Using USGS Topo Maps

I read an article on the Family Search website titled “Online with Topographical Maps” by James Tanner that told about the on-line collection of the USGS (U. S. Geological Survey). You should read that blog post by Mr. Tanner. He mentions the “The National Map” web page  which I hadn’t seen before. I think that it is an update of a former map page on USGS. A link on that page is for “The National Map Viewer” which links to an interactive US topographic map. Topographic maps (AKA topo maps) are those maps that show roads, buildings and and the terrain of an area.

Testing the site, it appears that the viewer is still a bit “buggy” and sometimes has problems displaying pages properly as I got some error messages when portions of the map didn’t load. I tried both Foxfire and Internet Explorer and both had occasional errors. It probably would be best to right click on the link to the Viewer and open a new Window. When you open the map Viewer it starts with a map of the whole US. Over on the left under the “Overlays” tab, check the “Scanned Topo Maps” box. Then you can either zoom in on the bar using the upper left  of the map or, better yet, put the name of a Town, Village, etc. in the search box. You will get a list of possible places that match your search. If you click on “Zoom To” on the place you want you should see a topo map of the place. You should be able to zoom in on the map and see a more detailed topo map. That’s not how it is supposed to work but this where I ran into problems. Sometimes it ends up with a gray map with just roads. I can’t figure out how to fix that problem.

On topo maps there are brown lines that indicate the terrain. Those will show you hills in the area. Roads are easy to figure out. Rivers and streams are in blue. Topo maps outside of cities have small black rectangles that are houses. Small hollow rectangles are barns and other out buildings. Churches are black squares with a cross on them (including those that aren’t Christian). Cemeteries are dashed rectangles that have “Cem.” in them or sometimes just a cross. Schools are black squares with a flag.

Another part of the USGC National Map that Mr. Tanner writes about is the “Historical Topographic Maps” which are scans of old topo maps in the USGS collection. So far they have scanned about half of the old maps in their collection. You can search for an old topo map but you have to know the name the map that USGS uses. Use the “USGS Store: Map Locator” link and to search for in the place you are looking for. Put in the place name and click “Go.” It will show a map and on that map are names highlighted in yellow that are the names of the maps in the area. Go back and click on “Historical Topographic Map Collection search.” The resulting page has another search box. Put in the map name and search. You get a list of available maps and you can pick either a recent map or an old one. In some places where roads or rivers have changed over the years it might be better to look at the old map. The downloaded map ends up as a PDF file which can be zoomed in showing great detail.

Another older part of the USGS site is the “Geographic Name Information System.” From that page you can search for just about anything in the US from schools, to churches. I have used it find cemeteries in a rural county by leaving the “Feature Name” empty, the changing “Feature Class” to “cemetery” and adding the State and County. That will give you a list to pick from which sometimes is many pages long. Click on the feature (cemetery name, etc.) that you interested in. You will get a detailed page on that feature. That page also has a box on the right with links to various map sites. Notice that one of the choices is “USGS The National Map.” That will give the same web page as above. Other map sites are Google Maps, MapQuest, and Bing Maps which listed under it’s former name of “Microsoft Virtual Earth.”

Be prepared to spent hours viewing maps.