Early maps were remarkably accurate

WAY BACK WHEN

From 17th-century Maryland to an atlas of railroading

December 13, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For those who appreciate collecting or spending hour upon hour studying maps, this has been a very good year.

Johns Hopkins University Press issued an expanded edition of The Hammond-Harwood House Atlas of Historic Maps of Maryland, 1608-1908 ($69.95), by Edward C. Papenfuse, state archivist, and Joseph M. Coale III. Their original edition was published in 1982 to mark the 350th anniversary of Maryland's charter.

The Hopkins Press also published Richard C. Carpenter's A Railroad Atlas of the United States in 1946: The Mid-Atlantic States ($65) featuring some 200 maps painstakingly drawn and hand-lettered by the author. The book will be of tremendous use to scholars and rail buffs interested in tracing main or branchline tracks that may no longer exist.

The Papenfuse-Coale book, with its 236 four-color plates, has been expanded from its original 128 pages to 223 pages. It has provided me with plenty of informative diversion over the last several months.

And I'm struck over and over again by the accuracy of Capt. John Smith's 1608 map of the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia, which for years, according to Papenfuse and Coale, remained for Europeans the standard reference map of the Tidewater region.

Smith's second exploration of the bay in 1608 took 12 weeks and covered some 3,000 miles. After arriving at Jamestown, he composed his account of his voyage.

"There is but one entrance by Sea into this Country, and that is at the mouth of a very goodly Bay, 18 or 20 miles broad," Smith wrote. " ... The land, white hilly sands like unto the Downes, and all along the shores great plentie of Pines and Firres. ... Within is a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant place knowne, for large and pleasant navigable Rivers."

The first map to show Maryland and its county boundaries in myriad detail was drafted by Dennis Griffith, deputy surveyor of Anne Arundel County. The 1794 folding map "contained a wealth of information helpful to the traveler and merchant," Papenfuse and Coale write. The map also showed 180 mills, 92 taverns, 11 iron forges, and nine iron furnaces.

Careful and patient study of the maps reveals any number of interesting cartographic oddities, including "Contemplated Avenue" from Thomas Poppleton's 1822 map of Baltimore: a beltway around the city, roughly 140 years before the highway was actually built.

The authors state that Poppleton's highly detailed map remained the standard "reference map for the city" from 1822 until the publication in 1896 of the Bromley Atlas.

Those interested in the coming centennial of the Great Baltimore Fire will no doubt want to see the Burnt District Commission's map showing the areas destroyed by the fire.

Carpenter's railroad map book, meanwhile, came about because of something he noticed while driving across Indiana on U.S. 24 in 1990 on a trip home from Chicago. Across a farmer's field was a segment of an embankment that once carried the Erie Railroad's double-tracked mainline, long ago pulled up. And then there were vast wide open spaces where the railroad's path was totally obliterated.

"There was absolutely no sign that this farmland had ever been interrupted in any way, never mind that it had watched, for more than one hundred years, the passage of thousands upon thousands of trains, from long, lumbering freights to such passenger trains as the New York-to-Chicago Erie Limited, the Atlantic Express, and the Lake Cities," writes Carpenter.

Carpenter then set out to record the nation's rail routes as they existed in 1946. He chose that year because it marked the peak of U.S. rail development - a staggering 254,037 route miles, including 12,327 miles in Maryland - before the advent of interstate highways, before the traveling public forsook trains for the family gas guzzler.

Carpenter was determined to create an "easy-to-read atlas" and he has succeeded. His initial volume, which covers Delaware, Washington, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, is the first in a series that will record the nation's rapidly disappearing steel highway.

It is almost monk-like work, and he pulls it off admirably. I must admit that I was anxious to test his research by checking an obscure streak of rust that ran for 30 miles or so across central New Jersey, where I grew up.

My litmus test was a good one because New Jersey is criss-crossed by a veritable spaghetti-like network of rail lines from every direction of the compass. He probably had missed this line.

And in 1946, the state was bisected and dissected by numerous tracks, including those of the Pennsylvania, Central Railroad of New Jersey, Lehigh Valley, Erie, Delaware Lackawanna & Western, Lehigh & Hudson, Lehigh & New England, New York Central, Susquehanna & Western, and the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Line.

Voila! There it was, painstakingly drawn in a light brown with all appropriate geographic landmarks and stations.

He had not overlooked the Reading Railroad's Port Reading branch, freight only, that operated and still does, eastward on a single track from Bound Brook Junction to Port Reading on the Arthur Kill, which is the narrow channel that connects the Raritan and Newark bays.

An "A" plus!

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