GeoCarta Has Moved

Sep 13, 2005

Straightening Out A Crooked Map

There's an excellent article today from the Bradenton Herald on how closing errors made over a hundred years ago in the U.S. Public Land System continues to affect land use and development today.

Under the system, which was first proposed by Thomas Jefferson, surveyors established true north-south and east-west base lines. From these axesis, surveyors set lines every 24 miles in each direction that were slightly adjusted to account for the Earth's curvature. The resulting boxes then were subdivided into 16 smaller ones, called townships, that measured six miles on each side. Townships were further subdivided into 36 one-square-mile blocks, called sections. These sections formed the basis for private land ownership through most of the United States. The results of this system can still be seen in checkerboard look across much of rural United States.

While the system looked great in theory, the on-the-ground application was left than perfect. Rudimentary equipment and harsh conditions combined to make many of the sections far from square. In many cases, these errors leave property lines and street intersections offset, in some cases by large distances. As streets are widened and improved for heavier traffic loads and faster speeds, governments find themselves spending large sums to straighten out these offset lines,

An excellent source for information on the U.S. Public Land System is the book, Measuring America, by Andro Linklater.