Before There Could Be a Los Angeles, There Had to be Water

California’s first state engineer, along with a team of surveyors, created this hand drawn map in 1880 to explore Los Angeles’ water resources

The following map comes from the David Rumsey Map Collection. We recently asked David Rumsey, a map expert who has been collecting maps since the 1980s, to describe the nature of the map to us. His personal map collection currently contains more than 150,000 maps and is one of the largest private collections in the United States. (Interactive by Esri; Text by Natasha Geiling.)

If this hand drawn map of Los Angeles doesn’t look much like a traditional map – with a lack of labels and mysterious lines and hash marks – that’s because it isn’t. This map, drawn by a team of engineers led by William Hammond Hall, is much more an engineer’s survey than a traditional map. “Hammond was the first California state engineer,” Rumsey explains. “His office was in charge of trying to figure out all of the water resources of L.A. and how to use the water that was there. You’ll notice the map has a great emphasis on drainage – it shows all the hills very clearly and all the canyons. They were very interested in water.”

Rumsey dated the map as being drawn in 1880, but that’s an educated guess, based on a dated noted in pencil on the map’s backside. To Rumsey, the map is a remarkable archival document. “This had a governmental purpose, really, and it’s a manuscript, so it’s one of a kind.” The handwritten notes at the top of the map – “Mill Creek wrong!” or “Memo: change map, Millard Canyon” really give a sense of a map in progress. This version of the map remains unfinished, as Hall and his associates probably either discarded this version or completed a different version. But even if the map is largely unfinished and governmentally focused, a casual observer can still see how much Los Angeles has expanded since Hall’s time. “The map is very good for showing natural features, and it’s pretty phenomenal to put the lens over it and just see how it’s really filled in,” Rumsey explains. “The only things that look similar are the hills.”

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