Land Surveying During the Great Depression

The Great Depression of the 1930s significantly impacted virtually every occupation. Land surveyors and civil engineers were not immune to the economic downturn, and thousands soon found themselves looking for work in once-booming towns. By 1933, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, a government agency, contacted the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, (C&GS) to implement a program to create employment opportunities for surveyors and engineers.

The initial goals of the C&GS program included employment of up to 15,000 surveyors and engineers. The program was formally established in November of 1933 despite an initial shortage of precise surveying equipment and vehicles needed for transportation to survey sites. In many cases, C&GS borrowed unused equipment from railroads, state highway departments, municipalities and construction companies. Still, this equipment often did not offer the level of precision to which surveyors were accustomed.

Work began nearly immediately in every state of the country under the auspices of the Civil Works Administration (CWA). However, because the program was launched in November, work began in winter, traditionally the least productive season for surveying. Federal funding dried up by January of 1934, resulting in orders to cease hiring new surveyors. Still, nearly 10,000 skilled surveyors and engineers continued on the project.

Specific projects undertaken by surveyors during the Great Depression varied widely between states. As with many other Depression-era work programs, many of these programs would not have been considered were it not for the pressing need to create jobs. Often the projects were water related, including the establishment of horizontal and vertical control lines on rivers, canals, and dams. Although the surveys in most states were completed by 1935, some surveys continued under this program as late as 1939. Statistics through June 1934 show that 20,000 miles of leveling, 1,200 miles of triangulation, and 14,000 miles of traverse had been completed as part of the project.

In one of many similar attempts to employ land surveyors during the Great Depression, Georgia commissioned a large-scale survey that led to the first time in the state’s history that all of the land and boundaries were measured and monumented. The Wisconsin Land Economic Inventory, often referred to as the ‘Bordner Survey,’ is another example of Depression-era surveying projects. The goal of this project was to inventory Wisconsin’s land resources. Field workers, usually foresters, worked with land surveyors to map current land use across the entire state. Each map created as part of the Bordner Survey covered one survey township.

Most surveys throughout the country began or stopped at known C&GS survey monuments where possible. The monuments used for Depression-era surveys under C&GS are brass disks lettered with the words “state survey” in addition to recording the usual survey information. Surveys in the states of North Carolina and Pennsylvania used brass monuments cast with folk legends particular to those states.

These Depression-era work projects for surveyors and engineers created employment for thousands of skilled professionals, and in many cases taught surveyors more modern methods of surveying. However, it has been argued that poor planning and hasty implementation resulted in far less actual fieldwork than could have been accomplished with similar manpower during a different time. Most of the actual fieldwork measurements, in fact, have been lost to time, as only the final measurements were transmitted to C&GS. As a result, the fieldwork cannot be verified today to ensure that the monuments are even in the correct positions.