Vector Maps: Tips on Researching and Mapping Historical Rail Lines Using the Internet

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In between writing this blog, designing my own maps, and digitally restoring vintage maps, I also like to map out old, forgotten streetcar and electric interurban networks in Google Maps. I mainly do it because I want to compile information from various sources into one place and build my own coherent understanding of the networks that once existed.

So far, I’ve done the streetcars and interurbans of Portland, Oregon in 1920; the interurbans of Spokane, Washington in 1920; the interurbans of Boise, Idaho in 1920, the (steam) Union Pacific branch line to Shaniko, Oregon; and the just-completed map of streetcars and interurban services in Walla Walla, Washington. I’m also working on the streetcars and interurbans of Yakima, Washington right now – keep an eye out for that map soon!

Having done a few of these maps now, I thought I’d share a few tips on how I go about it and some of my favourite “go-to” resources on the internet for this type of research. Note that these tips are tailored for research in the United States, but similar resources may exist regardless of where you are located.

Vector Maps: Tips on Researching and Mapping Historical Rail Lines Using the Internet

First off, it goes without saying that Google is your friend here. Bombard it with all the search queries you can think of – all the variants for operating names of the rail companies you’re interested in, dates, city names, streetcar/trolley/interurban, etc. It’s probably going to return lots of little, unconnected bits of information, but sometimes you’ll get lucky and get most of what you’re after in terms of the general history of the company, the names of some of the routes, and maybe even a rough map or two, like this one for the Boise interurban loop. Normally, you won’t get enough from this to plot anything on top of a Google street map, but it’s great for context and history and some station names you can use as additional search queries.

To really be able to plot things properly, you’re going to need maps that come from the time period that you’re trying to map, and the more you can find, the better. My first port of call these days is historical county atlases, and Historic Map Works has a wide selection of them. Just choose your state and then see if there’s a county atlas or gazette for the area and time frame you’re after. Here in the Pacific Northwest, there’s almost always a Metsker Maps atlas available, which is fantastic. Generally, these atlases break the whole county down into page-sized chunks (great for interurbans) and have separate maps for urban areas (which can help with streetcars). Do note that they’re not always totally accurate: the 1932 atlas for Umatilla County, Oregon completely omits the Walla Walla Valley Traction Company’s branch line from Milton-Freewater to Umapine, even though it had been in operation for eight years by that point.

Historical topographical maps can also be useful, but can be very hit-and-miss as to whether there’s one at the right scale and time period to show what you’re after. If you want to quickly look through what’s available, the USGS TopoView website is your best bet. Simply type in the name of the city you’re after or drop a pin on the map and it’ll give you a list of all the historical topographic maps for that area. You can overlay them on the map on the site and even adjust opacity to see both maps at the same time. Neat!

Vector Maps: Tips on Researching and Mapping Historical Rail Lines Using the Internet

Other good places to find historical maps: County and City archives websites, historical society and museum websites, university archives (especially for rural universities, which often act as historical repositories for their local area), and sometimes even personal blogs from people who are similarly interested in these things. A few examples: this 1929 map of Walla Walla County came from the Washington State University Library, and gave me most of the names of stations on the interurban line to Milton-Freewater. The fantastic track engineering blueprint below came directly from the Yakima Valley Trolley Museum website and was invaluable in piecing together how the line north of Selah ran.

Vector Maps: Tips on Researching and Mapping Historical Rail Lines Using the Internet

Sometimes however, you just get completely lucky. For example, I wasn’t getting anywhere with working out the path of the Umapine branch mentioned above – I knew it had existed once upon a time, and where it started and ended, but nothing else. Then I stumbled by chance upon a directory of old railroad maps on the Umatilla County Surveyor’s website and there was the blueprint for the line, showing absolutely everything I needed to know. In the end, it was narrowing my search terms down to look for a specific and distinctive station name – Prunedale – along the line that led me to what I was after. So, be persistent and precise!

If you can find them or have access to them, the Official Guide to the Railways can be useful as well. Larger systems often have a rudimentary map, and even smaller ones usually have a timetable with a helpful list of station names. I have PDFs of the Guides for 1910, 1921, 1923 and 1930 on my hard drive and refer to them a lot.

When it comes to actually plotting your lines onto your base Google Map, there are two tricks I use all the time. In urban areas, zoom in until you can see tax lot boundaries. A surprising amount of the time, the old railroad right of way can still be discerned, winding its way invisibly through the city. You can also look out for giveaway street names like “Electric Avenue” or “Depot Street”. In rural areas, try switching to satellite mode – the right of way often leaves a distinctive scar across the landscape that’s easy to track.

Vector Maps: Tips on Researching and Mapping Historical Rail Lines Using the Internet

That’s pretty much it from me. Do you have any research tips, tricks or resources that I haven’t mentioned? Have you researched and made your own map? Leave a comment below if you’ve got something to add!

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