Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Reading Old Maps

The Texana room at the Enchilada, where I'm reading the Civil War Semi-Weekly News, is closed on Mondays, so instead I walked across downtown (on the Riverwalk; not a hardship) to the San Antonio Conservation Society to raid their library for maps. I wasn't very hopeful about this, as I remembered from researching Switching Well that the yearly updating of city maps is a new thing and that the best I'd probably be able to do was get maps that bracketed my time; but in fact their catalog yielded quite a few possibilities.

Maps, like other research materials, are created for purposes not necessarily related to those of the individual researcher. One map I looked at showed few to no geographical features, but consisted entirely of the puzzle pieces of survey plats. A godsend for certain kinds of research; useless to me. One, combining data from an 1868, an 1899, and a 1965 map, was primarily intended to show the locations of vanished businesses and landmarks, such as the Bat Cave (as we called the insecure jail/courthouse of most of the 19th century) and Wm. Gamble's bookstore, in relation to the 20th-century downtown. So it'll be excellent for my location scouting, in one respect; but misleading in another, as it shows modern streets - notably Houston - that didn't exist in my time period, and limited in another, as it doesn't even show all of downtown. The map that shows me the mid-nineteenth century districts or wards of the city doesn't show all the street names. And so on.

The great find of the day was a 1924 blueprint copy of "The City of San Antonio, made in 1868 and 1869 by stepping by A.J. Mauermann." It's confusing at first, because he put east at the top; but once you get oriented this is the bomb! In addition to labeling the river, streets, acequias, and plazas, he's drawn in all the buildings, with the most important ones (churches, schools, gas factory, ice factory, mills, hotels, Ernst's Restaurant) labeled, and at least some of the footbridges. Apparently we had a "Dutch Windmill" back in the day. The flow of natural waterways is shown by arrows. Some of the streets are delineated with solid and some with dotted lines, and some with both, which I interpret to refer to the degree to which they are maintained. Best of all are the notations in what would otherwise be open space. "Mesquite." "Cotton Yard." "Cane for Fishing Poles." "Water Melon Field." "Here on this Plain Gen. Sheridan held a Review over 25,000 Cavalry Men to Go to Mexico 1865."

The entire town is not covered - I'll need to cross-reference this map with the one showing the wards - but Mr. Mauermann helpfully drew in arrows to the places he regarded as important. "On Sunday, to San Pedro Springs" (shown in an inset). To the Laurel Hills, to Jonas Beer Garden, to Dignowity Hill, to Powder House, to Cemetery. You can also see what roads would be taken out of town to get to various places - El Paso, Indianola, Seguin, Castroville - and thus, which is what I care about, which roads to take into town from these places.

I always long for overlay maps in these situations. You remember those diagrams of animals you used to find in biology and zoology books, with the outline of the frog or human or whatever on the paper page and a series of clear, stiff pages showing the circulatory system in red, the nerves in blue, the muscles in artistically striated pink, so you can lay them on top of one another in order to see the systems you're interested in relate to each other without interference from the others? Maps should be like that. I want to be able to see the whole city, 1865 in one view, 2010 in another, now all the buildings from this period, now let's look at the bridges, now I need the street names. Nobody makes these. I can't imagine why not (labor and expense being negligible concerns). You could do it digitally and it'd be so cool! Digitally you could blow it up to different scales, too, focus on a single street or the entire town or back up to Bexar County, each of the adjacent counties, now look at the geography, now see the names of propery owners...

Okay, so, I'll never get that. I'll either have to cross reference between maps constantly while writing, or do my own cobbled-together version, with mapping software if I can find one that does what I need or, more probably, hand drawn with numerous scale imperfections. I'm not good at translating what I see into what I draw, as anyone who's tried to read my maps of archeological units will concede. Like the song says, you can't always get what you want; but if you try sometimes, you'll get what you need.

So thank you, Mr. Mauermann!

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