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History of Surveying
Presentation to the Annandale History Club
February 7, 2011
Ed Otto

Ed Otto graduated from St. Paul College in 1970 with a degree in surveying and has been surveying ever since.  Initially he worked under the supervision of other area Licensed Surveyors until he passed the license examination in 1980; then he founded Otto Associates Engineers & Land Surveyors, Inc. in Buffalo.  As a Licensed Surveyor, Ed has been quite active in the Minnesota Society of Professional Surveyors (MSPS).  He has served in several leadership roles including treasurer and president in 2006.  He has received numerous awards from the Society including “Surveyor of the Year” in 2008.

In addition to the volunteer work for the Society, Ed is still active in Otto Associates on a part-time basis.  In 2008 Paul E. Otto, Professional Engineer (P.E.) and Professional Land Surveyor (P.L.S.), took over the CEO position, and his wife, Cara Schwahn Otto, P.E., is Secretary, Senior Vice President, and heads the Engineering Department of the corporation.  Otto Associates is located in downtown Buffalo at 9 West Division Street.

Ed has given a substantial amount of time to promoting the surveying profession and providing education to the general public, including student programs.  In 2006 he commissioned a painting by Dan Metz depicting Minnesota’s first Licensed Surveyor, Norris Young Taylor (1850-1929) as he worked on the original government survey in the Red River Valley area in 1872.  Norris Taylor worked as Meeker County Surveyor from 1888 to 1924.  The markers Norris Taylor set at each of Meeker County’s township corners at the turn of the century are still used today, and the notes from his surveys are exemplary.  In 1896 Norris was elected the first president of the Minnesota Surveyors and Engineers Society.  A print of the painting entitled “N.Y. Taylor, 1872” is displayed at the Meeker County courthouse.  The proceeds from print sales are given as scholarships for surveying students.  To date, $6,000 has been awarded to students.  Experience was once enough to qualify to become a Licensed Surveyor.  Today a four-year degree is required, and St. Cloud State University has the only four-year program in the state.

Presently, Ed is Chairman of the Historical Committee for MSPS.  In 2006 he prepared a display on the history of land surveying, which has been on display at the Wright County Heritage Center in Buffalo, the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, and is presently at the Sherburne County Historical Society Museum in Becker.

In 2011 the MSPS Historical Committee and others built a new wayside pull-off on Houston County Road 2 about five miles west of New Albin, Iowa.  The pull-off features an  informational kiosk and a replicated white oak post 8 feet long, 12 inches square scribed on all four sides per the notes of Captain Andrew Talcott from his work in 1852.  Ed actually cut the tree off his property near Henning, Minn., had the log sized at a sawmill near Perham, and did the scribing by hand.  The white oak post at the Initial Point pull-off faces Houston County, Minnesota, on the north and Allamakee County, Iowa, on the south.  The committee will continue to work on directional signage to this point of interest and also to nearby Lee’s Monument at the state line “welcome” pull-off on County Road 26 north of New Albin and also at the Allamakee County picnic shelter on the edge of New Albin, Iowa. 

National Surveyors Week was established in March 1984 by Presidential Proclamation 5151.  This year, National Surveyors Week is March 20-26, 2011.  proclamation

Surveying started in Egypt and is as old as civilization.  Land was measured by rope stretching and the application of simple geometry. 

Three of the four presidents whose faces are carved into Mount Rushmore (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln) were all surveyors during their careers. 

The first Thirteen Colonies didn’t have government surveys.  They were settled with land grants and surveyed by metes and bounds, a system using physical features of local geography along with directions and distances.

The rectangular survey system, which was first proposed by Thomas Jefferson and enacted into law by the Land Ordinance of 1785, forms the backbone of the nation’s land surveys.  The United States faced the daunting task of surveying over 1.8 billion acres of public domain lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Alaska Purchase (1867), and other acquisition actions.  Contract surveyors were chosen through competitive bidding.  In 1796 the first Surveyor General, Rufus Putnam, came up with the system of the Government Land Office to administer the plats that the surveyors needed to prepare.

Over the past two centuries, almost 1.5 billion acres have been surveyed into townships and sections and monuments placed.  This impressive accomplishment represents the greatest land surveying project ever undertaken.  There are about 2.6 million section corners throughout the Unites States, each one located about a mile apart.  Placing these corners required a vast expenditure of human energy in carrying heavy surveying equipment, dragging chains, cutting trails, placing monuments, digging pits, and blazing “witness” trees.  (See reference.1)

Wright County, including the present day Annandale area, was all part of the Louisiana Purchase.  Surveyors were hired to survey the county so that homesteaders could settle according to the provisions of the Homestead Act of 1862.  Railroads were also built across the wilderness.  Surveys were required to define the right-of-ways of the newly laid rails into the rectangular survey system.

Surveyors measured township boundaries (normally 6 miles square or 23,040 acres) and subdivided each township into 36 sections (each section one mile square or 640 acres).  Each section was further divided into quarter sections or 160 acres, and further divided into 40 acre parcels, which resulted in manageable pieces for relatively efficient and quick sale to settlers through Federal Land Offices.       

In 1846 Iowa was declared a state and Congress established the north line of Iowa as latitude 43 degrees and 30 minutes.  The area to the north of that latitude and to the west of the Mississippi River, including the Dakotas, became Minnesota Territory in 1849.  Minnesota became a state with its present borders on May 11, 1858.

The survey of the south line of Minnesota was done in the summer of 1852 under the direction of Captain Andrew Talcott.  The survey of Minnesota was completed in 1912 in the area of northern Minnesota called the northwest angle.

Ed displayed copies of the Government Land Office (GLO) plats for Wright County and pointed out several points of interest, some of which are as follows.

All of Wright County was surveyed between 1853 and 1857.

Usually one surveyor set the township lines and another surveyor filled in one-mile squares inside the six-miles square.  The survey started at the southwest corner of Section 36 and went north one mile and east one mile.  The survey had to be accurate within a chain by a chain (not good enough for today’s standards).  Almost all the townships in Wright County, which was organized in May 1855, were surveyed by John J. Ryan.  For example, in French Lake Township John Ryan set the township lines in September 1855 and Oscar Taylor set the subdivisions in November 1856.   Since Minnesota wasn’t a state until 1858, the surveys were recorded and signed in Dubuque, Iowa, in June 1857 by Warren Lewis, Surveyor General.  All original government surveys except Buffalo were signed in Dubuque.  Buffalo Township surveys were signed in St. Paul June 26, 1858, after Minnesota became a state. 

At the time of the original government survey there were only three towns existing in Wright County -  Clearwater, Monticello and Buffalo.  Wright County lakes named on the original survey were Cokato, Buffalo, Pulaski, Constance, Twin (Sylvia), and Pelican.  The Corinna Township survey included the following named lakes:  Sugar, Clearwater, Bass, Cedar, Mink, Pleasant and Indian.  Surveyors were to name the lakes, or use lake names supplied by people they encountered.  However, most lakes remained unnamed on the original government survey.  The only two features named on the original government survey of French Lake Township were the North Fork of the Crow River and the Monticello-Forest City Road.

Lands surveyed around lakes were called government lots and were odd-shaped pieces of 30 to 60 acres.  Meandered lakes had nice shoreline and were measured around.  An unmeandered lake was swampy or seasonally flooded, and the surveyors were instructed to survey through it.  Surveyors were paid by acres surveyed.  Lakes were more work and less money.

There were ten islands in Wright County that weren’t included in the first survey.  Bull’s Island at Lake Sylvia wasn’t included in the original survey.  A survey was completed of Bull’s Island in 1928, as well as other omitted islands.

The original surveys had field notes, also called “running notes,” which described features of the land.  Land buyers and settlers wanted to know what they were getting.  Surveyors kept a diary of what they encountered, such as swamps or creeks.   Land was rated by the surveyors as first, second or third rate for agricultural purposes and one to four for timber.    Sometimes, subsequent surveys utilized the running notes or field notes to find the original markers.

The Land Management and Information Center,, has Minnesota’s original surveys on line, available by County, Township and Range, and can be requested by image or PDF version.  Funds are not available for scanning the running notes for inclusion on line.  The Secretary of State is the keeper of the plats.   Minnesota has 87 counties and 1,786 townships.

In his presentation, Ed displayed many surveying tools and explained their functions.  Included was an antique W.L. & E. Gurley compass purchased from a descendant of Henry Clay Bull (1843-1931).  Bull co-founded the Cokato State Bank in 1892.  He also engaged in the real estate trade and sold thousands of acres of railroad land.  Other items displayed in Ed’s presentation were steel tapes, transits, theodolites, a dumpy level, a total station, GPS, and a framed print of the “N.Y. Taylor, 1872” painting.       

 Gunter’s Chain:  The original government surveyors used chains.  Edmund Gunter (1581-1626) invented the chain in 1620 in England.   The chain was made with 18 gauge wire and was used with a compass.  Surveyors often made their own chains and sometimes used 14 gauge wire or heavy duty fencing wire.  There was no standard to the gauge; however, the chain was 66 feet (4 rods) long.  80 chains end to end would be a mile.  A chain had 100 links, each being 7.92 inches.   Many road right-of-ways are 66 feet (one chain) wide because of a law passed in 1933.   In 1898 a law passed that chains are not accurate enough.  The Gunter’s chain served as the basic surveying instrument for nearly three hundred years, until it was replaced in the early 20th century by the steel tape and later in the same century by an electronic distance meter (EDM) and by the global positioning system (GPS).  Ed Otto’s antique chain is currently on display at the Sherburne County Historical Society.

Compass:  A surveyor uses a compass to determine the direction of a line.  The compass needle points to the Magnetic North Pole.  There are two main varieties of compasses, plain and vernier.  A plain compass has no adjustment and always reads magnetic north.  A vernier compass has an adjustable scale that allows for the “setting off” of the magnetic declination and the compass can then read true north.   

Burt’s Solar Compass:  The first workable solar compass was invented in 1835 by William Austin Burt (1792-1858) and built by William Young.  William Burt was a G.L.O. surveyor in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and other states.  Because of large mineral deposits in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the normal magnetic compass would not furnish accurate readings.  The solar compass eventually became the standard tool on all federal surveys and was used until GPS became available in the late 1900s.   Burt’s patent on the solar compass expired in 1850.  Gurley Compass Company in Philadelphia produced most of the surveyor’s compasses made in the 1860s.  Today Burt’s Solar Compasses are rare and very expensive.  MSPS has two of these rare compasses in their display.

Chicago Steel Tape, Babbitt Tape:  These tapes were used in the 1900s.   The first tapes were made with the same material as ladies’ hoop skirts and were manufactured for only five years.  The tape’s thin material didn’t last and was soon replaced with more durable material.   

EDM (Electronic Distance Meter):   The earliest models weighed about 50 pounds.  The unit would shoot a beam of light to mirrors and measure the distance by measuring the time it took for the light beam.  These units could measure up to 40 miles.  In 1970 the MnDOT surveyors used EDMs for probably the first time in Minnesota when they surveyed Interstate Highway 35W from St. Paul to Duluth.  They utilized a pair of 40-foot towers to see over obstacles.  The first EDM was called a Telurometer.  Most modern EDMs have a maximum range of two miles.

Dumpy Level:  A “dumpy level” has a telescope with cross hairs permanently mounted in a pair of arms and is used to determine elevations.

Transit:  The transit was invented in the 1800s and used until the 1970s.  It has two verniers to turn horizontal and vertical angles.  It also has a compass to retrace early compass surveys.  The transit was replaced by the more accurate theodolite.

Theodolite:  A theodolite is a precision instrument that measures horizontal and vertical angles and and originally was used with a tape and later was fitted with an “add on” EDM. 

Total Station:  A total station combines the theodolite with an EDM.  It measures horizontal and vertical angles accurately.   The total station shoots distances, reads to one second accuracy, and can site a mile.  They can be used with an electronic notebook and blue tooth.

GPS (Global Positioning System):    Survey grade GPS started about 20 years ago.   It is accurate to plus or minus one-fourth inch.  The GPS relies on satellites and has to have numerous satellites to be totally accurate.  Early GPS took about an hour to get a reading (results had to be processed through a computer program) and was called Static GPS.  Now most surveyors use Real Time Kinematic (RTKI) GPS, which will give you a position in less than a minute if the satellite configuration is correct.  Ed displayed a GPS unit made by NavCom, which is a subsidiary of the John Deere Company.  Receivers such as this are used for surveying as well as agriculture and machine control.  Farmers now utilize this same technology to plant, harvest, and fertilize their crops.

Notes by Annandale History Club Secretary


1“Cadastral History.”  DOI: BLM:  National Home Page.  Web. 17 Feb. 2011.  <>