Historic Navigation Charts Now Available Online

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: History

George Eldredge's well-known “upside down chart” of Chatham, published in 1851.

CHATHAM — Three years ago, the federal government stopped printing traditional paper navigational charts, moving toward electronic charts and print-on-demand products to help mariners find their way. But old paper charts provide a window to local history, and the Chatham Historical Society has started the process of preserving some of them, even making them available for viewing online.

“We realized that we had these incredible charts, about 120 of them, in storage. And we were trying to figure out how to get them more accessible,” historical society Executive Director Danielle Jeanloz said. Several years ago, the historical society applied for Community Preservation Act grants to restore the charts and to digitize them for Digital Commonwealth, an online repository for Massachusetts libraries and museums.

“They're a nonprofit and they were happy to take our charts and put them online, as long as they could put them on their website,” Jeanloz said.

A number of the charts are now on display at the Atwood House Museum, both in the Wendy Wade Costello Gallery downstairs and in the main exhibit area.

Printed mostly in the 19th century, the charts have colors softened over the years but still bear unique place names, depth soundings done without benefit of technology, and plots penciled in by the users of the charts. They differ from modern navigational charts in a number of ways, like the compass roses and plots labeled not with modern degree headings but with compound cardinal names like “northeast by east, one-quarter east.”

Chart makers sometimes ignored other modern conventions, like orienting the map so that north is on top. George Eldredge, known as “Chart George,” was one of the time's most famous and enterprising chart makers. His 1851 chart of the shoals south of Chatham is essentially upside-down, showing how the shoals and passages would look as mariners approached them from Stage Harbor or Chatham Harbor. Place names are also unique, like the chart of the Hawaiian Islands that shows the city of “Honoruru.”

“People don't always realize how much of an influence and an impact our own Chathamites had on the nautical chart industry,” Jeanloz said. Before Chart George, most charts were made by the British Admiralty in a set format. The Eldredge charts often included important notes and drawings to help mariners. “They would put comments about what to be aware of, what to see,” she said. The chart business was a robust one, and the town's legacy in chart-making lives on in the Eldredge Tide Guide, which Chart George created as a companion to his charts, and which is still in publication.

Under the leadership of historical society volunteer Bill Horrocks, the first 40 charts have already been digitized and posted online; they can be seen at www.ChathamHistoricalSociety.org by clicking “collections” and “nautical charts.” While the charts are impressive to see in person, the online interface allows for very close inspection – something that's useful to see the many small details.

“We're very excited about the results,” Jeanloz said. Before they were digitized, the charts had been stored in rolls. “We have actually developed a special flat table where they can remain flattened, which is better for them,” she said. But even stored this way, the charts were difficult for researchers to browse, and only a few can be displayed at a time because of their large size. Putting the charts online makes them more accessible to the public, she said. Thanks to funds from the original Community Preservation Act grant, the next batch of 40 charts will soon be digitized.