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Have you ever wondered why there are jogs in the roads?

March 19, 2023

Original Plan of Verulam Township combined with MapArt Ontario Backroad Atlas, 2010

The original surveys created grids and all the original roads were supposed to be straight

In contrast to much of Europe, where the roads network was constructed gradually over centuries, in the Kawarthas, the township roads were created in about a generation. Because the survey was completed before the waves of immigrants began flooding to the region in the first half of the nineteenth century, there was an opportunity to have a planned, ‘rational’ landscape. In contrast to the winding roads that derived from the traditional use of the space, and took into account the actual geography of the region, these new roads would be a rectangular grid.

Creating communities based on rectangles would have been straightforward and made perfect sense if the world was flat. The grid was a way for a government that had few employees to impose order on a region that it knew precious little about. The messy details of how to create this grid in the forests that existed at the time, was left to the surveyors to sort out. 

The surveyors were to use a metal chain with 100 links, being 66 feet long in total, to measure the landscape. Common 200 acre agricultural lots were 30 chains by 66 chains 67 links, while eighty chains equalled one mile. The acre was derived from customs of medieval British husbandry. Eight oxen could pull a plough across a field a furrow long (or furlong, 220 yards—10 chains), ploughing a strip 33 feet wide before they needed a break. Once rested they could usually repeat the task, making an acre what an common team of oxen could work up in a day or 10 square chains. The lots were arranged into concessions, aligned to north 16.5 degrees west, often approximately 32 lots long, separated by a road allowance that was one chain wide. A perpendicular cross road was run between each block of 5 lots. The surveyors marked the terrain with wooden posts and/or marks on trees—brass survey markers came later.

Some townships were surveyed on a different system, especially where lots were laid out along a notable feature like a large lake (for instance Bexley Township on Balsam Lake) or a road (i.e. the Bobcaygeon Road, which ran from its namesake village through Kinmount and Minden as it headed north). Curve Lake was surveyed into 5-acre village lots and 50-acre farm lots, with each household receiving one of each.

Surveying was somewhat like bushwhacking while backcountry camping, but they had to create the map as they went. Also, it was not necessarily done in pleasant weather, and they were expected to carry on along a perfectly straight line, no matter what terrain (or bugs) the crew encountered. The surveyor had chain bearers, who would help stretch out the chain along the predetermined course, but every time they had to traverse a hill it created inaccuracies in their measurements. How were they supposed to use a 66-foot-long chain to measure, on a straight line, across a lake? The fact that the system they were using assumed that the world was flat was not the biggest problem that they faced.

Where the surveyor got a little off the correct bearing with their compass, the road would curve. Typically, the concession roads are much straighter than the crossroads (between each block of five lots), but they too can have jogs. By the time settlers came to take up their lots, typically at least a decade had passed, perhaps half a century, and most of wooden monuments had long since disappeared.  Most tried their best to build on their own property. There were supposed to be monuments on both sides of the road, but if only one existed, it might be mistaken which side of the road it represented. Once the adjacent land had been developed, it might be far easier to perpetuate the realities on the ground than to revert to the original plan. Over the years, surveyors and local residents would spend far more time trying to make sense of the original survey, than it took to actually survey the township.

The greatest inconsistencies typically happened in measuring the length of the lines, rather than their bearing, which is reflected in the side roads. The Glenarm Road and Cedar Tree Road are both examples, which were supposed to be straight. Often, the measurements of adjacent concessions did not quite line up, so half of the lots on both sides of the concession road were aligned to that line, and the other half of each concession would be aligned to the next road over. So halfway between the two concession roads, unless the survey was done perfectly, each lot would have a jog in it. In North Verulam there are places where the disparity is two lots, for instance, lot 28 in one concession is somewhat aligned with lot 26 in the next. An unfortunate immigrant might purchase a 200-acre lot and end up with two disconnected parcels with a neighbour in between. So when the time came to build the roads, they were made between lots that had jogs in them.

The survey of Verulam Township is worse than most. It seems that the problem was the crew was supposed to run lines that went across Sturgeon Lake (which divides the township roughly in half) and when they arrived at the lake shore with their survey chains, they did not see how to measure the width accurately, so they guessed—incorrectly. Instead of running all the concession lines from the south boundary to the north as they were instructed to do, it would have been easier to run the next line from north back to the south. So the concessions lines are measured more or less correctly starting at the south end of the township, but then are significantly off north of Sturgeon Lake. In the next concession they are fairly accurate north of the lake, only to err substantially south of the lake, and so on, through the township’s ten concessions. The survey in Verulam Township was bad enough that when the roads were built, they had to force road allowances between existing lots, rather than using the disjoint allowances that were provided.

For those who like geometry, having a township based on a grid made navigation easy. If a family said they lived on Lot 16 Concession 10, someone who knew the system well could quickly place where you were. Up until the introduction of civic addresses after amalgamation, farm families often gave their location by lot and concession, and many township roads were simply referred to by a concession number—which could be a little confusing because they actually lay between concessions. For instance, the east half of Lot 30 Concession 5, Verulam and the west half of Lot 30 Concession 6, would be across from each other on the road commonly called “Concession 6.”

The errors that were made in surveying the earlier townships, which were typically further south and more suited to farming, resulted in reforms in the surveying system introduced in 1829—after the row of townships Eldon-Fenelon-Verulam, but before Carden-Bexley-Somerville, and all townships further north. Ironically, by the time the Province was laying out Northern Ontario, where the land was better suited to raising trees than wheat, the available methods for creating an agricultural grid were more sophisticated than they were for what would become the prime farmland of southern Ontario.

The survey system was quick, cheap (initially, surveyors were paid with part of the township they laid out), and allowed huge acreages to be redefined into potential freehold, family farm lots without the need to know much about the area. It allowed a radical transformation of the landscape, as a generation of immigrants devoted their lives to hacking farms from the bush. It also meant that surveyors have been kept busy ever since trying to figure out what happened. Few of the lots ended up being the size they were supposed to be, few of the roads they defined were actually straight. But the original surveys did roughly, redesign the landscape into rectilinear (dis?)-order.

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