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100 years of mapping US hamlets, waterways, and woods

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In 1883, John Wesley Powell, a Civil War veteran with a shovel-shaped beard and a thirst for exploration, set out to map every hill, hamlet, waterway, and wood in the United States.

Mr. Powell, then head of the US Geological Survey, promised Congress that his government-funded effort to measure the country in minute detail would take 24 years. But the vastness of the American continent has had a way of interfering with men's plans. A century after Powell began it, the National Mapping Program - the official, baseline record of US topography - still isn't finished.

So far, about 82 percent of the country has been mapped in large scale by the US Geological Survey. USGS officials say they'll be done with the task around the end of this decade.

''We have this saying around here,'' says Roy Mullen, associate chief of the Geological Survey's mapping division. ''Only a country as rich as ours can afford to be so poorly mapped.''

If it wasn't for Powell, the USGS effort to produce a comprehensive, highly accurate picture of the face of the US would undoubtedly be even further from completion than it is.

A self-taught scientist made famous by his pioneering trips down the Colorado River, Powell helped found the US Geological Survey in 1879. He was the first government official to see that the fast-growing country needed a comprehensive series of topographic base maps to help plan economic development.

Thus was born the National Mapping Program. The program, originally a plan simply to map the country once at a scale of about one mile of ground to one inch of map, has over the years been significantly expanded - a major reason why it isn't finished.

The base maps' scale is now one inch to 2,000 feet of ground, twice as detailed as in Powell's time. And these are not the sort of charts that used to be given away free at gas stations. The maps are beautiful, six-color sheets that use fine contour lines to depict mountains, ridges, valleys, and plateaus.

So far, USGS cartographers have completely mapped only 15 states at this detailed scale. Parts of many other states have also been mapped. They have 18 percent of the surface of the US to go.


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