Cartographers: putting us in our place

Posted: Friday, August 22, 2003

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

We have a cartographer in Juneau. I say that with respect. Since men first traveled beyond the places of their birth to discover new lands and experience strange places, they not only wrote of their encounters but they made maps.

When the explorers first came to Alaska, often one of their assignments was to chart the coast. Tsar Peter, when he sent Vitus Bering to determine whether Asia and America were separate continents in 1728, tersely told him to make a landing on the new land, obtain detailed information, draw a chart and bring it back to St. Petersburg.

One of George Vancouver's principal tasks on his six-year voyage to America was to draw the shoreline of the Pacific from California to Alaska. In 1778, Captain Cook traveled along the coast and into the Bering Sea. In the recent August issue of Alaska magazine it said that his soundings were still in use.

In 1866, D.A. Sanborn, a young surveyor from Somerville, Mass., was hired by the Aetna Insurance Company to make maps of cities and towns in America. These maps were for fire insurance purposes.

Eventually the contours of 12,000 communities were drawn, including Juneau. What was so unique about his effort was that not only did he lay out the streets but he drew the exact size of the buildings and told what they were used for.

Jeanette St. George is the cartographer for the City and Borough of Juneau. She made it her goal to collect all the Sanborn maps for Juneau. They start in 1904, so from that early time we can see how Juneau was laid out, the shape of the buildings and what was their use. We can see there was a dance hall on Front Street and female boarding around the corner on Franklin. Jeanette St. George is from Worcester, Mass. She has lived in Alaska for 27 years. She learned the art of drafting while living in Fairbanks and attending a vocational school there.

I asked her what it meant to be a cartographer. She answered, "the big thing is to put an image of a project on paper," so that there is something to study beyond the verbal definition. She prepares location and boundary maps for the planning commission and the Juneau Assembly.

Also on the city staff is Mark Jaqua, who is the historical research coordinator. He is involved in the preservation of important buildings and landmarks.

As you walk around Juneau today you might wonder if a particular commercial building or a residential property was here in the early years, and how it has changed. To find out, you can examine these wonderful historical maps with Jeanette St. George or Mark Jaqua at the city offices.

It all started with a map. That's what young Jim learned as he left the Admiral Benbow Inn on his great adventure with Long John Silver to find Treasure Island.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau. He can be reached at 586-1655.

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