Imaginary Panoramas

The bird’s eye view maps of the late 19th Century American west are things of pure imagination fueled by the scantest of real world geography and architecture. They were the creation of patient illustrators and artists, who like medieval monks illuminating manuscripts, worked in cloistered studios in Chicago, New York and the big publishing centers of the east. The entire premise of the genre was based on a falsehood, since airplanes were not invented yet and bird’s didn’t carry cameras. Bird’s eye maps or Panoramas, show things that no one ever saw or ever would but they triggered the imagination of travelers like nothing else in print. To convey their remarkable detail, the cartographic tapestries were printed on fine large sheets of paper using stone lithography. The railroads were the major patrons for large format city and town overviews, hand drawn in ink using property maps, architectural drawings of major buildings, engineering diagrams, topographical maps and completely invented semi-realities and fabrications.


Maybe because Commencement Bay was an important endpoint in the powerful Northern Pacific Railroad and maybe because newspapers and printers were early businesses in the city, Tacoma has a wonderful legacy of bird’s eyes. Some are pure illusion and others are startling in their detail and record. If architectural renderings and photographs were solo instruments, bird’s eye maps were a symphony.

Here’s a small selection of Tacoma bird’s eye maps from the Library of Congress(where you can download them in amazingly high resolution)

1878 LoC
1884 LoC
1885 LoC


1893 LoC


Written by

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.

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