The Stories Maps Can Tell

Guest Blogger, Vicki Felmlee’s Research Leads to a Treasure Trove of Information.

1947 Map of Colorado

How often have you, as a writer, had an idea or a theory about something and after diving into old journals, maps, and newspaper articles you discover you were right, that “Eureka!” moment. 

About 10 years ago I was researching the historic (pre-1850) Old Spanish Trail in my part of Colorado. One section was the ‘favorite” among local historians, but I doubted this premise. Present-day U.S. Highway 50 follows the OST from Gunnison, Colorado into Grand Junction, but the section I questioned went up a pretty steep hill. Fine for cars and trucks nowadays, but what about for horses, wagons, carts, and mules 200 or 2,000 years ago? There was an alternate route, not officially recognized, that was almost flat, close to a river, with perfect camping and game-hunting opportunities. Wouldn’t Native Americans, and, later, Mexican and American trappers and traders, and U.S. military scouts, take that route?

On a whim I visited the local engineering office of the Colorado Department of Transportation. There I met Sean Yeates who was very interested in my question: how steep was the original grade of that hill before it was dynamited or bulldozed? He dived into the state files dating back to 1900 and the next day gave me his answer: almost 8%, a very steep grade indeed. Too steep, in fact, for laden pack animals especially in the winter. 

Then Mr. Yeates mentioned a staff member had digitized several CDOT maps. “You seem to be interested in maps, do you want them?” he asked. I said, “Sure,” and received a CD.
That night I opened the disc and realized what a remarkable bunch of files I now possessed: these were “travel maps” produced by CDOT and handed out free at gas stations and restaurants. There are a few gaps, but beginning in 1916, they were plain, unadorned; by 1951, they were filled with state information, pictures, advertisements – a few in full color. Scanning these maps, some very large, had required a large-scale scanner and a lot of time! 
They were entertaining and fun, but had little practical use. Or so I thought.

Fast forward a few years – eight to be exact – and I am researching Western Colorado ranches and the Great Depression for my next novel. Highway 50 is the main arterial through this area so of course it plays a role in my narrative. I discovered the road was paved in some areas in the 1920s, but when did it become U.S. Highway 50? I knew from earlier research it was called the “Old Wagon Road,” the “Salt Lake Wagon Road,” and the “Bean Road” (after a ranching family). 
Then I realized I had the answer in my office: that CD.

The 1916 map called it Road 44; some subsequent years no name or number was assigned. I really wanted to be as accurate as possible, so I kept opening those maps, zooming in. By the mid-20s most of the maps referred to it as 50 or 550, and finally the proper U.S. Highway System insignia was applied; by 1929, my “year of interest,” it was clearly U.S. Highway 50. 

Now my characters could correctly say they were “turning left on Highway 50” or had “found a body on the side of the highway” while they traveled, rode, and drove, to and fro, from town to town. 

By the way, remember the original quest for researching the “alternate” route on the
OST? Based on my information, and Mr. Yeates’ help, the National Park Service agreed, and designated it the OST Official Historic Route in 2012. Eureka!

Note: I have now uploaded all of these maps at tcsmg.com/CDOTmaps. Just click on a year, for example, and the files will appear for you to view. Most are pdfs, there are a few jpgs. These maps are large, 20″-30″ wide, so you won’t be able to print them out unless you have access to a very large printer. You can of course bring them into a program like Photoshop and reduce.
As a bonus, I have included one sheet from the Hayden Survey of Western Colorado/Eastern Utah. The Hayden maps are very important historical documents from 1871. You can read more about this expedition here (and Google for more):

Vicki Felmlee received her degree in Geology but took a right-hand turn into journalism, working for newspapers and magazines for more than 10 years. She then returned to her “roots” and worked as an Environmental Scientist for projects in Idaho, New Mexico, and Denver before starting her own company in 1996. She is a former national president of the Old Spanish Trail Association and has been active in community issues. Retired, she lives in Grand Junction, Colorado with her husband, dogs, cats, and chickens. Her website is at www.americamoreorless.com

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