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Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
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GIS in History Studies

These maps are images from the chapter titled “Historical Maps in GIS”, from the book, Past Times, Past Place: GIS for History, ERSI Press, 2002. David Rumsey* and Meredith Williams wrote this chapter to highlight their work using historical maps from David’s collection in new ways with GIS.

Wheeler Survey Map of Yosemite Valley, 1883 in 3-D
The government-sponsored Wheeler Survey produced one of the first accurate maps of Yosemite Valley. The cartographers that drew the map used hachuring (a form of shading) to suggest changes in elevation. Draping a scanned image of the original Yosemite map over a modern 10-meter digital elevation model gives the old map a new look and immediacy. The simulated depth of the 3-D terrain model compliments the beautiful hachuring of the 1883 map.

Comparing New York City in 1836 and in 1997
GIS enables one to compare georeferenced maps with modern maps by overlaying them. This image overlays a modern street map on Colton's 1836 map of the antebellum city. All of Manhattan was platted for development in 1836, but above Times Square the grid had more trees than people.

San Francisco in 3-D
August Chevalier used shading to suggest the rugged topography of San Francisco in 1915. Draping a georeferenced version of his map over a 10-meter digital elevation model more clearly shows the relative height of each hill, the valleys cut by streams, and the density of business and residential development on the most level ground along the harbor.

San Francisco Bay showing Treasure Island landfill
The 3-D model reveals how land fill, apparent in the TIN underlying surface, greatly expanded the north end of Treasure Island for the 1939 World's Fair. In the same area, markings from the original sea chart, drawn 13 years earlier, show the pre-fill depths of 14 to 22 fathoms.

*David Rumsey maintains a large archive of high quality scanned images of historical maps which are freely available at his website:

Last modified: June 24, 2005

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