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Idaho's first survey point finds champions

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It may have happened in the dead of night, or maybe in the broad light of day, but with no one around for miles, there were no eyewitnesses. What was left in the wake of the unknown vandals was the tip of a rusting metal pipe sticking out of the ground where a brass plate once marked the original land survey point for the state.

It wasn't the first time thieves had made off with the marker, a circular brass plate roughly the size of a bagel set atop a concrete-filled pipe buried deep in the ground. It was similar to other brass survey markers that can be found across the state—small points embedded in roads, corners of lots or even in the middle of nowhere. But this one was special. It was the first marker and the basis for all land surveys ever done in Idaho.

It's that distinction that drove a group of private land surveyors to take up the cause of replacing the marker last ripped from its lonely perch on top of a small knoll eight miles south of Kuna in 1996.

Now, a shining stainless steel version sits in its place on the hill in the high desert, giving just a touch of recognition to a place that remains obscure to the general public, yet is the reason the state is laid out the way it is.

Called the initial point, the single point is the place from which all land surveys in the state originate, and was the point from which surveyors in the 1800s began to map the young state.

When the original colonies were founded, they were filled with random and uneven borders that developed as the area was settled and landowners scrambled to claim the most fertile and valuable land. But as the population moved west, the government established a grid system to mark out the land in straight-edged townships, ranges and sections.

Because of this, Idaho's is one of only 37 initial points in the United States. The first initial point marker was installed in the spring of 1867 and has gone through various incarnations, including once featuring a stone monument, which was long ago destroyed by vandals.

The location for the initial points was supposed to be situated between the two largest population centers, which at the time, were Idaho City and Silver City, thanks to the mining boom late in the 19th century. At that point, Boise was just a small township on the river. Located on a meridian line, the initial point became the hub of the state as the vast landscape was marked out.

While Idaho City's population now numbers in the hundreds and Silver City is a virtual ghost town, the initial point is still the basis of all land surveys done in the state, which is why the surveyors felt it deserved some attention.

"It's fascinating," said Bureau of Land Management spokesperson M.J. Byrne, adding that the marker's location directly led to the name of a Southwesten Idaho town due north of the site: Meridian.

With the permission of the BLM, the Southwest Chapter of the Idaho Society of Professional Land Surveyors rallied to install a new initial point marker on the lonely hilltop.

Because the area falls under the jurisdiction of the BLM, the group of surveyors had to work closely with the government agency to meet the standards and criteria for the marker.

While it was a detailed project, it's not uncommon for private groups to help with BLM projects, Byrne said.

"We're fortunate that we do have private groups coming to us with all kinds of ideas," she said, adding that projects range from trash pickups to larger monument projects.

Still, the BLM was thrilled with the prospect of reinstalling the initial point marker, an area with a history that captured Byrne's imagination as she began researching it.

It took several years of planning and work to get the support needed, but late last year, the group was finally able to install the marker. Of course, it took more than a day of labor-intensive drilling and chipping to clean out all the old concrete so they could set the marker.

Now made of heavy stainless steel, the new marker resembles a large spike and measures in at 1 foot long and 6 inches in diameter, yet weighs a whopping 95 pounds, something the surveyors hope will prove a deterrent for possible vandals.

"It's not something you just go pick up," said Jerry Hastings, Ada County surveyor.

It is also lacking the brass cap that proved such a temptation for previous vandals.

While the marker was set in October 2008, it won't be formally rededicated until March 12, when the Idaho Land Surveyors meet for their annual conference.

The ceremony will be done far from the isolated hilltop where the initial point rests, instead being done in the warmth of a convention room with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation.

The decision came down to the simple logistics of moving hundreds of people to the desert south of Kuna in buses that wouldn't be able to handle the drive to the top. Still, some BLM officials hope that the new marker might bring increased attention to an area that few Idahoans know exists. With more attention comes more watchful eyes and fewer opportunities for senseless vandalism.

"[We] just wanted something there that we could be proud of," Hastings said.

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