Skidmore students map out Washington County

B y Jaime Thomas

One-hundred and fifty years ago, North Granville was a happening spot.

Between a young ladies seminary, a harness shop, a wagon shop and numerous churches, there was plenty of business in the area.

Today, much of that history has fallen out of memory, but not off the map. Fortunately for towns in Washington County, a class of Skidmore College students has taken on a project to overlay and digitize all and any maps.

The Geographic Information System class is taking all the maps students can find in each town—they have some from 1829, 1853, 1866, 1895, a series from 1950, topographic maps from about 1900 and a series of late 1800s Sanborn insurance amps that show old businesses—and digitizing them.

“We’re using software called ArcGIS to overlay historic maps one directly above the other, so all the points match up. They’re from 1829 up to the most recent air photo,” said Robert Jones, the Skidmore professor who’s teaching the course. The group has six or seven maps for each town, covering 180 years of history.

The students will pinpoint a spot on one map, and reduce or enlarge the size of the other ones so they all match up.

“What I find interesting is how places change over time. You’re seeing how things evolve over time,” Jones said. Once the project is completed, a user will be able to look at the maps on a computer and click on different spots at different points in time.

Or specific isolations, such as only showing where local sawmills were, will be an option. The maps will also show bedrocks, rivers, lakes and wetlands, where mountains are and their elevation, what percentage of the area is farmland versus developed, and more.

Some maps even name the families that go with each home or business in a village.

“If someone comes in and wants to know about a property they own, we can pinpoint it. We can see who lived there in 1853,” said Hartford Historian Mike Armstrong. “I think it could be very useful. It’s just amazing what you can do with it—the possibilities are incredible.”

He’s interested in making a video about Hartford’s Civil War Enlistment Center and adding it to the interactive map.

Carol Seneca, Whitehall’s town historian, said she can see how this tool could be a big help.

“There a couple of places where we had a cemetery and a church there that you’d never know existed now, and this way, you can see what was there,” she said, adding that she’s especially glad for an easy way to identify former street names that are no longer in place.

Helping these historians is part of Jones’ reason for picking such a real world project.

“A lot of historians are unaware of what this technology can do. It’s a way to help historians who typically don’t have the access or the budget to do it,” he said. The price for the software and intensive time it would take to do this outside of the classroom would be way out of most towns’ budgets.

He previously conducted a similar, successful project in Saratoga. This time around there are 17 students in his class, each of whom was assigned one of the 17 towns in the county. He said they really take ownership of such a hands-on and useful semester-long assignment.

“It gives them something real to do; they’re doing a public service as well as learning,” he said.

 

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