The Evolution of Maps: From Colonial Riverways to Interstate Highways to 1s and 0s

1951 highway map of Northern Virginia and Washington, DC. No I-95 Interstate and no I-495 Beltway!

Stay East Old Man

If you were a Virginian 300 years ago, you most likely lived in the Tidewater — the eastern rim of the colony in which the tidal salt waters of the Chesapeake Bay combine with the streams of fresh water flowing down from the Blue Ridge Mountains — the first geographic barrier to the westward movement of European Americans. Back then, the land of the wealthy was in this eastern Tidewater. It’s now an almost forgotten region.

The thought back then was that geography was an East-West thing. These days it’s more North-South. Back then, you journeyed west from Europe (or, via the slave trade, from Africa). When you made land in Virginia and headed inland, you actually could tell when the land was rising in elevation through the Piedmont (“foot of the mountains”) toward the mountains: walking or riding by horse, going gradually uphill could mean effort. Effort aside, the benefits of a less humid climate also increased the further west you went. In point of fact, 18th-century geographic thinking was not so much “East-West” but “Lower-Upper.”

In the 1780s, the Paris-based Thomas Jefferson wrote to his London-based friend John Paradise (the first-ever naturalized U.S. citizen), who was considering resettling in Virginia, on why the “upper parts” of the Piedmont where Jefferson lived were more agreeable than the “lower parts” of the Tidewater:

“1. the heats are less 2. not subject to fevers & agues & other bilious complaints 3. the stile of living is more oeconomical.”

But most people driving through Virginia these days (because that’s what you do — you drive, with almost no physical effort) move in a North-South direction, along Interstate-95. You go north from Richmond and places further south to Washington, DC and places further north. Or vice versa. And yet, few realize that they are following the Fall Line of the many rivers that flow from the mountains into the Chesapeake and the Atlantic.

Geographical map of Virginia, courtesy Virginia Historical Society.

Is That I-95? No, It’s the Fall Line

I-95 congestion? Stuck in traffic? Again? Let’s try a different view of life: While you’re idling behind that big truck on the bridge spanning the ancient Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg (not far from where George Washington was born), you can see people frolicking in the falls of the river, taking a cool respite from the late May heat. “I want to do that!!!” you think, enviously. Little do we realize it in our air conditioned vehicles, but those people are enjoying what’s known as the Fall Line.

People 300 years ago knew what the Fall Line of Virginia meant: When you sailed up-river to places we now know as Washington, DC (Potomac River), Fredericksburg (Rappahannock River), Richmond (James River), and Petersburg (Appomattox River), you couldn’t get your London-based trading ship beyond these first waterfalls. Loading your tobacco onto a ship was much more difficult west of the Fall Line, but a lot easier in the Tidewater. That made eastern land much more valuable. The farther west, and farther away from a river, land was cheaper.

It was natural for the architects of the Interstate Highway System to follow the Fall Line through Virginia, because that’s where all the cities were built, as way stations for moving goods out to sea. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, the interstate highway may have been a great, modern transportation option. These days? Ugh. As my wife and I make our way around the Old Dominion, we increasingly seek out back roads and small highways to avoid today’s I-95 Parking Lot. These lesser-known state roads are the same ones my Dad would have used before the interstates were built, guided by his 1951 Virginia official state highway map.

Mapping out my thoughts — it often starts with a mobile device and gets organized on the Cloud.

My Maps Are Increasingly Digital

I love maps — whether on paper or delivered by Google. But as I’m driving and thinking, the map that I increasingly use has nothing to do with physical geography, but is digital in nature.

I’m thinking of, say, that Medium article I just read this morning — somewhere, on some digital device in our house. It contained some interesting ideas about how publishing is mutating and getting shared on the web — a topic I’m deeply interested in. And yet, I had no time to study the article when I first saw it. What to do? Print? Bookmark? Reading list?

My decision: Click the heart icon under the Medium article, and then Follow the Author, Gina Bianchini. I’ll get back to her and the topic later. And that’s one of the most important maps for me these days: 100% Digital, existing in my mind, and yet organized with a series of magical 1s and 0s. But it’s a real map, a map of my thoughts and aspirations, and it works. It’s more practical to me than rivers, and definitely more useful than I-95.