Stu Olsen’s Memoir: Chapter One

On the southeast corner of Temple Square is a stone marker, preserved in place since August 3, 1847. It was the beginning of the original survey of “Great Salt Lake City” and subsequently the origin of all but a small portion of surveys in the state of Utah.

If you were to walk from this point east for 17 miles and then walk for 30 miles due south, you would find yourself close to the center of Sundance on the east side of Mount Timpanogos. If, on the other hand, you chose to walk from that marker due south for 30 miles and then turn and walk 17 miles east, you would find yourself at the same place in Sundance. In your walks you would have described a rectangle 17 by 30 miles.

The east walk to Sundance would have taken you through the ski resorts of Park City, Brighton, Solitude and Alta. You would have dropped into Tibble Fork then up over the summit between American Fork Canyon and into the North Fork canyon of the Provo River. Observing the rock outcroppings you encountered on your journey you would note that they were initially gray limestone turning to upthrust igneous or igneous boundary rocks. Had you made the same journey one hundred years ago you would have encountered mining activities in Park City, Brighton and Alta. You might have see some mining activity in Tibble Fork but by the time you reached the summit the activity would have ceased and you would have been all but alone save some sheep and their keepers.

Had you chosen to commence south from that original marker, known as the Great Salt Lake Base and Meridian, you would have found the first 30 miles easy walking. You would have been walking on a flat plane bounded by two distinct mountain ranges– one to the east called the Wasatch Range and one to the west known as the Oquirrh Range. To the south, the Oquirrh Range joins another called the West Range. Your journey south would take you through Salt Lake City, Murray, Sandy, Midvale, Bluff, Lehi, Pleasant Grove, and Lindon. When you turned east you would be confronted by Mount Timpanogos, one of the highest mountains in Utah. It rises steeply from the valley floor for several thousand feet then continues to rise for an other 4,000 feet in sheer cliffs to an elevation of 11,752 feet above sea level. If you could find your way over the mountain for the needed 17 miles you would find yourself again close to the center of Sundance.

Upon graduation from high school I got a summer job on a survey crew. We worked for the United States Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, on the Cadastral Survey. We lived in large tents, four to a tent. We had a cook and cook tent. We got to the work sites in several four-wheel drive vehicles. At times, the crew I was on would leave the main camp and locate twenty or more miles away in what was called a “fly camp.” All of the crews were to locate and mark the state school sections in the remotest and most rugged parts of the state.

These areas had not been surveyed before because of their isolation and lack of economic benefit. They were too rugged for recreation, and did not have enough vegetation for grazing or water for stock. Since they produced no revenue the school trust had no need to know where they were. That changed when southern Utah experienced a uranium boom and congress was gearing up to build the Glen Canyon Dam. The State could tax the mines and Federal Government would compensate the state for the land used by the dam.

Our survey crews consisted of four men: one who ran the transit (gun), a point man and two chainmen. We would start from a known point, moving east or west or north or south. If the transit man were experienced enough he would start at night and take a reading on Polaris, the North Star, because no matter how good the starting survey there was always the possible presence of measurable error. We started from a survey by Scott P. Stewart. The crew chief had Scott’s notes in a small black field book that was standard issue for the Cadastral Survey. Our Crew chief had the same kind of black field book in which he kept the field notes for our work. At the end of each survey, the books were turned in to the field office where they were stored — row upon row of pocket-sized books with hard covers and pages filled with neat engineering script. The script described the terrain, important landmarks intersected by the line and locating instructions for finding corners. A corner might be described thus: “10 feet south west of large rock with a red face and 14 feet east of small wash.”

Corners in Scott’s day were local rocks chosen for their distinct features and weather resistance. Their color, size and type would be noted. The rocks were identified by chiseled indents on an edge which if you knew the code located the corner. The crew I was on used steel pipe with brass caps for corners. The brass cap could be marked designating the coordinates of the corner. The system was uniform for the western states and in Utah, all the corners we placed referred back to the marker set by Parley Pratt in 1849 at Temple Square.

When I got that summer job, I was the sixth generation Stewart to earn his living surveying land. I was following in the footsteps of Philander Barrett Stewart, his son Andrew Jackson Stewart Sr. and his son Andrew Jackson Stewart Jr. and his sons John R. Stewart and Scott P. Stewart and my uncle John Call Stewart. George Washington was a land surveyor and though his instruments were less sophisticated, with a little familiarization he could have taken over for any of the Stewarts.

It was within the first week I was on that job that the crew chief told the following story: “A crew was working in this country a few years ago and the transit man fell off a cliff and died. The crew chief went to the nearest phone and called the home office with the sad news. After a pause the boss asked ‘Is the transit OK?’” All the old timers smiled and laughed. I had heard that story from my grandfather and on every survey crew I ever worked on.

My grandfather’s transit was a W. & L. E. Gurley Full Circle Mountain Transit that he put on a wooden legged tripod. A good transit man did not fall and the transit, when set over a point, was given wide berth by the crew lest they disturb its alignment. The cross hairs were spider webs that were replaced in the field several times a year by the transit man. All that was needed was a fresh web, usually from an orb-weaver spider and a clean working table. My grandfather’s transit was beautiful black with rubbed patina patches where his fingers exposed the base bronze, the verniers were silver with black marking. They were cleaned every time he replaced the cross hairs. The transit had a magnetic compass, and Grandfather said it was the most accurate he had ever used.

On May 20, Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act of 1862. Public Lands were opened to settlement. It was hoped by Congress that the empty west could be filled by people who would farm, use the land, and prosper. Under the provisions of the Act any adult citizen who had never borne arms against the United States Government could claim 160 acres of surveyed public land.

The fact that the Stewarts were land surveyors plays large, I believe, in the decision to homestead the North Fork of The Provo River. They had seen a lot of Utah, could meet the requirements to have the land located by survey without cost, and they knew the laws. Unlike the land to the north, the North Fork was of little economic benefit. The mineral value was absent because of the geology. It could be homesteaded as grazing land and by the turn of the 20th century what valuable timber there was had been taken.

If on your first walk from the Base Meridian, you had been able to see the surveys of the territory, you would have noted that in Park City, Brighton, and Alta there were many clusters of surveyed land. Each cluster would have a name. City Rock, Antelope, Prince of Wales, Silver Bell, Mountain Lake, Great West Gold and Copper, Bonanza, Silver King, Lucky Bill and The Ontario, plus many more — these were mining claims, and each required a professional survey. Their revenue today is generated by snow — they are the great ski resorts of Utah. Once you reached the summit between American Fork Canyon and North Fork there would be no mines and of all the ski resorts in the Wasatch only Sundance is on land that was never a mining claim.

My grandfather, into old age, would stake out claims for others and sometimes I went with him to help. One time, we worked out of Beaver staking out claims for three men, all used car salesmen, who were going to make a fortune mining radioactive material during the uranium boom. They accompanied us to the site and while Grandfather and I surveyed, they sat in the shade and drank beer out of a big Coleman ice chest. At night, I went to the local Carnegie Library and read until it closed, about 8 o’clock, returning to the hotel for sleep

After the first day, the three men disappeared and grandfather and I worked for five days, finishing the survey alone. I was paid more than I had ever made before, $10 a day, and was offered a permanent job. Mother admitted it was good pay for a boy in junior high but that with a little more education I could earn a lot more. Getting an education was a theme that ran through the family.