Canada’s Dominion Land Survey Meridian

On August 7, 2011 · 3 Comments

One of my favorite activities and side-benefits on the Twelve Mile Circle involves thoughtful correspondence. That happens when readers contact me offline, directly through the email link. We have opportunities to share experiences, discuss geo-oddities in a little more detail and develop story lines that sometimes result in full-blown articles. Casual readers may not realize the amount of activity taking place behind the curtain. Generally I’m involved in several slow-motion conversations out-of-sight at any given moment, to the benefit of topic variety and the overall quality of the blog.

I’m a little behind due to my recent vacation so fear not if we’ve corresponded recently, I’ll catch up eventually.

Case in point, reader Brent and I had dueling meridian experiences in near-real-time as I traveled through Utah recently. I recorded my first visit to the Great Salt Lake Meridian and Base on the same day he stopped at the Principal Meridian for Canada’s Dominion Land Survey.

View Larger Map

My meridian experience was in a highly urban area, the Temple Square at the heart of Salt Lake City. His, by contrast, involved a rural stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway outside of Winnipeg, Manitoba (namesake of Winnie-the-Pooh). That rural description may change in the future, however. The outskirts of Winnipeg seem to be marching in that direction. The marker may find itself in the parking lot of a generic suburban shopping center someday but for now it retains its bucolic setting. Brent was kind enough to share photographs of the marker and with his permission I’ve reproduced one here.

Canada's Dominion Land Survey Prime Meridian Marker

The marker was dedicated in 1930 with the following inscription (and repeated in French):

The first marker of the Dominion Lands Survey was placed 10 July, 1871, on the Principal Meridian, about a half a mile south of this site. The system, then inaugurated by Lieutenant-Colonel J.S. Dennis, Surveyor-General, extends across the prairies and to the Pacific coast, embracing more than 200 million acres of surveyed lands in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and parts of British Columbia.

That succinctly describes the Dominion Land Survey and the importance of its Prime Meridian which was established along 97° 27′ 28.4″ — an interestingly random longitude in my mind. The 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and subsequent meridians were pegged to 102°, 106° 110° west of Greenwich and so forth, so it would seem to have made better sense for the Survey to begin at 98° instead. I’m sure there is a story behind the actual choice although I haven’t had time to dig into it further. Perhaps it’s as simple as they wanted to cover a greater area in the Survey.

What an amazing meridian. The Dominion Land Survey was patterned on the Public Land Survey system used in the United States, but on a greater, gargantuan scale. It is quite simply "the world’s largest survey grid laid down in a single integrated system," according to the Library and Archives of Canada. Brent’s adventure trumps my puny Utah meridan in terms of scale and significance.

If you check the actual longitude of the marker you may notice that it’s a bit off. Wikipedia explains that particular situation:

The only truly accurate benchmarks at that time were near the prime meridian in Europe. Benchmarks in other parts of the world had to be calculated or estimated by the positions of the sun and stars. Consequently, although they were remarkably accurate for the time, today they are known to be several hundred metres in error. Before the survey was even completed it was established that for the purposes of laws based on the survey, the results of the physical survey would take precedence over the theoretically correct position of the meridians. This precludes, for example any basis for a boundary dispute between Alberta and Saskatchewan on account of surveying errors.

That’s a smart approach.

Well done Brent, and thank you for sharing your journey.


On August 7, 2011 · 3 Comments

3 Responses to “Canada’s Dominion Land Survey Meridian”

  1. brent says:

    Hey! Thanks.

    I think the reason the Prime was located where it is has something to do with the fact that to the east of it, lands had been already assigned on the old French system of river lots instead.

  2. Fritz Keppler says:

    And on the Trans Canada Highway east of Winnipeg you can see a signpost marking the Longitudinal Centre of Canada at 96° 48’ 35” W. I only have video of the sign, but a picture of the marker can be seen here:

    But the halfway point of the highway itself is a considerable distance to the east, at Chippewa Falls, Ontario.

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