Book review: “Illinois: Mapping the Prairie State Through History” by Vincent Virga and Scotti McAuliff Cohn

Illinois-Mapping-the-Prairie-State-Through-History-Virga-Vincent-9780762760114I’m a sucker for map books.

Words are a miraculous means developed by humans to communicate what’s inside our heads. Maps are a similarly wonder-full invention.

They take landscapes and translate them into images. Most are images of the physical world in which we live, but not all. You can have a map of the brain, for instance, or one of a corporation (usually called an organizational chart), or a map of a process (like the ones that Rube Goldberg cartoons take to humorous extremes).

We’re used to looking at maps to figure out how to get from here to there. But these images provide us much more, such as what the map-maker considered important.

You can see that in the 53 maps in Illinois: Mapping the Prairie State Through History by Vincent Virga and Scotti McAuliff Cohn. Published in 2010, this is one of nine titles from Globe Pequot Press that focus on a single state and provide historic maps from the Library of Congress.

A tiny geographical feature

map --- portage comboIn the scope of things, the Chicago River is a tiny geographical feature. Yet, in map after map at the beginning of this book, it’s shown, greatly out of scale. And not only the river itself, but also the six-mile stretch of land between this river and another one, the DesPlaines.

The space of land was called Mud Lake although it was rarely anything like a lake. When it was, canoeists — Indians and, later, white traders — could paddle from one river to the other. Most of the year, though, it was a boggy mire or just plain dry, and travelers had to get out and carry their river craft (and any goods they were transporting) overland until they reached the other waterway.

This overland trip was called a portage. And the word was also used for the dry or soggy land that had to be traversed.

It’s significant that at least eight of the early maps in the Virga-Cohn book feature these two rivers and either name the portage directly or at least show the small space it occupied.

Those six miles of land

Why was that portage so important?

Because those six miles of land (or, in lucky times, of water) were the link between the water system to the east (the Chicago River connected to Lake Michigan which connected to the other Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River and, ultimately, the Atlantic Ocean) and the water system to the south (the DesPlaines connected to the Mississippi River which fed into the Gulf of Mexico).

That’s why, after coming through the portage with Father Jacques Marquette in 1673, Louis Jolliet urged French authorities to construct a canal to link the two rivers in all weathers.

It’s also why Chicago came to exist — first, as a trader’s camp; later, as a fort; and, still later, as a town, village and then city.

No wonder that six-mile portage plays such an out-sized role in the early maps of Illinois.

Emphasizing other important aspects of the landscape

Later in history, maps tend to show Chicago as the center of a growing network of transportation routes, particularly railroad lines but also the Illinois & Michigan Canal which was the fulfillment of Jolliet’s nearly 200-year-old dream.

map --- mendel --- 1850s --- detail ---  detail

Five of the book’s maps provide a bird’s-eye view of newly established Illinois cities — Springfield, Manteno, Moline, Urbana and Young America (later re-named Kirkwood), all featuring a rigid street grid.

Urban grids were important in U.S. history because they made it easier for land-buyers, particularly those not on-site, to understand the location of a parcel and to purchase it.

map --- moline --- 1869 --- grid --- detail

The Union Loop — the structure for elevated trains that circled the central business district — was completed in 1897. And, even before the year was out, a striking map — showing the Union Loop and the north, west and south lines that fed into it — was published by the Chicago Rock Island & Pacific Railway, trumpeting that it was the only railroad that had a station “on the loop.”

The image is a strong indication of the immediate significance that the Union Loop, later shortened to the Loop, had for the downtown district.

map --- loop --- 1897

The length of Illinois

The text for Illinois, provided by Cohn, is informative and helpful and not over-long. For instance, she notes on her first page:

Illinois is a long state, nearly 380 miles from north to south. The city of Waukegan (near the Wisconsin line) is farther north than Windsor, Ontario, in Canada. At the other end of the spectrum, Cairo, Illinois, is forty miles farther south than Richmond, Virginia.

Who knew?

The physical length of the Illinois had an impact on the sort of people who lived in various regions and, ultimately, how they worked ¬— or didn’t work — together. Cohn writes:

During this time, a culture clash developed in the state. Northern and central Illinois were occupied largely by “Yankees” — people who had come from the northeastern and mid-Atlantic states. In the southern part of the state, inhabitants were more likely to be “Southerners” or “Plain Folks,” as they were sometimes called who hailed from Kentucky or Tennessee.

Those regional differences, as well as many others, caused immediate problems of cooperative governmental action. And still do.

Typical drawbacks of a map book

The Virga-Cohn book is well-done. Still, like many map books, it has its drawbacks.

In order to fit many of these maps onto the page, they had to be severely reduced, making some completely indecipherable. This is frustrating for anyone who enjoys studying maps. Yet, it’s typical for map books. There’s just no way to reproduce these images at their full dimensions.

Another drawback, also typical of map books, is that many historic maps, particularly during the age of exploration, are filled with errors. The different shapes of Lake Michigan in the maps in this work show that, often, a lot of guesswork was involved.

A much more modern map containing an error is the striking image of Comiskey Park from a page of the Sanborn insurance maps of Chicago for 1912.

Comiskey Park Sanborn Map -- 1912 --- map

This is an image that is very evocative with White Sox and baseball fans who attended games at the park between 1910 and 1990. It correctly shows the bleachers in left field, but, erroneously, it shows an upper deck in left field.

That didn’t come until 1927. The proof?

One of many photos of the bleachers that occupied left field until 1927, and also a simpler Sanborn map from 1912 with the left field bleachers correctly described.

The photo on the right is from 1922.

The photo on the right is from 1922.

Patrick T. Reardon


  • Bill Raymond Posted July 14, 2013 8:50 pm

    Hi. I have been buying, collecting and studying fire insurance maps of all kinds for many years.
    The simpler diagram of Comiskey Park is from b/w microfilm made by a commercial company of one of the original Sanborn Map Company books sent to the Library of Congress for copyright deposit in 1912. The pages are as issued; no corrections.
    The one with the “error” shows the ballpark at a much later date. That particular book was made by Sanborn in the mid-1940s for a US government office, probably the Census Bureau. The sheets have corrections (changes) to the built environment accumulated since 1912. This particular book I believe is in the Library of Congress; it was last corrected in the mid-1950s.

    • Patrick T. Reardon Posted July 14, 2013 9:22 pm

      Thanks much for the info! Pat

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