Lines on the land
By Alun Hughes

Survey grid of Thorold and neighbouring townships prepared by Ellis & Co., ca. 1860.
St. Catharines people consider their city a fine place, but theyhave one big complaint: "Why can't the roads intersect at right angles?"

With north-south roads like Geneva, not-quite-east-west roads like Welland, and others like Niagara that twist and turn at will, navigating through St. Catharines is a formidable challenge. Things are easier in Thorold and other parts of the Peninsula, but we have our frustrations, too. It's a familiar story - you reach an intersection on one of the back roads, but instead of carrying straight on, the road jogs right or left before continuing, all for no apparent reason.

Who is responsible for these irritants? Well, the responsibility lies with the surveyors who first subdivided the land in the late eighteenth century. Their surveys were the second of two key prerequisites for the orderly settlement of refugees and others after the American Revolutionary War. The first, of course, was the purchase of land from the Indians, which I described in my last column.

I mentioned that limited settlement on the west bank of the Niagara River was permitted during wartime to help alleviate acute provisioning problems at Fort Niagara. By 1782, the "Settlement at Niagara" contained 16 farmers, most of them older members of Butler's Rangers, who had cleared 236 acres of land. Early in 1783, it was surveyed by Allan Macdonell, and his map shows 30 settlers between Lake Ontario and Niagara Falls, all with the four-mile strip purchased from the Mississauga Indians in 1781.

The settlement was meant to be temporary, but everything changed after the Treaty of Paris in September, 1783. Land was urgently required for thousands of soldiers, Rangers, refugees and Indians. A further purchase, including the whole of the Peninsula, was made from the Mississauga in 1784, and Frederick Haldimand, Governor of Quebec directed William Tinling to mark out lots beyond the original settlement. Tinling did do some surveying in what is now Niagara-on-the-Lake, but serious doubts exist about the extent and quality of his work, and it was not until the arrival of Philip Frey in 1786 that surveying commenced in earnest.

Though some surveys occurred that year, the real start was made on June 11, 1787, when Frey and Augustus Jones laid out the Garrison Line that divided Township No. 1 (named Niagara Township in 1792) from the land to the north reserved for the Crown. The line, now called the East-West Line, is clearly visible on the accompanying map. Describing it later, Jones speaks of starting at "the deep hollow … above Navy Hall" and proceeding west past "a white oak tree" as far as "the split rock," thus injecting a note of romance into what was otherwise a routine exercise in applied geometry.

The township survey followed immediately after and was complete by August 24. The basic units were 100-acre lots, measuring 50 by 20 chains each (a chain being 66 feet) and organized in north-south rows or concessions. There were 8 concessions and 23 lots per concession, making for a township of roughly 5 by 6 miles. Road allowances, also visible on the map, were placed on each concession line and every other lot line.

There ensued a frenetic 18-month period of surveying that saw the laying-out, in whole or in part, of 13 other townships extending along the shoreline from Burlington Bay to Fort Erie, as well as some inland. In 1788, the pressure of work required Frey to place three survey parties in the field, led by Augustus Jones, Jesse Pawling and Daniel Hazen. It was Hazen who surveyed Township No. 3 (Grantham) with its distinctive parallelogram-shaped lots, and it was Jones who in the fall of 1788 surveyed most of Township No. 9 or Thorold - a much bigger Thorold than exists today, as the map shows.

Each township was surveyed as a separate entity, and though the same process of surveying (the front-and-rear method) was used in all but one and the lot size was always 100 acres, the results were hardly uniform. The townships varied in shape and size, in numbers of lots and concessions, and in lot orientation and shape. Thus in Niagara and Thorold the lots are rectangles, but orientated differently; while in Grantham, the lots are orientated as in Thorold, but are not rectangles.

It's no surprise, therefore, that road allowances do not match up along township boundaries, and this explains many jogs in the modern road system. Other jogs occur within townships, and these can usually be ascribed to surveying errors. Bear in mind that the Peninsula was largely forest and swamp in the 1780s and the surveyors had only simple instruments. Add the other difficulties that they faced-extreme weather, wild animals, sickness, s, and squatters who resented their presence -and it is a miracle the work got done at all.

© Alun Hughes 2003

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