Part 5It's on the Map
Upstreaming Made Easy
By Tamia Nelson
April 9, 2002
Upstreaming. That's what
anthropologists used to call it. Want to know how prehistoric men and
women lived? Then just look at surviving "primitive" peoples and project
their way of life back into prehistory. Travel upstream against the flow
of time till you get nearer the headwaters, in other words.
This sort of thing has now gone out of fashion, at least in
anthropology. After all, it's getting hard to find suitable peoples to
study. Today, when Mongolian herders check market reports on their cell
phones and rain-forest hunters carry AK-47s, it's clear that the Age of
the Primitive has ended. It's not likely to be missed by many, I imagine.
Probably only anthropologists and Masterpiece Theatre buffs mourn
Geologists are still playing the game, however. They look at modern
landscapes and try to reason their way millions of years upstream. The
rules they play by are simple. Landscapes change, but physical laws
don't. The geologic processes that shape today's rivers are the same as
those which shaped rivers 125 million years ago, when dinosaurs walked
the earth. Geologists call this uniformitarianism, and it's the central
belief in their scientific creed.
Of course you're probably not an anthropologist or a geologist. You're
a paddler. But there's no reason why you shouldn't play the game, too. So
let's take a trip upstream, into the past.
Got a favorite waterway? Sure you do! Well, whether it's a beaver pond
or one of the Great Lakes, I bet it holds at least one mystery that you'd
like to solve. Maybe it's nothing more than a mid-stream boulder with a
deep hole drilled in it. (Looks like somebody went to a lot of trouble.
Who did it? Why?) Or maybe it's a road that vanishes under water at a
narrows. (There really aren't any roads to nowhere, are there? So where
did this one go? And why does it disappear under water?) Or maybe it's an
entire lakeshore community, located in a really out-of-the-way place.
(Why is it there? Why not someplace else?)
How do you begin? That's easy. You already have. Something caught your
eye and awakened your curiosity. Maybe you even jotted down a note or
took a photo. Now you're on your way. You've started your journey
OK. You're off the water. What's next? First, pull out your map. A
modern topographic quad is best, even for coastal areas. Marine charts
don't tell you much about "cultural" features like buildings, dams, and
so forth. Quads do. So make a copy of the modern quadthis is your
"base map"and mark the place where you found your mystery. (I hope
you did take notes!) That's your point of departure. The next
step? Head for a library.
What you're looking for is other mapsolder maps, to be exact.
Old quads are good. So are tax maps, insurance maps from the early years
of the twentieth century, and nineteenth-century county atlases. If
you've never looked at them before, the insurance maps and old atlases
will astonish you. The insurance maps tell you almost everything you'd
want to know about the buildings in a village or city: who owned them,
what they were made of, even the date of the last structural inspection.
The atlases come a close second. Published for nearly every county in the
Northeast by firms like D.J. Lake & S.N. Beers of Philadelphia,
they give the locations of tens of thousands of individual homes,
businesses, and barns, each carefully labelled with their owners' names.
Surprised? You shouldn't be. Information culture began long before the
Internet came on the scene.
But suppose you can't find any old maps of your area in the
local library? Suppose there are only sixteen copies of the latest Tom
Clancy thriller? Then go to a bigger branch, or a university library, or
your town's historical society. Ask around. Talk to the people at the
reference desks. Sooner or later you'll strike pay dirt. And once you do,
nothing can hold you back.
To begin with, make copies of the relevant portions of all the maps
you've found. Be sure that each copy has a North arrow and a scale, and
be sure to record the map's survey date. It helps if you use the same
scale for each map. If you're tracing them, this will mean that you'll
have to do a little work. (You'll soon find out if you remember how to
solve proportions.) A photocopier or a scanner makes things a lot easier,
fortunately, but be sure to ask before photocopying or scanning old maps.
Not all libraries permit this.
Once you've got copies of all the maps you can find, each roughly to
the same scale, lay them out side by side, in chronological order, with
the North arrows all pointing the same way. (Remember the difference
between True and Magnetic North? Magnetic North changes over the years.
True doesn't. So use True.) Put the most recent map on the far left and
the oldest one on the far right. Then compare what exists today with
what's shown on the earlier maps. Now you're really upstreaming!
The rest is easy. In making your comparisons, begin by matching as
many points on the maps as you can. Look for things that don't change
places often: crossroads, churches, and cemeteries, for example. Now note
any obvious changes over the years. Are you looking at a river? Check for
milldams and millponds, bridges, and impoundments. These often
"disappear" between one map and the next. Don't be too concerned by
apparent alterations in the river's course, however. Nineteenth-century
surveys weren't always models of accuracy, and rivers do pick up
and move from time to time. (In flood-plain rivers, look for evidence of
stranded oxbows. That's one give-away sign that a river's on the move.)
Lastly, transfer any and all useful information from the older maps to
your base-map. Was there a nineteenth-century milldam near where you
found the drilled boulder? Did a hydroelectric dam built in the 1950s
raise the level of a tributary stream and inundate a seasonal ford on a
farm-to-market road? Was there a railroad freight terminus on the
lakeshore one hundred years agoserving a long-abandoned iron mine,
perhapsexactly where the present-day village stands? If so, you're
well on your way to solving your mysteries, and you've discovered
something even more important into the bargain. History's not confined to
dusty books on library shelves. Wherever you are, even in the middle of a
river, history's all around you. You just have to look for the clues it's
left behindand then head upstream!
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