Of Maps & Time Travel
OK, so why is there never a time machine handy when you need one? When authors of historical fiction try to bring the past to life for readers, it would be a big help if we could experience it for ourselves first. But Marty McFly and Doc Brown, Quantum Leap, and H. G. Wells aside, nobody’s figured out how to time-travel (yet).
Whenever possible, I like to ground my Galloway’s Gamble stories in places that really existed. So I dig into research, find as many authentic bits and pieces as I can, cobble them together, and invent the rest. Even so, it’s not always easy to find out what a location looked like. Paintings or early photographs may provide some visual references. Primary-source accounts and period newspapers sometimes yield descriptions and details. Old street maps can help us figure out the literal lay of the land, but two-dimensional maps can’t provide a true sense of what it’s like to walk down a real street in, say, 1870s Baltimore (below).
While researching Galloway’s Gamble 2, I stumbled across the next best thing to that elusive time machine—super-detailed “bird’s eye” elevated-angle maps of many towns and cities. The best of them show not only street grids but also elements of a living, breathing city—individual buildings, people and horse-drawn traffic, trains chugging into stations, ships crowding harbors, and major landscape features, as in this section of an 1884 New York City map published by Currier & Ives (below).
Between the early 1800s and 1920 or so (when airplanes and aerial photography made these maps obsolete), around 1,800 panoramic maps of cities and towns throughout the United States and Canada were made. The Library of Congress has a treasure trove of over 1,500 of them in its online collection, scanned at high resolution for magnification and study.
Creating aerial perspective maps wasn’t easy back when the highest vantage point in town may have been a four story building or a church steeple. While some artists did go up in hot-air balloons, most started with existing surveys, maps, and plats, and then walked around the city, sketching details.
Often commissioned by town fathers and civic organizations, these maps generally presented idealized vistas intended to boost local pride and attract new residential, commercial, and industrial development. Production costs were partially covered by businesses and individuals who paid to have their homes and buildings featured as insets around the map. The development of lithography made it possible to print hundreds of copies quickly and sell them for a few dollars apiece. Once framed, they became popular decorations in homes, businesses, and offices.
With the action in Galloway’s Gamble 2 taking readers on a wild cross-country quest from San Francisco to Baltimore, these bird’s eye maps let me “walk the streets” with my characters and deliver more realistic visuals.
A pair of San Francisco maps turned out to be complementary. This one from 1875 (below, top) may be less artistic, but the numbered features and identification key (below, center) helped me locate both real and fictional horse racing tracks. Although the more colorfully detailed Currier & Ives map from 1878 (below, bottom) doesn’t include street names, it really makes the city come alive. Both maps show the bustling harbor.
As for Baltimore (America’s sixth largest city at the time), this epic 12-panel 1869 E. Sachse & Co. panorama—five feet high and twelve feet wide!—shows the entire city and surrounding countryside (below).
Being able to zoom in on Mount Clare Station in great detail (below) helped me block a climactic chase sequence in and around the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad freight yards, based on what the facility may really have looked like. You can also see the street names.
For both cities, I also used vintage and modern street maps to pin down exact locations of streets and neighborhoods, which helped me decide where characters lived and where important story action would take place.
To see if your local hometowns or cities were the subject of these fascinating artistic creations, go to the Library of Congress website at https://www.loc.gov, search for panoramic maps, and refine your search by year and location. Then let your eyeballs and imaginations do the walking.
Galloway's Gamble and Galloway's Gamble 2: Lucifer & The Great Baltimore Brawl are both available in paperback and ebook editions from Amazon.com.