Sit in a good chair, unfold a map, and suddenly you are transported

Back Story

November 23, 2008|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN

For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated with maps. All types of maps: highway, railroad, maritime (called more correctly charts) or topographical.

I attribute this to my love of the open road, the rumble of flanged railroad wheels beneath my feet, or the salt-laden wind as a ship makes its way through a rolling open sea.

Just the other day when I should have been busy with household chores, a 1944 Hagstrom map of New York City that my colleague, Jacques Kelly, recently gave me, drew me into a comfortable chair and provided at least an hour's worth of happy contentment and study before guilt returned me to my work.

Over the years, Jacques has given me wonderful vintage highway maps of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New England from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, complete with colorful graphics.

Once upon a time, such now-vanished oil companies as Richfield, Amoco, Pure and Atlantic passed them out for free to motorists who happily rolled up to their pumps to fill their cars with gas costing 20 cents a gallon or less.

Don't think me weird, but this wonderful New York City gem from 1944 contains the kind of arcane information that is fun, helps settle arguments and jogs memories that grow dim with time.

Ever wonder where the famous cruise ships of the New York Cuba Mail Steamship Co. - also known as the Ward Line - departed from and arrived to from Cuba and Central American ports?

Maybe not, but I can tell you: Pier 13 and 14 East River.

Pier 86, home of the recently refurbished World War II carrier USS Intrepid, which is the centerpiece of the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, used to be part of what was called "Liner Row."

It had been the home of the Cunard-White Star Line, where the RMS Queen Mary and Elizabeth used to tie up, and the neighboring piers hosted the handsome ships of the French Line - "The longest Gangplank in the World" - and the Italian Line.

Now, let us go to the street grid to see exactly where Liner Row was. The Hagstrom comes through brilliantly.

It show us that it extended north from West 44th to West 52nd Streets, and for decades was the city's premier seagoing maritime embarkation or arrival hub until trans-Atlantic jet airplanes began killing the North Atlantic passenger business in the 1950s.

Just one question: Why was this map published in 1944? I would think that during wartime, this was all security-sensitive material. It shows in detail all bridges, railroad and vehicular tunnels, subway lines and ferry routes linking Manhattan with Brooklyn, the Bronx and New Jersey.

All government facilities, rail terminals, bus stations, parks and public squares and other important buildings such as Rockefeller Center, are also included.

Everyone knows Broadway, Fifth Avenue or the Avenue of the Americas, whether you've been to New York or not, but what about such lower Manhattan street names as Lispenard, Wooster, Bethune, Carlisle, Leonard, Hubert, Jones or even Telegram Square.

My map revelry was further stoked recently by a column in The New York Times by Verlyn Klinkenborg that called attention to the launching of a surface map of New York City created by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

For those of you who can't wait and courtesy of Klinkenborg, here it is:

For the past decade, the New York City Bureau of Water and Sewer Operations - a division of the city Department of Environmental Protection - has been mapping an interactive map of the city sewer system, from records and maps that are a century old. Klinkenborg writes that "most of us will never get to use the result of all this underground mapping - after all, it's sensitive information."

What we can use, he says, is the surface map that was created by the Department of Environmental Protection, which was created as a surface reference grid for a subterranean sewer map.

Klinkenborg reports that with a "few clicks you can pull up an unbelievable wealth of information about any address or neighborhood."

This is fun, but I like my old maps and charts.

The other night while looking at an old Georgia map, I was tracing U.S. 129 south of Macon (there was no Interstate 75 then) when my finger paused at Fitzgerald. I was reminded of stopping there for lunch with my now long-dead parents in the early 1960s.

My mother, who was from Macon, had married my father during World War II. We had concluded a visit to her sister's family, and we were on our way to visit her mother in St. Petersburg, Fla.

I remember the Lee-Grant Hotel, an ancient white-painted clapboard hotel, that was named for Generals Lee and Grant, and the infernal summer heat of South Georgia, which makes Baltimore's seem like Alaska's.

The cold lunch that was served in a high-ceilinged, old-fashioned dining room came with chilled glasses of sweet tea brimming with lemon wedges. We sat on bentwood chairs at tables with linen tablecloths as ceiling fans quietly waged a losing battle rearranging the humidity.

What makes Fitzgerald interesting, however, is that it became a soldiers' colony of Yankee and Rebel Civil War veterans who settled there in the 1890s, in what was called a "post-Reconstruction reconciliation city."

I haven't been back since, but memories of that long-departed afternoon linger.

Maps have a way of doing that to me.

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