The view from above: old photos help us see Vermont through new eyes

Jenny Bower
Vermont Center for Geographic Information
6 min readDec 21, 2017


With the holidays approaching, the Vermont Center for Geographic Information is ready to unveil our gift to you: the first-ever release of our most coveted historic imagery. In honor of this milestone, we’re exploring the history of aerial imagery and the rich potential of this resource to provide a window into Vermont’s past.

“The airplane has revealed to us the true face of the earth.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand, and Stars

Perspective view of Rome, 1564 (Vincenzo Luchino).

Long before drones were used for selfies and thousands of satellites encircled the planet, people tried to peer at the skin of the earth from above. Early cartography embodied this dream, with the earth’s surface intricately depicted through hand-drawn maps and bird’s-eye views. Much like trying to recognize a best friend from the top of their head, this way of visualizing the earth would have challenged the spatial awareness of people who had never seen the earth from the sky.

The evolution of the camera led to the first aerial images, which resulted from the madcap adventures of hot air balloonists in 19th-century France. Though dependent on perilous technology, this daring pastime quickly arrived in Boston, with an aerial image of the city surviving from 1860. As camera technology improved, other makeshift drones such as giant kites, the Bavarian Pigeon Corps, and compressed-air rockets enjoyed popularity among aerial photography enthusiasts. In spite of limitations — imagine cropping the wings from a digital photo (ahem, ornithophoto)! — these techniques hinted at the usefulness and efficiency of aerial surveying over ground-based methods.

Pigeon photographers and their results.

Aerial imagery didn’t make its way to Vermont in a concerted way until the invention of the airplane (maybe because turkey vultures dislike carrying tiny cameras). Even after the success of the Wright brothers, years passed before a technological breakthrough occurred allowing cameras to be mounted on planes, spurring immediate demand for aerial photographs. Canada seems to have made the first headway into the northern section of Vermont in 1930, with images collected at a scale of 1:7,000 from Essex, Franklin, Grand Isle, and Orleans counties.

In the mid-to-late 1930s, U.S. federal agencies began to acquire airborne imagery in Vermont to assist with programs related to agriculture and soil conservation. Later, the Vermont Department of Highways spearheaded the State of Vermont’s collection of aerial imagery, with the greatest activity occurring in the 1950s and 60s. These photographs were supremely useful within a range of disciplines and applications, including planning, transportation, agronomy, ecology, archaeology, geology, forestry, and wildlife management.

Left: 1939 aerial of Bethel, VT, with land use types delineated by hand by the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation. Right: Index representing project-specific aerial photography conducted by the Vermont Department of Highways in 1966.

In the 1970s, Vermont acquired its first orthorectified photography (imagery corrected to remove distortion from camera perspective and surface relief), which had uniform scale, represented the Earth’s surface more realistically, and increased the accuracy with which aerial images could be correlated to maps. After a successful pilot project in 1967–69 covering the Ottauquechee watershed, the Vermont Mapping Program was created by the Department of Taxes to gather orthorectified imagery for the entire state. Early on, orthophotos were pored over by assessors, environmental engineers, town managers, agronomists, and others, available in a range of print sizes for a fee. Vermont orthophotos are now freely available to all, and after five decades and six vintages, the program continues to acquire imagery today, despite the fact that the window of optimal collection — after snow has melted, before trees have leafed out — is increasingly narrowed by the effects of climate change.

Left: Numbered index for Vermont’s orthophoto pilot program. Right: Transparent rulers, scales, and grids to assist with quantitative analysis of orthophotos.

Today’s orthoimagery is collected at a significantly lower cost and generally higher resolution than the imagery collected seventy years ago. With such exemplary modern imagery, why bother with lower quality, non-orthorectified images of the past?

Although the preponderance of stone walls, hefty barns, and comfortably old-fashioned general stores might give Vermont an illusion of timelessness to outsiders, our tiny state has undergone sizable change since aerial photos were first collected. Rivers overflowed their banks, seeking new channels. Landslides carved out hillslopes. Mines were mined, parcels were parcelized, and highways wound their way through new terrain. As the landscape shifted, so did the view from above, with early aerial photos left to serve as invaluable records of change.

This value wasn’t immediately obvious. As photos were replaced by newer series, the older copies landed in a variety of places. Some were ravaged by humidity; others, carrying rips and scribbles from years of use, wandered into the file cabinets of state agencies and libraries. Here and there, photos and plates were scanned by enterprising archivists, researchers and interns, and landed on the hard drives of state employees.

The collections that are in VCGI’s possession are by no means exhaustive, and are largely incomplete. But with the usefulness of these images increasingly apparent, we are excited to announce the release of three series to the Geodata Portal, available by map search in both georeferenced (associated with a coordinate system) and nongeoreferenced form.


Funded by the U.S. Soil Conservation Service (the present-day NRCS), these images were collected nearly statewide at a scale of 1:20,000, while World War II raged on across the ocean. We have published the 86 digital photos that have arrived to VCGI, although we estimate ~1,700 to be in existence in hard copy form. 9 photos covering the Burlington area are georeferenced.

1942 photographic index used for locating individual images flown by the Soil Conservation Service.
Aerial view of Interstate 89 construction unearthed by the UVM Landscape Change Program.


As Interstate 89 and other transportation projects reshaped Vermont’s landscape, the Department of Highways acquired high-level (1:18,000) and low-level (1:6,000) aerial images throughout the state. VCGI published ~700 nongeoreferenced high-level and ~1,000 georeferenced low-level photos from the two series, estimating that ~5,800 and ~1,700 exist in hard copy, respectively.

You can download all of our historic imagery here.

Although low-altitude 1962 imagery wasn’t collected statewide, the closeness of the perspective offers a tantalizing window into small-scale landscape change. To get a sense of this change, we created a web app that places four 1962 images from different areas of Vermont within the context of modern imagery. Zoom, pan, and swipe using the link below to see the difference between then and now.

Click the image above to visit the web app.

We hope you enjoy these photos — we think they offer a captivating perspective of Vermont, and can’t wait to get our hands on more (if any historic imagery enthusiasts out there have the time, resources or ideas for scanning or georeferencing additional records, please reach out!).

As we continue to publicize historic imagery resources, we are looking forward to seeing how they are enjoyed and used throughout the state. Let us know what you do with them, what you find, and what other windows into the past you might like to see in the future.


Vermont Center for Geographic Information