That being said, there is one monument that stands out above the rest in my memory.


About 12 years into my career, I was a survey crew chief on a large gas pipeline project in northwestern North Dakota. The project was about 40 miles long, passed through many different properties, and required the creation of many easement documents for the pipeline. In order to write the easement documents, I was required to survey the locations of the properties that the pipeline traversed. That area of North Dakota wasn’t very developed, and much of the land hadn’t changed for years. In researching prior surveys, I knew there was the potential to find some original survey monuments that had been set in the early 1900s. While we had many monuments to search for, sometimes we didn’t find anything. And the monuments we did find were iron ones not set by the original surveyor. However, while searching for one land corner, we came upon a very large pile of stones that the farmer had tilled out of his land and pushed near the corner of his property. The pile of stones measured approximately 10 feet high and 30 feet in diameter. All the stones were of similar size, shape, and type to the stone that was recorded in the original survey. After computing the approximate location of this corner from other monuments and record surveys, our GPS equipment showed the marker location was near the base of this large pile of stones.


My co-worker told me the corner was lost, and we would be wasting time and effort to dig through the pile to find a stone that couldn’t be identified any differently from the others in the pile. The stone we were looking for was oblong granite and measured about 18 inches tall by 12 inches wide. It was essentially like trying to find a needle in a stack of needles. Based on the work we had done in the area, I felt confident that our computed location was close, and if the original corner was still there, it would be buried below the surface and would have the markings to make it identifiable as the corner. I convinced my co-worker to help me move about 30 stones—weighing 50 to 100 pounds each—and we began digging in the area we had computed.


After discarding a couple of stones that did not match the description of the original monument, my co-worker again suggested we abandon the search. And I again convinced him that we should dig a little deeper. The very next stone we hit with the shovel was an oblong granite one matching the original dimensions that were recorded, and it was standing vertically (as it was originally placed), not just haphazardly thrown into a pile. It also had a large “1/4” chiseled in the top of it that indicated it was the quarter-section monument. When we measured it with our GPS equipment, it was incredibly close to our computed location. Honestly, it was an incredible feeling! It was exciting, rewarding, and flat-out cool that we found this thing that was buried 100 years ago for the specific purpose of being found and identified later. We were likely the first people to lay our hands on it, let alone even see it in 100 years. I’ve had many fun days as a surveyor (and many that maybe weren’t as fun), but that day and that moment will always stand out in my memory as being just awesome. I didn’t have to convince my co-worker to “dig a little deeper” after that.


Also, we saw a moose.