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The Niven Meridian - Where New Ontario's straight borders came from

This week, Back Roads Bill tells us about an important imaginary line in Northern Ontario

Some lines are more important than others and these lines are not online or the spoken lines of actors. Three of the most significant imaginary lines on the surface of the Earth are the equator, the Prime Meridian and the International Date Line.

Also, you have been wondering where all those, more than 1200, dark blue, bronzed highway plaques come from anyway. There is one plaque that has much to do about our back roads and its very specific location tells us why the byways appear as straight lines, running north-south for the most part.

It is located three kilometres west of Cochrane on the north side of Highway 11. The plaque is on the 49th parallel of latitude north of the Equator, it is the 81st line of longitude, west of the Prime Meridian, crossing Highway 11. It is important to Northern Ontario; it is the most important imaginary line we have called the Niven Line.

Alexander J. Niven, (1836-1911), one of the founding members of the Association of Ontario Land Surveyors (AOLS) he is often referred to as “Ontario’s greatest land surveyor” was credited with surveying the interprovincial boundaries of Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec and establishing many baselines in North Eastern Ontario. He was best known for surveying Niven’s Meridian, a line that he ran in the 1890s straight north from Georgian Bay to James Bay.  

The Important Niven Line

Land surveyors were the “forerunners” of settlement. Dispatched into the wilderness, in what was known as “New Ontario,” the “Northern” came later; they were the first to examine the land in detail; their words were taken as the gospel and what followed were development and colonization roads.

Anne Cole was contacted, now retired, she became one of the first female Ontario Land Surveyors in the province. “While retracing the work of the surveyors from the 1800s and early 1900s in northern Ontario, one cannot be anything but in awe of their accomplishments! Reading their diaries, finding their posts and blazings in the field, and trying to imagine how they did so much with so little has been one of the most interesting aspects of my surveying career,”  

she said. “Developing northern Ontario depended on Alexander Niven's astonishing body of work. Not only was he a great surveyor, but also a leader in the profession, advocating for changes that would improve the surveying systems of the province. I wish that I could invoke time travel and take him on a helicopter ride, showing him how to navigate with GPS over his baselines and township boundaries across the north. I wonder what he would think of all that has happened since his foundational work?”

Discoveries – Clay Belts

Paul Goodridge is an Ontario Land Surveyor and a Land Use Planner at Goodridge Goulet Planning & Surveying Ltd. in North Bay. .He said, “ Alexander Niven essentially established the framework for all the township surveys in the northeast and was generally regarded as Ontario's greatest land surveyor.

“His challenge was enormous, to begin with, not only was the landscape inhospitable; the true north-south lines (meridians) are not parallel; they converge toward the north pole. This means the network of townships he surveyed have meridians as sidelines and are invariably narrower along the north boundary than they are along the south. This narrowing is slight but measurable and has to be accounted for. With the rudimentary equipment of the day, he surveyed with amazing accuracy and to this day his body of work across Northern Ontario can be considered exemplary.”

Because the survey grid created is not actually drawn on the land, physical markings had to be established. Niven set out to eventually run a meridian from Georgian Bay to James Bay. In order to avoid land disputes and to keep land measurements accurate, hundreds and thousands of monuments (and iron bars) have been planted in the ground to mark survey boundaries.

Discoveries – Clay Belts

Niven was in the north in 1881 establishing a baseline of latitude from the northeast corner of Field Township, establishing a tier of townships, to the south end of Lake Temagami. Glaciers created the Little Claybelt but Niven discovered it.

His detailed notes say, "Admirably suited for agriculture…the soil being clay and free of stones… Exactly the type of land the government had been hoping to find."

It was the start of the farming area surrounding Temiskaming Shores (New Liskeard).

On another discovery further to the north, he notes the following. 

…we enter upon good land, the level country that extends to James Bay, and for the remaining 200 miles (321 km) of the line the country is almost as smooth as the lawn in front of the Parliament Buildings…a splendid tract of farming land, clay soil, often covered with black muck.

Parts of it might be called swampy and parts of it muskeg, but taken altogether there are not many places in Ontario where a line can be run for the same distance through such an even uniformly good tract of land.

A good deal of it can be drained and cultivated.

It was to be known as the Great Clay Belt and would lead the government astray for many years. It created the Ferguson Highway (Highway 11), the now Ontario Northland Railway (then, Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway) and a colonization scheme that created settlements along both transportation corridors.

It is also why we have the distinction of having two Trans Canada Highways - 11 and 17 both starting in North Bay and joining in Nipigon; your road map will help explain how the northern hinterland became a destination because of Niven.

By now the star performer for the government he continued his tedious work establishing a number of baselines in north-western Ontario for a grid of townships. He tied his survey to the western extension forty-ninth parallel.

In 1896 he was given the job to run an exploration line north to James Bay that would be the northerly extensions of the boundary of what would become the Districts of Sudbury, Temiskaming and Cochrane.

Running some 483 kilometres (300 miles) of forest, lake, swamp and muskeg the completed boundary line became known as the ‘Niven Meridian.’ It was the only line to reach saltwater. By 1900 he had run well over 1600 kilometres (1000 miles) of base and meridian lines throughout Northern Ontario.

The Plaques

Go on online to the province’s heritage plaque guide and discover all of those roadside sites that dot the roadside landscape, see the map. There are also the federal government's Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaques these bronze and aluminum plaques vary in colour, the new ones are a deep red.

In the Cochrane area, there is a 49th parallel plaque on Highway 11, just south of Cochrane.

Although the back roads are not asphalted, take a few moments to read these plaques and think about those who came before us and paved our way, especially if you have wondered why property lines and municipal boundaries are straight by sight and on the maps. It is why we have a Niven plaque.

Alexander Niven set the stage on which we now live. Like the set designer, on the theatre program, his name is rarely noted or remembered, they are not the actors delivering the lines on stage.