87-Year Old Photographic Maps Offer a Unique Look into Our Past

Some of the most frequent requests we get at the Historical Society revolve around house histories. In Easton, we have well over 200 properties that are listed with the state in our historical buildings inventory. When one discounts the age factor, not of all of these structures are particularly significant, but most new owners of these properties are rightly interested in knowing more about their history.

Prior to 1941, there were no zoning regulations in Easton, and thus, no records of any construction. If you owned the land, you could build pretty much anything that suited your fancy. Dating when a particular structure was first built can be quite difficult. Determining its original size and style is even harder still. Property transfer recordings usually give an indication when there was a dwelling house or a barn on the property at the time of the transfer. Thus, if Moses Banks purchased 7 acres of land from Isaac Wheeler in 1802 and there was no mention of a structure in the deed, but a dwelling house is included in the deed when Moses or his estate transfers the land to Birdsey Platt in 1833, we can assume that the first house on that parcel post-dated 1802. If an examination of church records indicate that Moses married sometime around the time he first purchased his land from Mister Wheeler, we might also assume that the house would have most likely been built sometime shortly thereafter – it was common practice for a newly wed husband to build his wife a home soon after they were married. If the United States Census report shows Moses raising his young family on that property in 1810, it lends even greater weight to the assumption of a circa 1802 build date.

Maps created in 1856 by Richard Clark and in 1867 by Frederick Beers allow us to locate particular houses since the property owners are listed alongside each dwelling. These maps aren’t 100 percent accurate, but they are remarkably useful in pinpointing many early homes and who lived in them.

1867 Map of Easton by Frederick Beers shows dwellings along with the names of the owners

The first map of Connecticut towns and counties that was drawn with precision accuracy was a topographical map done in 1896 by the United States Geographical Survey.

During the late 19th century, surveyors created topographic maps in the field. They measured a series of points, using tape and compass traverses with elevations determined with an aneroid barometer. A process known as field sketching was used to draw a terrain representation using contours. Using a plane table and alidade, which could measure vertical angles, point positions, as well as elevations, greatly increased the accuracy of data shown on topographic maps.

By 1894, most of the USGS maps were created for 15-minute areas produced at a scale of 1:62,500. Features shown on these maps included civil divisions of state, county, township, and city or village; certain infrastructure, including railroads, tunnels, wagon roads, trails, bridges, ferries, fords, dams, canals; but with only rare exceptions do they depict the locations individual houses and outbuildings.

The Sanborn Fire Maps of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s are a great aid in determining a building’s size, but unfortunately, the company never made maps of towns as sparsely populated as Easton.

The largest aid in determining the size of Easton’s older homes didn’t come until 1934, when the State of Connecticut completed an aerial survey of every corner of the state, a process that produced thousands of black-and-white, 9-by-9-inch public photographs of Depression-era farmland in largely undeveloped towns such as Easton. At the time, no other state had accomplished this. Luckily, in 1934, few of our older homes had yet to see the improvements and additions that would bring them into the middle of the 20th century, so these aerial photographs give us the best picture of what the vast majority of those homes would have looked like size-wise from their very beginnings.

Beginning in the late 1920’s, Fairchild Aerial Surveys Inc, began lobbying Connecticut Governor John Trumbull to initiate a statewide survey from the air.  Sherman Fairchild had invented a revolutionary aerial survey camera shortly after World War One. In 1922, he used his family’s wealth to fund a company that could exploit the virtues of his invention. He even went so far as to design an aircraft specifically to accommodate the camera. His Fairchild FC-2 mono-wing airplane had an enclosed cabin that was heated and first took to the skies in 1927. It could hold both a pilot and a camera operator with the large camera pointing towards the earth below through an opening in the bottom of the fuselage. In addition, the plane’s wings were hinged to fold rearwards so the aircraft could be transported by railcar to airfields nearer the targeted survey areas.

Fairchild FC-2 folding wing mono-plane with heated cabin designed primarily for aerial surveying work. The wings were designed to fold back, enabling the aircraft to fit on a rail car for transport.

It wasn’t until 1933 that then Governor Wilber Cross recommended the aerial survey to the State Planning Board. Both saw it as an essential tool in planning for the state’s future. Having an accurate aerial survey across southern Fairfield County would greatly aid the Highway Commission in determining the least costly and most efficacious route for the long talked about parkway planned to alleviate traffic along the Post Road between the New York border and the Housatonic River.

By January of 1934, the state was ready to commence the project and it was soon obvious that Fairchild was likely the only company capable of carrying it out. Four airplanes would do all the aerial photography for the Connecticut survey during March and April 1934. The early spring months were wisely chosen so as to be mostly free of snow cover yet still prior to the trees leafing out and obscuring some of the roads and buildings below. Fairchild supplied three of their custom designed FC-2 cabin aircraft. The fourth airplane belonged to the Connecticut National Guard, 43rd Air Division, 118th Observation Squadron, a Douglas O-38E two-seat, open cockpit observation biplane that was standard with the Army Air Corps at the time.

Flying at 100 miles-per-hour along a fixed grid at 11,400 feet, the photographer kept the camera level and snapped a photograph every twenty-five seconds once the pilot gave him the command that the aircraft was entering the chosen grid. Each photo would cover an area of exactly three and a quarter square miles with a 60 percent overlap of the previous photograph. In all, the planes flew for 153 hours and the cameras recorded approximately 12,000 exposures. Each $4,000 camera weighed about 45 pounds, was equipped with a bubble so that the operator could keep it perfectly level, and a stopwatch that timed the exposures precisely twenty-five seconds apart.

One entire exposure plate from a 9-inch by 75-foot roll of film. Area covers exactly 3 and one-quarter square miles. This view is of the Aspetuck Reservoir taken at 11,400 feet. Each exposure was numbered in the upper right hand quarter.

Each roll of film was 9 inches in width and 75 feet in length. Planes were kept aloft for about 7 hours each day – so long as the weather was clear – and each team used an average of 4 or 5 rolls of film per flight. Each roll would average 100 exposures. The ideal flying times were between 10 AM and 2 PM when the light was most favorable, and the shortest shadows cast.

Under the supervision of William Duncanson of the State Highway Department, a team of seven men then took 10,500 small aerial photographic maps and painstakingly overlapped them before trimming them to the correct size to make them into a giant mosaic map of Connecticut. The project took place at one of the assembly rooms of the Connecticut National Guard at Brainard Field. The entire mosaic consisted of 24 five-foot by seven-foot boards, taking up a total area of 840 square feet.

This entire mosaic covers every square inch of Connecticut is made up of over 10,000 individual photographs, fitted, trimmed, and pasted onto 5-foot by 7-foot panels!

The entire project cost only about $25,000 – about one-sixth of what it might have cost without the interaction of several of the state’s largest departments and the assistance of the National Guard. In the end, Connecticut had the first complete aerial survey in the entire nation. To help offset some of the cost of the project, Fairchild Aerial Survey, in conjunction with the Connecticut State Library which then owned the entire collection, offered photographic prints for sale to anyone who wished to purchase one. An original scale 9-inch by 9-inch print of a three and a quarter mile square sold for $1.00. Varying sizes could be obtained, with the largest one being a tax map enlargement for municipalities on a scale of 1-inch to either 100 or 200 feet for $9.50.

Immediate results included the discovery of a tract of previously untaxed land in Fairfield County that was four square miles in area. The map also greatly aided in establishing the route for the Merritt Parkway that led to far fewer property acquisitions that required demolition of structures which would have resulted in higher prices tendered through the process of eminent domain.

The 1934 aerial maps of Connecticut certainly don’t rival today’s Google maps, but for their time, they were the most accurate and complete maps of the state ever produced.

We still use those 87-year old maps today. They give us a much clearer understanding of how Easton looked so long ago. Evidence of the clear-cutting that took place throughout much of Connecticut during the second half of the 19th century is abundantly clear. Hundreds of acres of open fields explain why much of lower Easton was quickly and inexpensively developed following World War II. Stonewalls that we now see deep into the woods were once boundaries of fields that have long gone back to nature. The property lines demarking the original long lots of Fairfield are seen quite clearly as they run for miles in a straight north-south line.

Homes built in the 17th and 18th centuries in Easton were all once part of larger farms. In 1934, most of the barns were either still standing, or their foundations still clearly discernable even from 11,400 feet above. The original Samuel Staples Elementary school can bee seen standing alone in a field overlooking the spot where the town hall would appear some three years later. The twin radio towers used by WICC cast tall shadows from their home atop Sport Hill Road. And the town’s first “sub-division” can be seen on Marsh Road alongside the original Marsh Dairy property.

Samuel Staples Elementary on Morehouse Road prior to the Town Hall being built and any additions in 1934
The X’s mark the base of the twin WICC towers that once stood on top of Sport Hill Road. The shadows being cast towards the east give the viewer some indication of how high they stood in 1934 before the radio station relocated their broadcasting towers to Pleasure Beach.
In 1934, Marsh Dairy was located just to the north of Marsh Road on Sport Hill. Marsh Road was the town’s very first subdivision, with the first of several homes being built in 1926.

From a historian’s point of view, that $25,000 was some of the best money the State of Connecticut ever spent.

A good deal of the information in this article was obtained from a very informative article in the Hartford Courant’s Sunday edition from March 31, 1935. People interested in scouring the original photographic plates from 1934 can view them at: https://libguides.ctstatelibrary.org/hg/aerialphotos/1934.

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