A decade-long scandal run by a team of surveyors in the late 1800s suggests that perhaps there are no true boundary lines in the Western states. The Benson Syndicate, a group of surveyors responsible for 299 government contracted land surveys from 1873 through 1885 in 11 states, collected more than $1 million in payment for fraudulent field reports reportedly written from the nearest available bar stool.
By the time the Benson scandal was exposed around the turn of the century, it was determined that it would be too costly and complicated to resurvey the land. So today, the boundaries remain as they were originally drawn. The inaccurate measurements do not impact many landowners; however, every once in a while nailing down an exact property line is a problem.
This is the case for Troy Caldwell, who owns the square mile of land between Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley known as White Wolf. In 2012, following an agreement to lease part of White Wolf to Squaw Valley for the construction of a gondola to connect the two ski areas, Truckee-based surveyor Andregg Geomatics was contracted to establish the precise boundary lines of Caldwell’s property.
“When we started to think we were going to put this gondola in there, we had to know where this corner is, or we’re going to end up on the wrong property,” Caldwell said.
C.F. Putnam, a deputy surveyor employed by Benson in 1883, authored the original field notes for the area now known as White Wolf. Putnam’s notes about the corner on Caldwell’s property describe a “granite rock 30 x 12 x 8 inches, 22 inches in the ground, and surrounded by a raised mound of stone.” However, that rock, which supposedly defined the boundary line of the property, does not exist.
“Where [Putnam] tells us this thing is buried 22 inches in the dirt, is actually flat granite-based bedrock with no dirt on it at all,” Caldwell said.
Former forest land surveyor James F. Fields writes in his 1989 paper The Benson Survey, “The skeletal work that was done makes the surveys worse than useless. Landowners either are unable to find any land boundary corners at all, or find a few, and attempt a protraction from these.”
Andregg, like surveyors before them, tried for several months to reconcile the boundary lines based on the description of the phony notes. There have been five surveys from 1931 to 2012 conducted on the property after the original field notes, yet none of the surveyors have been able to verify the property’s boundary line.
“You can do all this survey stuff, and we can nail it to an eighth of an inch of where it should be,” Caldwell said, “but if a guy says, ‘I remember this pin being right here,’ then that is a historical statement, and the engineers and surveyors have to honor that.”
Forced to honor Putnam’s false notes, the corner, now comically referred to by Caldwell as Barstool Station, has been re-established and marked with two shiny brass buttons. White Wolf’s boundary lines — crooked as the guy that first created them — will continue to fuel a legacy of controversy.
Read about the current controversy over Granite Chief Wilderness here.