USGS historical topo maps

map explorer

Maps are so cool. Historical maps are way more cooler. And online historical maps are even way more cooler. (I like saying way more cooler cause it makes me feel like a rebel.)

A couple of months ago on the helpful GoogleMapsMania site, I ran across a way cool tool created by the United States Geological Survey. This is the group that, among other things, is responsible for creating topographic maps.

The cool tool that the USGS has created is called USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer.

Basically, you do a map search with a Google Maps-like interface, click on a specific place on the resulting map, and the Historical Topographic Map Explorer will provide a timeline with topo maps from the past.

You can then select maps from the timeline that are overlaid over the modern map. You can also download that specific map to your desktop and use a handy transparency slider that lets you see the modern map when you need it. You also have the ability to stack different maps on top of each other, using the individual transparency slider for each to hide or show details as you please.

This seems like a perfect way for geography and history teachers to illustrate continuity and change over time in a specific place.

A nice example is the growth of Las Vegas from 1907 to 1986. Using the Map Explorer, I can find topo maps from the turn of the century and from 80 years later. The slider lets me immediately see the difference in growth and where the growth occurred.

Las Vegas 1907 1986

Las Vegas 1907 1986

This sort of activity encourages the creation of all sorts of questions:

  • Why happened in the 80 years between 1907 and 1986 that explains the growth of Las Vegas?
  • Where did most of the growth occur? Why?
  • What might be some consequences of the increased size of Las Vegas?
  • Is this growth good or bad? Why?
  • How might other areas copy this growth? Should other areas try to copy this growth?

(And one thing to remember is that many of the “topo” maps on Map Explorer are not really topo maps that we’re used to but are very cool colorful maps with lots of details.)

About Glenn Wiebe

I work as a social studies specialist at ESSDACK, an educational service center in Hutchinson, Kansas. Before coming to ESSDACK, I taught middle school US History and higher ed social science classes.

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