New exhibit reveals how historic ‘bird’s eye’ maps helped WA sell
Take, for example, a bird’s eye map of Seattle from 1884, which shows the viewer hovering over Denny Hill (later shaved off by the resurfacing). The view is south over Elliott Bay; in the distance, Mount Rainier rises above the old mud flats, from which we can guess a train approaching. It was featured in the June 1884 issue of The West Shore, a Portland magazine boasting “the only illustrated publication on the Pacific coast, and the only one in the world to specialize in original illustrations of the awe-inspiring landscapes of this region.”
In the foreground of the map are illustrated leisure scenes: a woman watches a man paint on an easel outside and a family went for a walk in the forest. These clues reveal an underlying truth: Women often had to be persuaded to move to the Seattle border.
Even with the first Transatlantic Railway completed in 1869 and the Northern Pacific Railway connecting the Pacific Northwest in 1888, at one point only one in 10 adults in the city was female – and most over 15 years were already engaged. When promoting Seattle, it was important to show the city as a place for families, not just an industrial city.
Sometimes scenic cartographers have used artistic exaggeration bordering on fraud, luring travelers with images of idyllic towns and buzzing industries, only for newcomers to arrive to find mud-soaked shacks instead.
This same map of Seattle from 1884 shows a flat downtown with well-leveled streets, sidewalks lined with beautiful Victorian houses, the spiers of at least two churches, and what appear to be several multi-story institutional buildings that could be schools or even a hospital. The bay is teeming with ships, chimneys dot the port’s mills and carriages fill the streets. Notably, Mount Rainier is fully visible and no rain clouds cloud the sky. Five years after the creation of this idyllic map, Seattle’s largely wood-built downtown would burn down.