Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why Is the Original Davis Street Grid “Tilted” Some 13 Degrees Northwest? (182)

The American penchant is to orient street and other land grids “cardinal north.” Indeed, early land maps of Yolo County are marvels of such rigid rectangles (images a and c).

But, the street grid for the original Davisville is not cardinal north. Instead, in a sea of north-south parcels, it conspicuously “tilts’ to the northwest some 13 degrees (seen in images a and c).  
This exception has sometimes prompted the question “why?” The conventional answer has been that a rail line to Woodland was part of the planning and the tilt created a “straight shot” toward it.

I accepted this reasoning until, looking at a Yolo County map recently, I finally noticed that the grid planners seem not to have been very good shots. A straight rail line on that trajectory bypasses 1868 Woodland to the west.

In order to hit its target, the rail line must curve, which it in fact does between Roads 27 and 25A (image b). A “straight shot” would have used a “tilt” more in the neighborhood of, say, eight degrees northwest.

This mismatch does not mean the traditional theory is wrong, but it did make me wonder and I looked anew at materials I had previously assembled on the area (cited in the footnote below).  

One key document is a drawing of the Jerome Davis farm done in 1858 (reproduced here as image 1). Assuming it is accurate, we see that Mr. Davis has laid out a quite clear grid for his ranch/farm. The angles are not exactly square, but not bad.

Is it oriented cardinal north? Image 2 is a reproduction of the grid map of the new Davisville drawn by hand on page 242 of Yolo County Deedbook H.

To the right on that map is an arrow showing cardinal north and we can see that the Davisville grid is tilted northwest.

Now look in the lower left corner on that map where there are seven boxes labeled “Farm Buildings.” These would seem to be the same array of structures as just seen in image 1, the 1858 farm.
1. 1858

2. 1868
3. 1858 Related to 1868
4. 1868 Outline Superimposed on a 2008 Map 

I bring these two documents together in Image 3 in order to show the correspondence in more detail.

Last, in this previous work I took a 2008 Google map of Davis and laid a cutout of the 1868 grid map over it (image 4). The correspondence is quite remarkable.

What Does This Mean? To me, this information shows that when the California Pacific Railroad people showed up at the Davis farm with a plan to lay out a town grid, they found an existing cluster of buildings and associated features arrayed in a farm/ranch grid-like fashion. Indeed, from additional sources we know that there was an already established small settlement built in and around these seven buildings with associated fence lines, paths, and primitive roads.*

As can be seen, this pre-existing grid is itself “tilted” by at least 13 degrees northwest and perhaps even a few degrees more.

Here the planners were, “in the middle of nowhere,” creating a town. Why not be guided by what is already there? My surmise is that they simply followed Mr. Davis’ lead in laying out the new Davisville grid.

Of course, this only pushes the question backward up the causal chain. What inspired Mr. Davis to orient his grid the way he did? One obvious possibility (that applies in many other cases) is that he was roughly aligning to a watercourse--Putah Creek in this instance.

Another possibility, and one mentioned by David Vaught in discussing early Yolo layouts more generally, is the adoption of Mexican land-grant boundaries and other markers. (As is known, cardinal north was not a key principle in determining Mexican land boundaries.)

While none of this is definitive, I think there is at least reasonable doubt about the source or sources of the Davisville grid “tilt.”


* For a description of the flurry of activity underway at and near the Jerome Davis farm in the months before the Davisville grid was laid out and the rail line arrived, see Davisville 1868: Twelve Months in Davis’ Gestation:

Images 1 through 4 are reproduced from the above publication, where further information on sources is given.

Image "a" is a photograph I took of a very large 19th century map of Yolo County on quasi-display in the map room of UCD Shields Library.