Foundations of construction: Surveying the wilderness through rain and bugs

“Ramsden’s Royal Society precision geodetic Theodolite of 1787,” Wikimedia Commons Retrieved from

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By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

Looking like a verdant vacant field to observers, the grass, trees, and flowering plants rustle in the breeze. But the surveyor’s mind sees land parcels, measured to contractors’ specifications. They envision streets, parks, and homes. Determining boundaries, the licenced professional may use advanced instruments for precise surveying that holds legal weight. An electronic theodolite, GPS, drone, along with old-fashioned footwork achieve accurate survey results. Hard work and hiking were required when Ontario townships were being delineated in the 1700s, with none of the modern comforts or advantages.

During the American Revolution, Loyalists streamed across the border into Canada. Refugees and soldiers required farmland and homesteads. In May 1783, Governor Haldimand assigned Deputy Surveyor-General John Collins to oversee the laying out of township boundaries in eastern Ontario.

Township 1 was the province’s “first major survey made under civil authority,” according to Parks Canada. Located on the eastern end of Lake Ontario, Collins and his team travelled to Cataraqui (Kingston). The region was a wilderness, but the workers were not alone—this was First Nations territory, belonging to the Mississauga. Along with Cataraqui, the surveyors defined townships in Fredericksburgh, Adolphustown, and Ernestown, which included the village of Bath.

The surveying standard at the time was measurement in chains. A chain was 20.11 metres in length with approximately 80 chains to a survey mile. Governor Haldimand planned to give each Loyalist family 120 acres of land, “of which six are to be in front, which will make 19 chains in front and 63 chains 25 links in depth,” said L.M. Sebert in The Ontario Land Surveyor, Winter 1979.

“Every township will have 25 lots in front and four chains 75 links will remain for roads, with 7 concessions in depth,” Haldimand described. Sufficient land remained for another roadway so that “each township will contain 175 lots of 120 acres.” (A link is one-hundredth of a chain.)

Collins carefully followed the instructions for outlining the townships. On orders from Britain, the lot sizes for each family changed to 200 acres each and “the township was extended in depth from 6 miles to 10 so that it could contain roughly the original number of farm lots.”

A good drenching of rain delayed the start of the surveying assignment and fighting off hungry bugs proved challenging. There were no day trips to perform the surveying; the workers camped out in the wilderness until the job was done. Including the surveyor, the crew of 10 to 12 men included picketmen, axemen, and chainbearers, tasked with employing the measuring chains.

The surveyor received funds to provide for his work party, including the staples of flour, pork, and canned peas. Equipment could be issued from the government’s store, such as boats, “’axes, tomahawks, camp kettles, oilcloths, Tents and Bags,’” described Upper Canada History (UCH) in “Land Allotment & Registry Offices.”

Setting up his technical compass on the level surface of a rock or perhaps a stump, the surveyor made a baseline sight. Axemen removed bushes and trees to ensure a clear view. Confirming his compass reading with astronomical observations and mathematical calculations, the surveyor gave the go-ahead to the workers. The chainman laid out the chain to a precise point, the picketman drove in a stake, and the process continued. Rainy and cloudy days made taking astronomical observations impossible.

In his plans, the surveyor allowed a generous 12.19 metres for road width. “If he came to a creek or swamp the surveyor recorded that feature in his field book,” said UCH. “He also entered details regarding the quality of the soil, the number of rock outcroppings and the types of timber.”

Launching the Cataraqui survey “at the southeast corner of the township,” Collins left “space on the east for the garrison, the town, and Indian lands,” wrote Dorothy A. Ross Geiger in The Ontario Land Surveyor, Summer 2001. The surveyor’s “lines marked on the ground were probably the front and sidelines of the township and the corner posts of the first 25 lots.” The method was called the single-front system, allowing use of the waterway “and to compensate for the shortage of trained surveyors.”

Completing the Township 1 survey and plan on Oct. 27, 1873, Collins and his crew were able to outline the next three townships in three weeks. Maps were hand-drawn in detail with notes and signatures recorded on the side. “The physical features of the land are shown on the map in the creek outlines, rock out-crops, and marshes,” said Ross Geiger.

On completion of surveys, settlers and soldiers received their grants. Farmlands were cleared, and homes (ranging from shacks to cabins) and barns were constructed from wood cut at nearby sawmills.

Many early land surveyors learned their trade through military service and apprenticeships. Now, surveyors must meet rigorous standards to become licensed professionals in Ontario.

© 2021 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.


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