July 10, 2022
Towing Karta on Highway 240 headed south to Portage la Prairie, this bronze monument caught my eye. In fact, bronze plaques similar to this have cropped up all along my route in Manitoba. This one struck a very particular chord.
The system of survey mentioned on this plaque was a monumental undertaking t
whose scope is difficult to grasp. Basically, survey crews started heading west from Winnipeg, running straight lines due east/west and north/south. Easy enough one might imagine. Until you run into your first lake. Or river. Or forest, bog, mountain, coulee, valley, creek, or obstinate boulder.
Their efforts created the township and range lines that are plainly evident on any map of western Canada. Or from any airplane if you care to look down. What is not plainly evident is the accuracy of their work.
Considering that some of the lines run were hundreds, if not thousands of kilometers long, and that they are often accurate to inches, it’s nothing short of astounding. Canadian surveyors were, in fact, the best in the world and were sought out and employed in the early 20th century to do the impossible. Like survey Mt. Everest. It was a Canadian surveyor who recommended the South East route up Everest for George Mallory.
Four pits and a mound were dug where township and range lines intersected. At the center of the mound, a 4x4in post was driven into the earth and nailed to the top was a copper plate stating the details of the intersection.
John Sutherland Sanderson would have wandered the prairie, squinting into the sun trying to identify the tell-tale glint of copper that might actually be his new home. I can’t imagine the courage and crazy optimism that would have driven him from his home to the plains. Here, nearly 150 years later is mute testimony to the character and spine that lie at the foundation of Canada.
Every survey must begin from the earliest known point closest to the present scope of work. As a teenager working with my father as part of a survey crew, the earliest known points to where we were working were often the hundred year old pits and mounds dug all those years ago by surveyors tasked with running line from Manitoba to the mountains. Running into the Township and Range where the m first homestead in western Canada was landed brought back a thousand memories. My father scraping dirt carefully away from a mound looking for the discoloured soil that implied the presence of a long rotted post. Me walking east and west, then north and south trying to identify pits. Chaining for miles to the next possible intersection. Fond memories of carefree days that filled me with joy.
Perhaps the same joy that filled Sanderson’s heart when he found that very particular, ever so carefully placed and crafted four pits and a mound.