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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Waterway Rambling

Part 5—It'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 its passing.

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 upstream.

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 quad—this 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 maps—older 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 ago—serving a long-abandoned iron mine, perhaps—exactly 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 behind—and then head upstream!

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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