Sun, April 27, 2014

From Tents to Towers: A Century of Maps of Alaska’s Largest City

“The language of maps is integral to our lives. We have achieved something if we have put ourselves (our town) on the map.”
~Simon Garfield, On the Map
By Katherine Ringsmuth
In January 2014, my team and I received an Anchorage Centennial Community grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum and the Anchorage Centennial Commission to produce Tents to Towers: A Century of Maps of Alaska’s Largest City. The final project, targeted for completion in 2015, will tell the story of how Anchorage emerged from a railroad camp to Alaska’s urban center over the course of ten decades. The project intersects geography, art, and history by depicting the city’s development and expansion through historical maps and photographs. The team includes project director Katherine Ringsmuth, editor and senior historian Terrence Cole, GIS expert Barbra Bundy, layout designer Francis Broderick, and student researcher, Abdoulie Lowe.
Anchorage street map, circa 1940
Currently, the ongoing collection of digital maps includes approximately 300 maps of Anchorage and the Upper Cook Inlet area. The maps span a broad spectrum of Anchorage history, representing themes such as exploration, military expeditions, railroad construction, community growth, homesteads, canneries, trails and trade, aviation, military sprawl, earthquake and volcano impacts, recreation and the area’s cultural footprint. Maps show an evolution of place names, some of the first archeological sites, townsite withdrawal from the Chugach National Forest, the Iditarod trail, gold and coal claims, ski trail and area development, and Nike missile sites. The digital collection also includes vintage maps, Sanborn insurance maps, town plats, historic maritime charts, maps made to attract tourists, and even three-dimensional objects such as a vintage banner, a table cloth and even a pair of ear rings.
Historically, these maps were designed for practical purposes—used to inform individuals as to where they were going. But viewed today, these maps were also used as paths to the future, documenting the big dreams held by past residents. Whether they were pragmatists or visionaries, the people who built our city and produced these maps represent a society steeped in transformative change. The maps, themselves, provide insight about Anchorage identity, what residents valued at a given moment in time, and where Anchorage was positioned in the map of the mind’s eye.
“Carte de la Riviere de Cook”
The academic, government, and private archives that have contributed to the project so far include: Loussac Library, Anchorage City Hall, JBER History Office, Bureau of Land Management, Alaska Resources Library and Information Services, Alaska and Polar Regions Collections & Archives at University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Alaska Anchorage Archives and Special Collections, Anchorage Museum, U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, The National Archives at Anchorage, Anchorage Visitors Bureau, and Heritage Library and Museum at Wells Fargo. Private individuals have also donated their unique maps for use.
The final product hopes to accomplish the following objectives:
1) Demonstrate that Anchorage began as a 20th century American town that aspired be a modern, planned city primed for commerce. That the frontier boom economy was actually sparked by WWII and continued in the form of big oil, and to be mindful that Anchorage was built not in wilderness, but rather on a cultural landscape in which elements still exists today.
2) Challenge older notions of how people populated the Cook Inlet region, particularly Alaska Native migrants.
3) Serve as an opportunity to both study and celebrate Anchorage’s cultural diversity and to connect Cook Inlet to a global history, far older than the city itself.
4) To utilize the produced maps as an educational tool beyond the pages of a book.
Finally, the aim of From Tents to Towers is to provide historic contexts or themes that both constitute a timeline and interpret events that shaped Anchorage’s growth and development over the last century. The final products will showcase the story of the Cook Inlet landscape, a place visually dominated by mountains and mudflats and shaped by tides and earthquakes, and a cultural landscape, where today 100 languages are spoken. In the end, the final product will endeavor to show how the multifaceted relationship between Cook Inlet residents and their differing relationship with the natural landscape has directly shaped the 100 year history of this region.
Tourism promotional map, 1980s
The final product is not just meant to be informative, for the historically significant maps illustrate the artistry and expertise of past and contemporary cartographers and capture the imagination of Anchorage residents. The final product—which includes an exhibit for the Anchorage centennial, a series of posters meant for public and academic use, and potentially an illustrated atlas—will hopefully spark public discussion, civic interest, and new historic research.
If you have an interesting map of the Anchorage bowl or Upper Cook Inlet region and would like to participate in this project, please contact Katherine Ringsmuth at for more information.