The fake towns and streets made by cartographers

Bad news, guys! The maps we always used to rely on, sometimes can be wrong.  And they can be not just wrong by accident, on the contrary, they can be wrong on purpose.

To create a map from scratch, one has to do years of fieldwork or analyzation of satellite photos. So plagiarism has often been uncontrolled among mapmakers. For the purpose to protect copyrighted materials, maps can include fake roads, rivers, and streets, and sometimes even towns.

So, to protect their production, many cartographers use a simple trick: “easter eggs”. These are small errors or tricks located somewhere on the map. A mapmaker can make up a place, and if they see that a competing mapmaker also has that place on their map, they know that at one point the competitor plagiarized their data. This is convenient for map companies, but less convenient for those of us losing way by mistake.

There is an extremely remarkable map of New York State that was made in 1937 by General Drafting Company. The cartographers placed a non-existent tiny town called Agloe on this map. The name of Agloe came from an anagram of the cartographers’ initials. Nowadays, it’s a well-known town among cartography nerds, known as a “paper town” or “trap town”.


Few years after publishing its map, the GDC company noticed that Agloe appeared on a map by Rand McNally, at the exact same place. Rand McNally argued that he hadn’t copied the GDC’s data, and pointed out the real existence of this town. The people went to this place where someone opened a store called Agloe, therefore making it an official place. That way, even though nothing else was there, Agloe had actually become a real place. Sometimes stuff we write down on paper can change the actual world in which we are actually living.

However, sometimes maps can include false information — not as a trap, but simply as a cartographic prank.

For example, consider the fictional towns of « Beatosu » and « Goblu » that the chairman of the Michigan Highway Commission — a Michigan University graduate — included on a 1979 Michigan state highway map.

The names, which were later removed, were a dig at Ohio State, Michigan’s rival and stood for « Beat OSU » and « Go Blue. »

There are hundreds of other examples of paper towns in history. And those unintentional traps may lead to the great city of tomorrow.


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