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Long before GPS

On a blustery ridge top Sept. 4, history buffs and officials from Houston and Allamakee (Iowa) counties dedicated a new wayside park on the Iowa-Minnesota border.

A replica of a wooden monument set in 1852 stood next to an informational kiosk that told the story of how the monument became the basis of every property line in the Minnesota Territory. That included not only the future North Star State but large portions of North Dakota and South Dakota.

"All of Minnesota is laid out off of this point," Tony Blumentritt, president of the Minnesota Society of Professional Surveyors, said after the ceremony.

Blumentritt knows the history of the original survey that began here 158 years ago, when more than 40 men labored to mark out the border between the infant state of Iowa, established in 1846, and its neighbor to the north, which would enter the Union in 1858.

Settling the border


A few years before, Congress had stepped in to establish a northern border for the soon-to-be state of Iowa when the two territories couldn’t agree on a boundary. The line would follow a latitude of 43 degrees, 30 feet, but there was a problem. No one knew just where that was.

Capt. Thomas J. Lee, a topographical engineer, was sent west in 1849 to find a point on the west bank of the Mississippi River at the prescribed latitude. Working from the Wisconsin side of the river, Lee took 364 zenith readings from stars and found his mark. He then shot a line across the river and placed a hollow cast-iron monument, which was 6 feet tall and weighed 600 pounds, in the corner of Iowa.

Prior to Saturday’s dedication, the group visited Lee’s monument, which still stands on the north edge of New Albin, Iowa but has been moved back from the side of a roadway after being hit by a car.

It’s a curious column, with the word "Minesota" (one n) on its north face. "Iowa," "Latitude 43 degrees 30 feet" and "1849" grace the other three sides. Houston County Surveyor Richard Walter said Lee’s accuracy was amazing. Modern GPS indicates his mark was within 100 feet of the exact latitude.

The follow-up was the 1852 expedition, commanded by chief astronomer Capt. Andrew Talcott. Portrayed that day by Don Borcherding, a semi-retired engineer and surveyor from Rochester, he told attendees — many of whom were also surveyors — that the first task for that party was to establish a known point of latitude and longitude — or "initial point" — from which the whole border would be measured, setting markers as they worked their way across the largely unsettled countryside.

One group ran a line due north from Lansing Township in Iowa, the nearest point with an established meridian. Another worked west from Lee’s monument. The intersection was the initial point, from which everything to follow would be based. It was marked with a white oak post 8 feet long and 12 inches square, branded with a description of the location.

Marking lines

The group didn’t have far to go to place markers on the eastern extremity of the line, but the work to the west was another matter. They marked not only the new state’s township and section corners, but quarter sections as well, a half-mile apart. Every 50 miles, a granite boulder was erected, often at great effort, because suitable stones, sometimes weighing a ton, weren’t always near at hand. Celestial observations were taken at intervals of not more than 48 miles.


The group of 14 surveyors was joined by chainmen, flagmen, monument builders, teamsters, ax-men, a doctor, a hunter, an interpreter, four cooks and general-purpose laborers. The Lakota people who lived along the route were suspicious of the party, according to historians, and often questioned the interpreter at length.

"This is such a great group to work with," Walter said. "It’s so significant because it affects all the property lines west of the Mississippi all the way to the Missouri."

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