View and Download Nearly 60,000 Maps from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

By rea­sons of par­ent­ing, I’ve become well acquaint­ed with a song—perhaps you know it?— called “Fifty Nifty Unit­ed States,” taught to school­child­ren as a geo­graph­i­cal mnemon­ic device. The lyrics men­tion that “each indi­vid­ual state con­tributes a qual­i­ty that is great.” What are some great qual­i­ties of, say, Delaware, New Mex­i­co, or South Dako­ta? We aren’t told. Hey, it’s enough that a five or six-year-old can remem­ber “shout ‘em, scout ‘em, tell all about ‘em” before rat­tling off an alpha­bet­i­cal list of “ev’ry state in the good old U.S.A.”

But if you hail from the U.S., you can enu­mer­ate many con­tri­bu­tions from a few nifty states, whether culi­nary delights, his­tor­i­cal events, writ­ers, artists, sports heroes, etc. And most everyone’s got sto­ries about vis­it­ing nat­ur­al won­ders, hik­ing moun­tain trails, ford­ing rivers, gaz­ing upon breath­tak­ing vis­tas.

We may be occa­sion­al tourists, trav­el enthu­si­asts, or experts, but what­ev­er our lev­el of expe­ri­ence in the coun­try, it’s prob­a­bly kid stuff com­pared to the work of the sci­en­tists at the U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey (USGS).

Estab­lished by Con­gress in 1879, this august body has doc­u­ment­ed U.S. lands and waters for 125 years, gath­er­ing an incred­i­ble amount of detailed infor­ma­tion as “the nation’s largest water, earth, and bio­log­i­cal sci­ence and civil­ian map­ping agency.” Thanks to the Libre Map Project, the gen­er­al pub­lic can view and down­load near­ly 60,000 of those topo­graph­i­cal maps, from all fifty states, and near­ly every region with­in each of those states. See Colorado’s Pike Nation­al For­est and sur­round­ing envi­rons, at the top, for exam­ple, cre­at­ed from aer­i­al pho­tographs tak­en in 1950. Above, see a map of San Fran­cis­co, com­piled in 1956, then revised in 1993 and fur­ther edit­ed in 1996.

And just above, the dev­as­tat­ing Kīlauea Vol­cano, in a map com­piled from aer­i­al pho­tos tak­en in 1954 and 1961. (See the USGS site for the lat­est info about the ongo­ing erup­tion there.) Below, a nifty map of New York City, cre­at­ed “by pho­togram­met­ric meth­ods from aer­i­al pho­tographs tak­en [in] 1954 and plan­etable sur­veys [in] 1955. Revised from aer­i­al pho­tographs tak­en [in] 1966.” Google maps may be more cur­rent, but these USGS maps have an aura of sci­en­tif­ic author­i­ty around them, evi­dence of painstak­ing sur­veys, checked and rechecked over the decades by hun­dreds of pairs of hands and eyes.

Brows­ing the archive can be a chal­lenge, since the maps are cat­a­logued by coor­di­nates rather than place names, but you can enter the names of spe­cif­ic loca­tions in the search field. Also, be advised, the maps “are best used with glob­al posi­tion­ing soft­ware,” the archive tells vis­i­tors. Nonethe­less, you can click on the first down­load option for “Mul­ti Page Processed TIFF” to pull up a huge, down­load­able image. Enter the archive here and get to scout­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 67,000 His­toric Maps (in High Res­o­lu­tion) from the Won­der­ful David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Has Dig­i­tized Its Col­lec­tion of 6,000+ Vin­tage Maps: See a Curat­ed Selec­tion of Maps Pub­lished Between 1888 and Today

The Illus­trat­ed Med­i­c­i­nal Plant Map of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca (1932): Down­load It in High Res­o­lu­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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