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Arizona’s Initial Point

A survey crew works near Navajo Springs in 1921.

A survey crew works near Navajo Springs in 1921.

At Phoenix International Raceway near turn four, there is a hill often used for hillside seating that holds a little-known historical monument — a concrete cross that marks the point where almost all private parcels of land in Arizona are surveyed from.

In late 1851, a group of surveyors lead by U.S. Surveyor Andrew B. Gray and Lt. A.W. Whipple climbed this hill and built a circular monument with an eight-foot base made of rocks lying nearby. The original monument tapered upward eight feet with a four-foot diameter on top. A center wooden pole, six feet high, was marked “United States and Mexico Boundary Commission, 1851.”

In January 1867, William Pierce climbed the same hill with a seven-member survey crew. They crossed the Gila River that was more than 200 feet wide and three to four feet deep to get to the point that would become the intersection of 115th Avenue and Baseline Road. His field notes indicate, “I proceeded to perpetuate this corner (the center of the monument) as follows: I squared the post and marked it as a TP (township) corner.”

Pierce had a contract for the first rectangular survey in what would become Arizona. His job was to set up township lines for the rectangular division of the land into 36 square-mile townships so that they ultimately could be sold to settlers. His contract was “for the survey of certain lands in Arizona for the sum not to exceed seventy-five hundred dollars.”

Pierce’s first order of business was to establish a line 36 miles to the east, or six townships. Much of this would later become Baseline Road, named after the baseline they were establishing for future surveyors.

Pierce and his crew were able to establish this line in five days using rudimentary equipment, including a solar compass, a 33-foot chain made up of 50 links and a covered wagon and horses as transportation. They had to measure levelly over uneven terrain, rivers, and through brush and other obstacles. In five days, their efforts took them all way to what we now call Power Road.

Pierce described the area: “Salt River, at this season of the year is a large stream… which renders it especially valuable for irrigation. I consider this valley… as containing some of the best agricultural land I have yet seen in the Territory, and would recommend that it be subdivided at an early day.”

After measuring off the area, Pierce returned to the initial point and began a survey of the Prime Meridian for Arizona, a line that was to run 96 miles, or 16 townships, north of the Initial Point. For the next few weeks, Pierce worked carefully to set up the backbone of the structure that would be used to establish the greater Phoenix area. However, in late February 1867, Pierce asked for and received a release from his contract due to an expected Indian uprising and fearing for the safety of his survey crew.

Over the years, the Initial Point fell in disrepair through age and vandalism. Even though more than 62 million acres of Arizona had been surveyed from this point, it was largely forgotten.

In 1984, a statewide group of surveyors took it upon themselves to refurbish the monument as it appears today. In an effort to reflect on the history of this truly remarkable point, they placed a plaque on the monument that reads, “Dedicated to all land owners in Arizona by the Arizona Professional Land Surveyors.”

— Mike Miller. Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Central Library.

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