Dwight Harriman

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third and final installment in a series about the borders of Park County.

While Park County’s early borders were eventually adjusted to follow section lines, that doesn’t mean that every part of the County’s borders are surveyed. Some portions, such as in rough wilderness, might not be.

“And being where they are, they may never be surveyed,” said George Bornemann, a Professional Land Surveyor with CTA Architects Engineers in Livingston who does contract work for Park County.

Local residents cross the county’s borders all the time on Interstate 90 — near the Bozeman Pass on the west and near Springdale on the east. But few people have explored the remote northwestern corner between Wilsall and Ringling, as Bornemann has. He was recently a few miles from there, doing work to update Park County’s Geographic Information System. The GIS is a computerized database of geographic information that includes county borders.

“It’s really neat,” Bornemann said of the northwest border area. “It’s a lot of ridges and folds, a lot of creeks … broken country.”

He said it was “kind of hidden back there … there’s a lot of country back there you don’t see from the roads. It’s really kind of cool.”


Surveying then and now

Speaking of surveying, just how was it done around the time Park County was created, in the late 1800s?

A simple answer for that: With a lot of hard work. 

Surveyors in the late 1800s used transits mounted on tripods and a standard length of surveyor’s chain, which was 66 feet long, to measure with, Bornemann explained. From a known starting point, they usually first started north, which they would have exactly determined by astronomical observations before work began. Then, as the surveyor sighted through the transit crosshairs, assistants stretched the chain from the tripod outward until it lined up with the crosshairs’ vertical line. 

They would mark the spot and proceed another 66 feet from there, creating a dead-straight line. 

Those surveyor’s chains have a bearing on our everyday measurements today. For example, the number of feet in a mile — 5,280 — is the distance of 80 chains. Also, most county roads around the nation have a right of way of one chain, or 66 feet (in Montana that’s been adjusted to 60 feet). An acre is 10 square chains.

As the surveying crews worked, every half-mile the surveyor would set up a monument, usually a stone. From that stone, they re-sighted and proceeded to the next half-mile. Meanwhile, a crew member followed with a mule team and wagon, gathering stones for more monuments. Stone monuments were marked with chisled grooves or notches to indicate directions.

“You could have a crew of 10 guys,” Bornemann said of early surveyor teams.

Once set, a stone monument was sacrosanct and could not — and must not — be moved. 

Bornemann said it’s “unchangeable.”

Modern surveyors, when trying to determine a boundary, sometimes must go look for those old stones in fields and forests on which to base their calculations, Bornemann said.

That system was used up into the 1950s. 

The old surveying equipment has been replaced by modern systems employing computers, GPS’s, satellites and lasers, with the geometry and trigonometry now computed by that high-tech gear.

But even with that, surveyors still go out with their tripods — albeit mounted with sophisticated equipment — and do their work, just like in the old days. Only today, instead of chains, surveyors use a differential GPS system that entails two receivers talking simultaneously to multiple satellites to cancel out any errors and provide precise measurements. And usually, the crew is now a single person.

“The measuring part is so much easier than it was,” Bornemann said.

But even with all this high-tech gear, to resolve a question about a boundary, say to determine exactly where a section line is, a surveyor today must still use those historic stone monuments, reading off the monument’s position to begin work. 

“Everything has to stay with the old (monument),” Bornemann said.

Surveyors like Bornemann sometimes go back to 1800s surveyor’s field notes, meticulously poring over them to determine exact locations, something he said he finds fun.

By the way, Google Earth isn’t enough to accurately determine a boundary. 

It could get you “somewhere in the area,” but couldn’t provide a legal boundary, Bornemann said. That must be established according to section lines with a licensed surveyor doing the work.


Border oddity

However, even today it can be difficult to absolutely nail everything down. A perfect example is an uncertain boundary Park County has with Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner.

Yellowstone and Park County officials working on the Gardiner Gateway Project — a multi-agency infrastructure, facilities and safety improvement effort — had to put their heads together to resolve, well, a border dispute.

The problem was that two past surveys produced two slightly different boundaries on Gardiner’s Park Street that are just feet apart. 

It created what Park County Planner Mike Inman called a “kind of no man’s land.”

Along with this, an oddity: Some Park Street businesses with their buildings in Park County and their sidewalks in Yellowstone Park.

“It’s never a big deal unless you’re doing something wrong,” Bornemann, who worked on the Gardiner Gateway Project, quipped of the murky boundary, because committing a crime on the Park County side might not be a felony but could be on the Yellowstone side since it is federal land.

But determining exactly which survey line was the right one proved elusive.

In the end, for the sake of the Gateway Project, it was decided to measure everything off one line, reserving the right to adjust it later or to use the other line. Meanwhile, the unique business sidewalk situation remains.

It probably would have brought a smile to President Thomas Jefferson, who centuries ago thought up the Public Lands Survey System that allowed for the dispute to begin with.


Dwight Harriman may be reached at