Snapshots in Time of the American Landscape

This post was written by Randall Fortson, of the National Archives’ Cartographic and Architectural Records Section.

aeriel film can
Most of NARA’s aerial film is stored in Lenexa, KS.

Have you ever wondered how the landscape has evolved over time?  Forests are cut and/or planted, urban areas expanded, rivers are dammed to create reservoirs, farmland is taken out of production, lakes are drained, new road patterns are established, buildings are demolished, water and wind erosion, floods and other natural disasters either delicately carve or make wholesale changes to the face of the land.  The landscape is constantly evolving!  We live in the ever-changing present but what if we could obtain a snapshot of what the land looked like 60, 70, or nearly 80 years ago? Well the aerial photos held by the Cartographic and Architectural Records Section of the National Archives at College Park will allow you to do just that.  These aerials are the product of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (RG 145)Soil Conservation Service (RG 114), Forest Service (RG 95), Geological Survey (RG 57), and the Bureau of Reclamation (RG 115).

Aerial Index Sheet
Dozens of individual aerial frames make up an aerial index sheet.

Aerial photography was originally used to assist in the administration of federal programs. The Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service used it as a tool to determine farm program compliance.  Images show agricultural areas as well as adjoining urban areas of the United States at a scale of 1:20,000 and filming was done on a county by county basis.  The Soil Conservation Service focused it aerial photography on the Southwestern United States and typically includes coverage of watersheds, soil erosion districts, and other areas where soil conservation projects were carried out.  Scale for these images vary between 1:15,840 and 1:31,680.  Forest Service film was taken to obtain information for the administration and mapping of national forests throughout the United States.  Scale here varies between 1:20,000 and 1:24,000. The photos shot by the Geological Survey focus on project areas throughout the United States and were taken for the purpose of creating topographic maps.  Scale for some projects is as small as 1:56,600. Aerial images of the Bureau of Reclamation provide coverage of river systems used in its river basin studies and have a scale of 1:20,000. Together these photographs cover about 85 percent of the contiguous land in the United States from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s.  Of the five agencies represented in these holdings, images taken by the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service are by far the most numerous.

Finding the location on a topographical map
Locations are first identified using topographic maps.
Then they are compared to frames on the aerial index.
Then they are compared to frames on the aerial index.
An aerial viewer is used to examine individual aerial frames.
An aerial viewer is used to examine individual aerial frames.

4 thoughts on “Snapshots in Time of the American Landscape

  1. Interesting post Randall. I don’t know the percentage of Cartographic researchers who come to see aerial film but it seems to be a lot of them. Do you know?

  2. A quick perusal of our letter log shows approximately 26% of all inquiries involve some type of aerial request. That would include the aerials discussed above as well as other aerial images in our collection. That’s a huge percentage considering the time and expertise needed for each inquiry and our current staff size.

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