Monday, April 11, 2016

An Ode to MP (69) 289

by intern Jonah Fisch-Gertz

Good morning faithful readers of this wonderful blog. My name is Jonah Fish-Gertz, and I am one of the slaves interns here at the Chemung County Historical Society. I have spent seven and a half days (or 180 hours) poring through our map cabinets to organize them, and only scratched the surface of what we have. But I’m here today to tell you about just one of the many, many maps we have: MP 69.289. 
M(69).289 in all it's glory.

That number does not tell you much about this map, or even where to find it (I left it in MP 02, D-04, F-03 if you are curious. {That is, map cabinet 2, drawer 4, folder 3.}) The formal title of this map is: “Map of the State of New York with the Latest Improvements.” Yet that title does not quite do this map justice. Created around 1833 by one H. Phelps, this map predates the city of Elmira, and Chemung County. Of course, the village of Newtown in Tioga County is on the map, but only true history buffs, like all of you, would be able to discern from this the truth. This is what first drew me to this map, the incongruity caused by the lack of Elmira on a map stored in the historical society based in Elmira.

 However, there is so much more to this map. Many things have changed in these last 183 years, some more so than the name of our fair city. For instance, the New York and Massachusetts border has a much more aggravated angle, and in fact the line running south from Vermont looks very much like a nose, with the kinks and angles between New York and Mass and CT. While we are on the topic of borders, the border of Steuben County, our wonderful neighbor to the West and my childhood home, stretches from its current Western border to Seneca Lake! It is in fact almost fifty percent larger on this map than it is in our day and age. And speaking of our neighbors, let us turn to MP 69.289’s depiction of Canada, or should I say Upper and Lower Canada, the British Colonies. They are still British colonies. That’s all I had to say on them, but that is really cool. So, to summarize the wacky borders, Chemung County does not exist, Steuben County it reaching its fingers across as many Finger Lakes as it can, Massachusetts has a nose, and Canada is still ruled from Europe.

 But that is not all! The wonderful highways and roads that knit this state together, allowing us to get around now are far from extant. Distances on this map are along the post roads, though those are few and far between. Instead, we have this wonderful competition between the canals and the railways to link the state. The canals seem to have the lead, especially with that new “Grand Canal” that stretches from Buffalo to Albany. Numerous other canals connect this Erie waterway to the other major cities, while railroads are depicted mostly in the Southern reaches of the state, and then only over short distances.  Clearly this newfangled fad of roads made from rails will not catch on! The age of the canal will be eternal. Of course, for the common traveler this map does mark the routes for both stage coaches and steamers, though the range of the latter is somewhat limited.

Of course, all these things were not at all unusual for those that would have used the map at the time, even though they fascinate us!  This map served a purpose to its readers, and the title, like all good titles, tells us what it was; to show off how advanced and organized New York was, how improved it had become since the Empire State fought against the British Empire.  I have already mentioned the canals, but this map also shows off the details of these canals, grades, distances, all you need to know about these revolutionary waterways is right there on the map, with charts and tables.  
Map detail showing profile of the Western Canal, aka, the Erie Canal.
Other tables on this map also inform the reader of all eleven of the newspapers available in the state, and the crown jewel, all four colleges! With eleven papers and four colleges, surely New York State is advanced and ready for the modern age!

Map detail showing a chart of newspapers and a profile of the Northern Canal.

With the modern age come a population boom, and New York was a core part of this, as is represented by another table on the map. All fifty five and a half counties (Hamilton County, though de jure independent, was still de facto governed by Montgomery County, and is recognized as such in the chart) of our state at the time are listed, with the county seat, number of citizens eligible to vote, and the size of the militia. So, for instance the entry for Tioga County, with the dual seats of Owego and Newtown had around 20,000 people. 2,000 militia, 3,000 electors. For comparison, the City of Elmira now has around 29,000 people living in it, and all those over the age of 18 {and not convicted felons} can vote. We also do not have a militia. Also, there are 62 counties in New York as of now. May, how things change!    
Detail with population chart.
As a final note on what this map shows, it has normal latitude and longitude, but additionally the map provides its location relative to Washington DC. This is a common theme on maps from this time, relating locations not to England, but to America. And while this map is not dated in years from American Independence, many are as well. There was a strong sense of nationalism growing even then, of America as the nation others ought to measure up to.

That is all that was printed on the map, and that alone is deeply fascinating. Yet there are also other things on the map, things added by those whom have owned it over the years. There is the accession number we gave it, written small and innocuously on the back, but others have outlined some of the counties in color, or scribbled notes on the back. The map itself shows signs of folding, and if folded again (which would be a bad idea. Please refrain from damaging our lovely maps should you ever get a chance to see them) would probably fit into a pocket. This map was used, it was a living document. It served a purpose outside of sitting in a drawer, gathering dust until an overenthusiastic intern pulled it out to write a blog post about it. That is something we should keep in mind as we examine the artifacts we have, that they served a purpose, that they were used. And while the exhibits in the museum do a wonderful job demonstrating this, sometimes living in the archives separates us from remembering the practical uses these artifacts were put to. At one point someone really needed to scrawl a random series of numbers, and they used the map from their pocket to do so. Someone wanted to emphasize one county above the others, and so outlined it. This map has had a life.

That’s why I like this map so much, why I’m writing about it above the other hundreds of things I pulled out of the map drawers. It is a deeply fascinating snap shot of our state from almost two hundred years ago. It is deeply informative both of things common at the time, and specialized knowledge the map was created to represent. At the same time, the map has clearly had a life of its own. It is more than just a reference piece, to be consulted and trawled for knowledge. It is deeply fascinating. That is why this post is an ode to MP (69) 289, to “Map of the State of New York with the Latest Improvements,” to my favorite map that I have come across since coming here.


  1. Jonah, excellent work on the map collection and all the really neat information you found out about our area, the city, county, state etc .. thanks for your work that you are doing for us here at the Historical Society.

  2. It is not hard to get excited about history!

  3. We are pretty big fans of maps too! This is terrific!