Ryan Taylor Great value in maps -- but be careful
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By Ryan Taylor

Maps may deceive as well as enlighten.

This surprising statement was made by Elizabeth Baigent of Oxford University.

Since maps are created scientifically using the latest technology available at the time, you would think they'd be accurate.

Baigent reveals that she is talking about older maps. Printers would use a generic town layout for all the towns they intended to portray. Map makers would let fancy, rather than observation, dictate where roads or coastlines went. Baigent describes an early German book as containing seventeen woodcuts representing fifty-seven towns. She comments, "Each woodcut was thought an adequate representation for more than one town since it represented none in particular."

It all harks back to the maps which include areas not surveyed at all. The map makers would simply fill in the empty spaces with horrific drawings and the warning 'here be dragons'.

A 17th century map showing the principal roads in England leading from London to the north are simply long strips with the road in the center, dotted by churches, houses and forests along the way. The proportions have no connection with reality, but as Baigent points out, information about the space was secondary to simple geography. People could still use the map to navigate their way north.

Pioneer maps of Ontario were hand drawn using the usual surveying equipment of the 19th century-chains whose links were a specific size. It seems odd to us to hear measurements in links and perches today, and we probably have no idea what they mean.

However these drawings were made, they are fascinating for us as they give an idea what the land looked like to the early settlers. When the first printed maps of Ontario's counties were made, in the 1860s, map making had improved so that it largely showed what was actually there.

Not always, however, for the early wall maps of George Tremaine and the county atlases published in the 1870s include layouts for many towns which never existed in the form portrayed.

Nithburg, near the border of North Easthope and Wellesley, for example, was a thriving place with many streets. A place so prosperous in 1870 would surely be the size of New Hamburg by now.

These descriptions were merely a hopeful fantasy. Developers wanted to make these crossroads into thriving villages. Some did grow, others didn't. Nithburg remained a dot on later maps.

Now we have topographical maps whose contours are digitally regulated by means of satellites. Canadian governmental topographical maps cover the whole country. It takes a little learning to decipher what they tell us, but it is worth finding out. Most libraries have 'top maps' (as they are known) for their area. The Kitchener Public Library has an extensive collection for the region.

The British topographical maps include houses and public footpaths, making them invaluable for family historians. The earliest series dates from about 1820. They have been updated ever since. Comparing the 19th century ones to the current series, we can see how our ancestors' neighborhood has changed. Roads, paths and rivers will show how their travel (largely on foot) was affected by geography.

Information about topographical mapping in Canada can be obtained from the Centre for Topographic Information at Natural Resources Canada. They also deal in aerial photographs. It is possible to buy an aerial photograph of your home area.

Perhaps it's not too late for Nithburg, after all. With shrewd management, by this time next century it could rival Stratford.

Posted January 18, 2005
Column copyright © 2005 Ryan Taylor

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