Get lost in the world’s most beautiful maps.
No screens. Just glows.
From 1945 to 1992 the United States Geological Survey published tens of thousands of 1:24,000 scale topographic maps. The maps are a feat, the product of decades of work by hundreds of skilled cartographers, surveyors, geodesists, photogrammetrists and drafters.
These maps, 42 of which are tiled here, divide the country into 70-square-mile rectangles. If the U.S. Geological Survey cared to know the location of a natural feature or human-made object, it was logged: buildings of temporal or spiritual authority, roads, petrochemical and electrical infrastructure, survey benchmarks, water treatment plants, high and low points, rivers, streamgages, bridges, railroads, cliffs, reefs, soundings, piers, prisons, lakes, swamps.
In 1734 Michel-Etienne Turgot, the
Prévôt des Marchands of Paris, got “professor of
perspective” Louis Bretez to walk around for two years and
sketch facades, orchards, libraries, hospitals, cathedrals,
boats, whatever flattered the city.
Royal Academy of Sciences engraver Claude Lucas and his assistants carved Bretez’s drawings into 21 brass plates.
In 1739, five years after Turgot commissioned the map, prints made from Lucas’s engravings were bound and presented to King Louis XV and members of the Royal Academy of Sciences. The books are still floating around libraries; the plates live in the Louvre.
The tiled plates make an enormous and detailed birds-eye map. Every inch of this 4x6-foot illuminated reproduction is beautiful. The quotidian and grand were engraved with the same care; market gardens and single trees got just as much attention as Notre-Dame.
Southeast is up, so the left and right banks are switched. I couldn’t tell you why. Also the Seine is clogged with boats and the roads are completely empty; a prettier kinda commerce?
Straddling the CA/NV border and nestled in public lands, Tahoe
is the largest alpine lake in the U.S. See desert, lake, and
forest simultaneously from the Heavenly Valley peaks, take a
swim, bring a tent to the granite slabs of Desolation
Wilderness (which is much more photogenic than it sounds).
The map is composed of 45 topographic maps and covers 2,400 square miles across four National Forests. Great cartographers work in the USFS Geospatial Technology and Applications Center, where they make the high-effort topo quads that the U.S. Geological Survey were forced to abandon in the 90s.
Tahoe gets all the fame, but the National Forests to the west are sights unto themselves: those deep valleys to the west were carved by the North and Middle forks of the American river, fed by Sierra snowmelt (a portion of which is skimmed off for the Hell Hole, French Meadows and Union Valley reservoirs).
Those “Keep Tahoe Blue” stickers on all Californian Subarus? Fertilizer runoff feeds algae. Lawns...
Of all National Forests, the Angeles attracts the most
visitors: 19 million people live nearby and they all wanna
hike, ski, pass you doing 80 on a very narrow road, picnic,
tube down the creeks and dump their largest appliances in
same. Unlike the rest of SoCal, parking regs are unenforced
(there are like six USFS cops to cover 1,000 square miles and
they're busy with dumped bodies and car accidents).
I was a temporary “1039” employee at Angeles National Forest HQ. I made maps and wore the Smokey Bear costume exactly once. I recommend a loop out of Chantry Flat and a climb to Mt. Wilson observatory. Keep clear of the yuccas. If you're in a burned area, wear long sleeves and pants to keep poodle dog bush away from your skin; it’s like a worse poison oak.
The Equitable Life Assurance Society Of The United States paid
lithographers Currier & Ives for a map that included their
building at 120 Broadway, a particularly handsome piece of
Facing north from Battery Park: steamships crowd New York Harbor, horse-drawn carriages clop up Broadway, Central Park recedes into the distance, agrarian New Jersey stretches west. 140 years ago the steeples of St. Paul’s, St. Patrick’s and Trinity Church dwarfed the commercial buildings.
Between 1884 and 1992 the U.S. Geological Survey drew 178,000
topographic maps covering the nation; the 1:24,000 scale “topo
quads” produced from 1945-1992 divide the entire country into
70-square-mile chunks. Nine of those quads comprise this map
of New York City.
It marks everything the U.S. federal government cares about: major buildings, soundings, ferry routes, neighborhoods, roads, rails, high and low ground, buildings of temporal or spiritual authority, oil tanks, lighthouses, power lines, survey markers, pipelines. It makes a bad tourist map, marking all subway lines with the unhelpful “TRANSIT” and doesn't say which bridges you can walk on. At least it tells you the shapes of the forts.
105 years ago the Outer Sunset was just a hill, Treasure
Island had yet to be heaped into existence, India Basin and
SFO were marshes, and there was no cross-bay commute.
It was a San Francisco for sea cargo, by sea cargo. No Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge, Dumbarton Bridge, San Mateo Bridge; to get across you’d ride an Oakland streetcar down a 3-mile pier to a ferry stop near Goat Island (since renamed Yerba Buena).
U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps used to be labor-intensive pieces of craft. Budget cuts turned all the maps into database outputs, and today you’d never stick a recent USGS topo on your wall. Bummer.
I’m from the Valley. My נפשׁ has five hues of bougainvillea,
ice-pick yucca, oleander sheathed in brake dust, a pink
peppercorn you probably shouldn’t eat, a pointier acorn than
you’re used to.
This map is my tribute to L.A.’s plant saturnalia, where the sunlight, nitrogen and ill-gotten water flow freely, where it never frosts, where the least hospitable patch of asphalt is shaded by the largest fig tree you’ve ever seen.
There’s no place like it; there shouldn’t be another. But for now, stick your face in the fence jasmine and take a deep breath.
The Tongass is the largest intact temperate rainforest on
Earth, a verdant paradise the size of West Virginia stretching
over way too many Alaskan islands, mist-wreathed peaks and
fjords and glaciers hemorrhaging water so blue it hurts your
teeth to even look upon’t, bears and wolves and black-tailed
deer and moose and salmon and “ancient murrelets” (a type of
cute bird) and 70,000 souls.
I prefer NFs. A National Park says “Buy a keychain and please read our Interpretive Signage, penned by three people with seven degrees.” A National Forest says “We haven’t maintained that road since Carter, have fun.”
Best coast in NED-to-Blender relief, NLCD land cover, a
sunsetty aspect, Sierras looking like Himalayas but it’s
my map and I’ll -z 3 if I want to, printed on
polyester film and backlit in the largest lightbox I could buy
at the time.
Cities in brown (as I remember them), the mountains as in January of a wet year. Beautiful living but for the fires.
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