When the Lincoln Memorial Was Underwater

James Keily’s 1851 map of Washington shows a considerably smaller district, before the Potomac River was filled in to make way for monuments

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 courtesy of Esri; Text by Natasha Geiling.)

This map, made by James Keily and published by Lloyd van Derveer, is something of an anomaly; the map’s quality is quite high and both Keily and van Derveer are extremely obscure cartographers. This map is most likely the only one they ever produced. The original copy of the map would have been used as a wall map, on the walls of homes and businesses and – due to the nature of the city it depicts – in the offices of politicians. The map does a remarkable job of showing the city’s expansion into the Potomac River. “If you look the word Potomac and take your lens over that and under it, you see the Lincoln Memorial, and then the Reflecting Pool, and then the WWII memorial,” Rumsey explains, noting that these major attractions are located in the same place that the river used to be. Rumsey also notes that Georgetown, now a neighborhood within Washington, is represented as a separate city on the map (it would be consolidated into the District in 1871, two decades after this map was drawn).

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