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On the Map

Is History Vanishing Before Our Eyes?

By Tamia Nelson

Ghost TownNovember 25, 2008

When I was a kid, I was nurtured on TV westerns, so it’s not too surprising that I longed to explore a ghost town. Since my family lived in the shadow of Vermont’s Green Mountains, however, it didn’t seem very likely that I’d get the chance. But then I visited my Grandad’s Adirondack cabin for the first time, and I discovered a ghost town on the doorstep. It took me a while to recognize the signs, of course. (I was only 10 years old. I had a lot to learn.) The bronze bell on the roof of Grandad’s cabin was the first clue. The bell’s once-lustrous surface was hidden beneath layers of verdigris, hinting at great age. More evidence soon came to light. A river ran close by Grandad’s place, and while scrambling on the cliffs above the rapids, I found holes drilled deep into the solid rock. Some were empty. Others contained rusty iron rods. And back in the woods, away from the river’s edge, cables as big around as my arm lay half-concealed in the duff. Further along, down the winding jeep road that served as the local thoroughfare, weed-choked ruts veered off into stands of stunted spruce and hemlock before petering out in tangles of blackberry brambles. Following those old tracks was always exciting. The unknown waited around every corner.

Bore Holes in BedrockBut—there’s always a but, especially when you’re only 10 years old—my forays into the forest had to be circumspect. I was forbidden from entering the woods alone. Grandad laid down the law here. He was a man of few words, but he expected kids to listen when he spoke, and he demanded unquestioning obedience. When he put the woods off-limits, he didn’t bother with explanations. Luckily, my mother was more forthcoming, and she also helped me make sense of the clues I’d been seeing. Her story confirmed what I’d already started to suspect. The ghost town I’d been dreaming about was all around me. At the end of the 19th century, a small community had clung precariously to the river’s edge. Logging paid the bills. The forest furnished the raw material, and the river provided a cheap way to get the product to market. For a few short years, business boomed, and the logging camp became a town. It even had its own schoolhouse. (That explained the weathered bronze bell.) Nothing lasts forever, though, and the little town died almost as soon as the last of the big pines was felled. Homes and outbuildings were pulled apart to build camps, or simply allowed to rot. Now almost nothing remained of the original town but cellar holes and wells. It was the wells that Grandad feared. They waited patiently in the shadows, silent and deadly, water-filled traps for any unwary passerby. Grandad himself had survived a few too-close encounters with these traps, and while he’d boarded up all the open wells he’d found, he was haunted by the thought that there were others that he’d missed. And he was damned if he’d lose a grandchild to a hole in the ground.

That explained why the woods were a no-go area. But I couldn’t let the matter rest there, and I seized every chance that came my way to explore “my” ghost town—with an adult companion when possible, alone when no adult could be persuaded to accompany me. Grandad must have known about my solo jaunts, but he never let on. I’m still puzzled by this. He was a strict man, and he expected kids to toe the line he drew. Perhaps he’d decided that he and I were kindred spirits, that we shared a common bump of curiosity, not to mention an awkward inclination to defy authority. Perhaps. I’ll never know.

I do know this, however: that summer at my Grandad’s camp left me with something more than a consuming desire to venture further off the beaten track. It also marked the start of my love affair with maps. Grandad had every quad that had ever been published for his corner of the Adirondacks, and on rainy days I pored over them all, looking for any evidence of other ghost towns. Grandad’s maps were printed on paper, of course. (He glued the ones he used most often to sheets of linen, waterproofing them with shellac.) There was no other choice back in the 1960s. But things have moved on since then. Ours is a digital age, and as I confessed in an earlier column, I’m a digital girl. Increasingly often, the maps that I dream over are digital maps. Is this important? What, if anything, is lost in making the transition from paper to pixels? These aren’t idle concerns, and the question that hits hardest can be summarized in just a few words:

Are Digital Maps Robbing Us of Our Past?

The president of the British Cartographic Society thinks so. Mary Spence has voiced fears that our growing reliance on GPS receivers and mapping software is “diluting the quality of the graphic image that we call a map.” In brief, Spence is arguing that digital maps are pallid imitations of their paper antecedents—that they are, in effect, stripped-down, dumbed-down knock-offs, concealing more than they reveal, all in an effort to make the fewest demands on the user. Maps for the mob, in other words. Strong stuff, that, if true. But is it?

I think the answer is yes. And no. Which of these two diametrically opposed answers you choose will depend on your starting point—and your destination. You’ll have to ask a few more questions before you can arrive at a sensible conclusion, though. Which map? Used for what purpose? A case in point: If you want to drive from Sunday Rock to Sodom, the digital display in the dash of your car will do fine. In fact, it easily trumps a paper map. It won’t block your view of the road ahead, for one thing, and your destination will never end up at the corner where all folds meet. But if you’re searching for ghost towns, you’ll probably be happier with the largest-scale paper quad you can lay your hands on—or with a digital scan of the paper original. To make matters even more complicated, there’s a lot of difference between quads. Compare the US Geological Survey’s topographic maps to their counterparts from the British Ordnance Survey, for example. It’s not an altogether fair match-up, I admit. The United Kingdom is a pretty small place. The US is much, much bigger. And the Brits have been at the mapping game a bit longer than their cousins across the Pond. (The Ordnance Survey was born in 1747. You couldn’t find the United States on any map back then.) That said, the Ordnance Survey—hereinafter just the OS—publishes what may well be the most wonderfully detailed maps to be found anywhere. Take a look at this example:

Battle of Bosworth Field, UK

British Ordnance Survey Map of Market Bosworth,
Supposed Site of the Battle of Bosworth Field
Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service and reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.

To my mind, working with OS maps is like drinking a fine wine or lingering over a lovingly prepared meal. There are no end of discoveries to be made. (You’ll want to educate your palate first, though. It helps if you know what all the symbols mean. Go to the Ordnance Survey’s “Teaching Resources” web page and scroll down to the “map symbol sheets” link, then download the PDF file for the map series you’re interested in.) You can identify public rights of way, learn the names of individual farms and woodlands, and even locate the nearest public house—all from the map.

The US Geological Survey’s topographic maps, good as they are, pale by comparison. As an example, take a look at the map below. It depicts the Bennington battlefield, not far from the Vermont border in eastern New York state.

Bennington Battlefield

USGS Topographic Map of the Bennington Battlefield

You won’t see the names of farms or woods, but at least the site of the historic battlefield is identified. (Sodom lies just to the east, by the way. There’s not much going on there today, but it must have been a lively place once.) Of course, the comparison between the two maps above is somewhat skewed. The USGS quad showing the Bennington battlefield is from the 1:100,000 series; the OS map of Market Bosworth, on the other hand, is from the 1:50,000 Landranger® series. Apples and oranges, in other words.

So let’s square the odds now, or even skew the contest the other way, and see what changes:

A Closer Look at the Bennington Battlefield

The Bennington Battlefield at 1:24,000 Scale

Things are looking up, though the quality of the scan on which this image is based is rather poor. We’ve zoomed in from 1:100,000 to 1:24,000, and this 1995 USGS quad shows details not visible at the smaller scale: a school (long since abandoned) and a cemetery among them. It depicts a goodly number of unidentified structures, into the bargain, but it still comes in a poor second to the 1:50,000 OS map. Nonetheless, there’s a lot to be seen here. More than enough to fire the imagination of anyone interested in…

Paddling Into the Past

Last Chimney StandingA good map is a window opening onto a lost world. A town name on a now empty stretch of road is a clue. And any spot along a river labeled “Forge” or “Mill” is strong evidence that water-powered industry once thrived there. (It’s also a good indication that the river drops a fair bit in the vicinity. Time to scout!) “Crossing” or “Ford” suggests either a ferry or a spot shallow enough to drive a horse and cart across. Clearings in the woods can mark the sites of wildfires—or they can hint at the locations of abandoned farms (or even deserted towns). The parallel dashed lines that mark the alignments of unmaintained roads are yet another guide (especially when they peter out to nothing), as is a crossed-pick symbol indicating a mine located in an otherwise empty quarter of a map. You get the point, I’m sure. Any or all of these signs can get you started on a voyage of discovery that will take you straight into the past.

Which brings us back to the digital dilemma articulated by Mary Spence:

Is History Vanishing Before Our Eyes?

Let’s return once more to the Bennington battlefield. This time, however, our guide is the digital topographic map stored in a Garmin Legend Gx. It’s based on the same 1:100,000-scale USGS quad shown in the earlier photo. That map didn’t tell us much, to be sure, but its pixelated offspring gives the historically inclined explorer even less to go on. Take a look and judge for yourself.

The World According to Garmin

Digital Divide?

There’s not much on offer here, is there? In fact, except for the cryptic “CARETAKER’S” tag, there’s not the slightest hint that an important skirmish in a historic conflict ever took place here. Hills, yes. Rivers, yes. Roads and hamlets, yes. They’re all there. But most of the region’s history got lost somewhere along the way.

Case closed? Has Spence’s argument carried the day? Well, maybe not. At least not completely. The actual size of the screen on the little GPS receiver isn’t much bigger than a commemorative stamp. There’s a limit to what can be shown in so small a place, and that’s reason enough to be somewhat economical with labels. After all, the Garmin map is adapted to the needs of navigators, not historians. There’s also another side to the digital divide. The map photos in this article didn’t come from any of the printed paper maps in my collection. With the exception of the Garmin screenshot, each one came straight off the Web, courtesy of the UK’s Ordnance Survey and TerraServer USA®. So history still flourishes in the digital age. Some digital maps are dumbed down, to be sure—though usually for good reason. But the same technology has given anyone with a modem and a mouse easy access to an extraordinary treasury of maps and aerial photos. The whole world and its history are now at every paddler’s fingertips. All that remains for us to do is to go out and see it for ourselves.

Mill on the Floss

Remains of the Day

The land holds many secrets about the past, both recent and ancient, and maps are the keys we need to unlock that history. Now maps are moving off the printed page and onto digital displays, prompting some thoughtful folks to wonder if our history isn’t in danger of vanishing before our eyes. But while there’s some reason for concern, there’s no need to despair. Yet. The digital age has opened dusty archives to the scrutiny of paddlers everywhere. Once upon a time these resources were the jealously guarded precincts of a handful of scholars. Now they’re available to all. So history hasn’t been lost. Not so long as we can read the clues, at any rate. It’s still on the map. You just need to know how to look for it.

Copyright © 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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