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© 2003 AFHS
6 Oct 2003



Prairie Land Systems


by Gordon Williams

The Dominion Lands Survey System (DLS System)

For a somewhat more graphical version of this presentation, please consult the PowerPointPowerPoint file.

In 1869, the Dominion of Canada acquired all the land draining in to Hudson Bay (Rupert's Land) from the Governor and Company of Adventurers Trading Into Hudson's Bay (The Hudson's Bay Company). That same year, the Government of Canada began to survey the vast fertile western prairies that came with the purchase of Rupert's Land, anticipating a land rush to the area because virtually all the desirable farmland in central Canada was already taken.

Over a period of fifty years, over 178 million acres, from southern Manitoba to northeastern British Columbia had been staked out on the ground into 1,100,000 homestead-sized quarter sections. This extension of a precise and uniform survey over such an immense area is unique and has never been equalled anywhere else in the world.

The basic survey unit is the township, approximately six miles square, each containing 36 sections of one square mile, or 640 acres, plus allowances for road access to each section. Within a township, the sections were numbered from 1 to 36, in a zig-zag pattern, beginning with section 1 in the extreme southeast corner of the township. Each section was in turn subdivided into four quarters (SE, SW, NW, NE) of 160 acres, more or less.

Rows of townships were laid out, beginning at the intersection of the 49th parallel of latitude (the east-west line marking the Canada-US border) and the north-south meridian of longitude (97degrees 27 minutes west of Greenwich, England) that runs just west of the western outskirts of Winnipeg. This north-south reference line is referred to as the First, or Principal Meridian.

Each east-west row of townships was numbered northward, starting with the southernmost row. These rows are called Townships (note the capital "T"). The north-south columns of townships (small "t"), beginning at the Principal Meridian, are called Ranges and are also numbered away from the meridian, starting from Range 1 adjacent to the meridian. Because the survey extended both east and west of the Principal Meridian, the direction of the numbering must be stated (i.e., either east or west of the Principal Meridian).

Because meridians converge toward the north pole, and to maintain the north-south orientation of the Ranges, the survey introduced systematic offsets, called correction lines, between Townships 2 and 3 and every four Townships thereafter (i.e., between Townships 6 and 7, 10 and 11 and so forth). Each successive Range in the Township north of the correction line is offset slightly as the range numbers increase away from the reference meridian, with the amount of offset increasing as the Range numbers increase.

To keep the offset within reasonable bounds, the survey established new reference meridians approximately every 180 miles (4 degrees of longitude) along the 49th parallel. The Second Meridian (102 degrees West Longitude) is approximately 20 miles west of what is now the Manitoba-Saskatchewan boundary at the US border and forms the boundary north of Township 78. The Third Meridian (106 degrees West Longitude) runs between Moose Jaw and Saskatoon, the Fourth Meridian (110 degrees West Longitude) forms the Alberta-Saskatchewan Boundary, the Fifth Meridian (114 degrees West Longitude) runs through Calgary and the Sixth Meridian (118 degrees West Longitude) lies approximately 30 miles east of Grande Prairie. Except for the Principal Meridian, all Ranges in western Canada are numbered west of the appropriate reference meridian.

Homesteads in western Canada consisted of one quarter section, 160 acres, more or less, and each can be uniquely designated within the DLS System. For example, my grandparents' farm in southern Manitoba was the NW quarter of Section 6, Township 14, Range 17, West of the First Meridian (NW6-14-17W1M). The cemetery just east of Calgary on the TransCanada Highway is in NW20-24-28W4M.

National Topographic System (NTS)

Very little of Canada has been surveyed on the ground, but there is still a necessity to refer to areas of the country and to designate maps at various scales in a systematic way. To accommodate these needs, the National Topographic System was designed, based entirely on the universal reference coordinates of latitude and longitude.

The fundamental unit of the NTS is the primary quadrangle, each 4° of latitude by 8° of longitude over all of Canada except in the high arctic north of Latitude 80°, where the east-west dimension is 16° of longitude. The primary quadrangles are numbered and arranged in east-to-west rows, with the SE corner of quadrangle 0 (zero) at the intersection of 40° North Latitude and 48° West Longitude, in the Atlantic Ocean, south of Newfoundland.

The numbering scheme is decimal, with quadrangle 10 immediately west of quadrangle 0, quadrangle 20 immediately west of quadrangle 10, and quadrangle 30 immediately west of quadrangle 20. Quadrangle 11 lies immediately north of quadrangle 10, quadrangle 12 immediately north of quadrangle 11, and so on.

Calgary lies in quadrangle 82 (i.e., the eighth quadrangle west and the second quadrangle north).

NTS primary quadrangles are too large for detailed mapping and are further subdivided into quarters (SE, SW, NW, NE) or smaller units as described below.

Primary quadrangles are subdivided into 16 secondary quadrangles (Lettered Quadrangles), designated A to P in a zig-zag pattern starting with A as the Lettered Quadrangle in the southeast corner of the Primary Quadrangle. Calgary lies at the intersection of 82-I, 82-J, 82-O and 82-P.

Each of the secondary quadrangles in turn is subdivided into sixteen tertiary quadrangles (called Sixteenths) which are numbered from 1 to 16, in a zig-zag arrangement, also starting with 1 in the southeast. The dimensions of each tertiary quadrangle are 15 minutes of latitude by 30 minutes of longitude. Topographic maps of tertiary quadrangles are at the relatively detailed scale of 1:50,000.

The northwest part of Calgary lies mostly in 82-O-1 and Red Deer is mostly within 83-A-5.

All topographic maps published by the Government of Canada (Natural Resources Canada) are identified by their NTS quadrangle.