Mapping Main Line History
By David Schmidt
Main Line Life
originally published October 10-16, 2001
Most people think of maps as the means to find our way geographically. They’re how we find the corner of Lancaster Avenue and Conestoga Road. They tell us how far we are from home or journey’s end.
But they are much more than that, or can be, if you care to look at them. Maps also tell time and tell us what man knew when. Look at a Spanish or Portuguese map of Columbus’ day, and the difference in precision between the Western Hemisphere and Europe is significant. Look at a later map of North America, and there’s more accuracy, but the perspective is skewed toward the ocean and where the Europeans came from.
Keeping maps is a way to keep track of our history. In fact, they are as essential to understanding our past as any books, letters, papers, art or for that matter, buildings. They tell us where our ancestors were and how they got to where they were going.
Some of the most interesting and usablemaps for people living on the Main Line are the maps produced to document real estate and property lines the mile and a half, and eventually two miles, on either side of the Pennsylvania Railroad. For Main Liners, the most important are those documenting the run from Overbrook to Paoli. On them is much of the history of the Main Line, as we know it today.
The Lower Merion Historical Society used some of the proceeds from its book, 300 Years, about $7,000, to finance renovating and completing its collection of these survey maps, some done by Franklin Survey and others by A.H. Mueller, J.L. Smith and G.M. Hopkins.
The society’s collection of these railroad survey maps is probably the most complete of the area, including 12 map books ranging from 1871 to 1961. Several were is bad shape, with bindings coming apart and pages torn and missing.
The only map book not in its collection is the very rare 1948 book. Because these books weren’t replaced until 1961, few probably remained intact after constant use for more than a decade and were thrown away rather than saved.
After determining what pages were missing, the society contacted Andrew and Judy Amsterdam, owners of Franklin Maps in King of Prussia. They supplied these plates at a reduced cost. According to organization officials, they are negotiating with the Amsterdams to acquire that missing 1948 book.
With everything assembled, it was time to get the books repaired and protected so they could continue to serve their original purpose. The books were sent to be restored in Greensboro,N.C., at Etherington Conservation Center.
That center was chosen after the society contacted the Pennsylvania Archives and asked for assistance in finding someone to do the work on the oversized books.
So the maps were shipped off to North Carolina where each page and the 209 map plates were deacidified, “folded encapsulated” and then rebound.
According to the historical society’s archivist, Farilyn Leopold, these maps are some of the most referenced parts of the society’s collection. “They are wonderful and offer such a sense of the history,” she said. ”To me, the oldest are the most interesting because you can see the changing nature of Lower Merion.”
“These were real estate maps,” Leopold said. “They would use them to locate properties and even pencil in changes as properties were divided or expanded.”
As you look at them in sequence, you see the history of the area unfold. “When you look at the early books, you see these huge estates and farms dating from Colonial times,” Leopold said. “The estates were built by the railroad tycoons, as they escaped the city during the unhealthy summer months.”
“These maps are so helpful because they show the land, who owned it and a silhouette of the house or buildings that stood on the property.” They are some of the most used features of the society’s collection as people come in to learn about the history of their house or property.
“People will come in and try to determine the history of their property or house,” Leopold said. “We will go back to the maps just before they think their house was built, for instance, and then track it up through the decades until we find it. It’s really fun to watch what happened to just one piece of land over the years, and the owners are usually delighted.”
“But over the decades, you see those estates get divided into smaller and smaller properties until the Main Line moved completely from being rural to being suburban,” she said. The maps “were more than a documentation of the area, though. They showed what was changing is our lifestyles. More roads and more people meant that by the 1950s, we had become suburbanized.”
These maps were useful for real estate agents to keep track of the changing face of the Main Line. The Realtors themselves would literally draw on the pages in pencil to update the maps.
The maps are now back at the Ashbridge House where people can once again look at their property over the years or see what has happened along Lancaster or Montgomery avenues over the decades.
But the society isn’t stopping there. Beginning in November, the maps will be available online at the society’s Web site. Internet surfers will be able to print out sections of a map. The maps have been divided into smaller sections that can be printed on a home computer’s printer.
Eventually this digitized system may be the best preservation move of the society, so the society has separated the data from the documents. Because the maps are now digital, the value of their physical existence can be preserved while at the same time anyone who wants to can see how people a century ago documented their lives and land.