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Law Offices of Ronald W. Rutz
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July 18, 2001: History of Legal Descriptions for Real Property

Q: I noticed that the roads in Weld County along Highway 14 do not line up but seem to end on one side of the Highway and then begin again on the other side about a 100 or so yards down the road WCRs 19 and 21 are examples. Were the surveyors drunk, as supposedly the crew was that tried to place the line dividing Colorado and Wyoming, or maybe there is some fault line along Highway 14 that shifted, like happens in California?

A: You do have a vivid imagination but alas the actual reasons are more mundane and boring (I hope I do not put the column readers to sleep all two or three of you).

It all stems from the fact that you cannot impose squares on a curved surface without making adjustments. But I do not want to get ahead of myself.

Early in American history, when land was conveyed the boundaries were usually described as starting at Elmer's cabin, then going so far to a big rock, then over to the big oak tree, etc. Obviously, boundary and land disputes were always occurring.

So after the Northwest Territory (to us in Colorado really the Midwest) was acquired, a grid system was imposed dividing the land into six-mile squares with the east-west lines measured from "meridian lines" (in this part of Colorado ours is called the 6th principal meridian and is located way out in extreme eastern Kansas and Nebraska) and the north-south lines are measured from a base line (yes, the well known Baseline Road in Boulder County gets its name from being the measuring line used in this part of the state).

The big six-mile by six-mile square (Township) was further divided into 36 one-mile squares called Sections, which then could be further divided into more squares or rectangles, such as "quarters" or 160 acres.

Thus the legal description of the NW of Section 26, Township 7 North, Range 70 West of the 6th P.M. is best understood by reading it backwards the land is located in the Township which is 420 miles (6x70) west of 6th principal meridian and 42 miles (6x7) north of the baseline. Then it is further located by finding Section 26 within that Township and then to the NW quadrant within that Section.

Now imagine the problems that surveyors would have using equipment which has bounced around in the back of wagons, trying to locate precise lines from a point 420 miles to the east, all 140 years ago. That is why so many of our sections are not truly 640 acres.

Now in laying out the grid system, public roads were to be placed along the section lines (or in some cases center section lines) whenever possible and in fact "easements" to do that were often reserved in the Patents (the very first deed from the government to the first owner) or in the enabling legislation when a territory becomes a state.

So finally to get to your question (we lawyers are long winded, aren't we?): Some of the failures of the roads exactly to meet are due to physicals features that are present on the ground preventing the man-made grid systems from working. Others are a result of human or equipment errors compounded on top of each other until self-imposed corrections become necessary by the surveyors.

But early surveyors learned that every 24 miles or so, an adjustment needed to be made. Otherwise their pretty grid system started looking very strange because we live on a somewhat pear shaped planet. And since the grid system came first before an area had many people, man-made things such as roads had to be fitted on top of it.

As to the earthquake theory, I have not come across any such accounts. And although it is true that crews did like to party, I can find no evidence that the failure of some Weld County roads to align was caused by such activities. And although repeated by local historians, I have never found any primary source material to back up their pronouncements that this was the principal reason for a boundary problem. I am not saying that it did not happen, but the physical problems of running a line through rugged country is a more likely explanation for problems with the Colorado-Wyoming border.

Finally, as a Weld County native, thank you for not making any obvious Weld County jokes.

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