David Rumsey’s Historical Maps in Google Earth

While preparing for this week’s Modern Language Association Convention in Los Angeles, I revisited the amazing digital collection of the David Rumsey Historical Map archive. This site provides digital copies of many of the 24,000 maps in the archive, even allowing visitors to download high-resolution files of them. I’ve used several of these maps of the United States in the late 1830s and 1840s to trace the spread of “The Celestial Railroad” across the country.

This week, however, I discovered that a number of the maps in the collection can be downloaded as a .kmz file to be viewed in Google Earth. Importing this file into Google Earth allows you to lay maps from the Rumsey collection over the Google Earth globe. These maps are georectified, meaning that the features on the maps have been lined up with their precise places on the more precise modern globe.

After playing with these maps for a few minutes, I quickly decided to overlay an 1839 map from the Rumsey collection with a .kmz I created in Google Maps of the towns in which “The Celestial Railroad” was republished between 1843 and 1860. Within minutes I had this visualization—a “historical” map of the story’s reprintings—

I made larger the markers for those cities where the story was more frequently reprinted. So New York and Philadelphia are the largest, as the story ran many, many times in both cities. That resizing was, for this quick project, entirely subjective—I hand-sized each city's pin.

This isn't, of course, the best visualization one could create of this, but I was impressed that I could put something that looks this good together in only a few minutes. I plan to keep experimenting with the Rumsey maps in Google Earth as I think through how best to tell the geospatial aspects of this story about Hawthorne and 19th Century publishing.