Types of Information
for Local History


Many, if not most local history research topics can be investigated by using the commercial atlas maps produced in the late nineteenth and most of the twentieth century for Cleveland and other metropolitan regions. That is because these books are highly detailed and were originally designed to accommodate most every type of informational question. They contain the layouts of streets, including old and new street names in some cases, location and shape of building lots and the buildings on them, identification of larger businesses, names of large parcel owners, identity of recorded subdivisions, route of streetcars and railroads, location of water lines and other details about the city in the period of the atlas.

Trouble is, that much information takes room to display comfortably, so the maps were very large and had to be cut up into manageable sheets and bound as atlases. This is no problem for students of small areas, like individual structures and neighborhoods. For topics covering larger portions of the city, an atlas may be too unwieldy and another type of map could be more useful. But for genealogists, neighborhood historians and environmental engineers, these atlases are indispensable.

For research into city-wide topics, such as demographics and voting patterns, city directory street maps showing ward boundaries might be more useful. They lack the unnecessary detail of the atlases, but can display the entire metropolitan region on one large sheet. Oil company road maps, which succeeded the city directory maps, can also be used in this regard, but typically emphasize tourism attractions over details like ward boundaries.

Topics involving the geology or geography of the area, particularly matters where the terrain is important can benefit from the fifteen minute topographical maps issued by the United States Geological Service in the early half of the twentieth century. They have been replaced by the more detailed seven and a half minute series. Current versions of the seven and a half minute maps can be seen on-line at the Topo Zone, but the "superseded" versions, showing details from decades since the 1950s, can be seen on Steve Titchenal's great Rails and Tails site. Topological maps cover very large sections of the metropolitan region and have far less detail than the city directory maps, but they do show the terrain by use of contour lines.

You can even use published maps to understand the history of map making (cartography), printing, lithography, distribution and other topics, each of which is a legitimate field of investigation for local history research. Lately, the advent of online map sites, such as Yahoo! Maps, Google Maps, and the spectacular Google Earth, have made the geography of our region more and more accessible.

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December 19, 2005

ã Copyright 2000-2005 by William C. Barrow. All rights reserved.