The Last Map Makers

Another frontier closes as the mapping of America approaches completion.

  • Editors' Pick
  1. June 12,1989: The number of cartographers who still go into the field to compile maps for the U.S. Geological Survey has dwindled to about sixty, and five of the best of them are seated around a table in a trailer park in Mountain Home, Idaho, shivering in the unseasonable June weather and eating elk meat shot by their boss, Jim Hanchett.

    “When I started in 1970, there were one hundred and thirty-five people in Field Surveys for the Western Mapping Center alone,” says Hanchett, a quiet, bowlegged outdoorsman. “Now there is no Field Surveys for the Western Mapping Center.” Hanchett and his crew are in Mountain Home for the Department of the Interior to mop up one of the last areas of the country that have not been updated at 7¼-minute scale. This is the standard scale for maps used by people in the wilds. If you put the maps edge to edge, they would show the United States the size of four football fields; you could jog our coastlines and borders at three laps to the mile. The national project has been going on continuously since the 1940s and is within a year of completion. When it’s over, an era will pass. Except for revision work in the field, most mapping will be done by satellites carrying cameras.

    The Mountain Home crew starts its day with coffee at the Gearjammer truck stop off Interstate 80. The Gearjammer is just down the road from Rattlesnake Station, an old stagecoach stop on the Oregon Trail that later changed its name—and location—to the more appealing Mountain H...