Peacock Keller: Legal Services since 1925
Volume 18, Number 3 · July 2008

My Land: A Bundle of Sticks

real estate tax in Southwestern Pennsylvania

by Andy Chumney

You have just become a landowner. But what did you actually purchase? Many people believe that they acquire everything from the surface to the center of the earth. This is rarely the case.

My first-year property professor compared property law to a bundle of sticks. One individual may own the entire bundle, or, one or more of those sticks could, at any time, be separated from the others and be owned by another person. The separating of the sticks may be done either by conveying one or more sticks from your bundle to another person, or by reserving and keeping one or more sticks for yourself when you sell the rest of the sticks.

In Pennsylvania, the separating of the sticks began in early time. The initial deed for property in Pennsylvania came from the Commonwealth; it was called a "patent." Patents nearly always reserved a portion of the gold and silver to the Commonwealth thereby removing the first stick from the bundle.

On August 28,1859, Colonel Edwin L. Drake began operating what is commonly referred to as the first modern commercial oil well in "Oil Creek" near the town of Titusville, Pennsylvania. The idea that oil and gas could be commercially exploited in western Pennsylvania spread. The separating of the oil and gas sticks were routinely done in the form of a lease. If the operator was not able to develop the oil or gas, then the "stick" for the oil and gas frequently reverted back to the landowner. If the oil and gas operator could continue producing oil or gas from the well, the stick might continue to remain outside the remaining bundle.

Around the turn of the century, the stick most familiar in western Pennsylvania started to be separated from the bundle. This stick, commonly called the Pittsburgh, River, or Nine Foot vein of coal, was first discovered in "Coal Hill," now known as Mount Washington. Coal had been mined in Pittsburgh and used since the 1700's for heating and cooking fires at Fort Pitt. However, not until the late 1800's and early 1900's was the extent of the Pittsburgh coal seam recognized and the geologic science developed to mine it.

So if you are buying property, there are some significant sticks that may not be a part of the bundle you are receiving. Traditionally, title searchers for mortgages go back only 60 years. If you are unsure what sticks may be included, you may need to go back over a 100 year period. If you are curious, you just may want to contact your Peacock Keller attorney before purchasing.

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