Manhattan Historic Maps Go Digital

By Brian Redlein

Great news for map nerds: The Manhattan Borough President’s Map Room has started the long slog towards digital, which means for the first time ever the public can see in high-resolution all the City’s historical maps in one convenient online resource:

New York City is one of the older European settlements in the New World and as New Yorkers we can often forget how the City’s founding dates back all the way to 1626 when the first band of Dutch settlers began building on the southern tip of what was then called Mannahatta. The historical maps provide a fascinating resource allowing us to travel through time with some maps in the City’s files going all the way back to New Amsterdam when the City was but a village packed into the tip of Manhattan south of what’s now Wall Street.

The maps also offer fascinating insight into the terrain of Manhattan that has long since been paved over with layer upon layer of dirt fill, concrete pavement, and the complete spaghetti network of tubes, pipes, conduits, aqueducts, and tunnels. One look at The 1782 Historic Map and one can see how the Island of Many Hills got its name from the original Lenape Indian inhabitants. The topographical maps also act as a useful reminder of just how much of New York City has been reclaimed from the rivers that surround it.

By 1865 a complete topographic survey had been completed and the city’s grid laid out upon it going all the way up to 156th Street. The hard lines of the grid were superimposed over whatever natural features lay below them, burying hills, creeks, springs, and marshes deep under layer upon layer of urban fill. Little do any of us New Yorkers realize that there’s a pond beneath our feet at the corner of 31st and Park or that East Harlem used to be dominated by marshes with a river running below 106th Street. is still a work-in-progress. Nonetheless as the maps are uploaded and the servers streamlined it will provide a useful and fascinating resource for those of us with a passion for the history of our City.