Historic USGS Topographical Maps

The United States Geological Survey began its topographic atlas of the United States in 1882. 

Massachusetts Topographical Maps


U.S. Geological Survey maps are published in increments of longitude and latitude, which is measured in degrees, minutes and seconds. An individual 15 Minute Series map covers a rectangular area of 15 minutes. For example, the Concord quadrangle has a southern boundary of 43 degrees 0 minutes and a northern boundary of 43 degrees 15 minutes.

This can be confusing since most other maps focus on a particular geographic feature, such as a city, state, or metropolitan area. For example, see the Manchester, New Hampshire quadrangle map. Manchester is located in the northwest corner of the map, and while most of the city is located on one map, there are parts on three other adjacent maps. The center of Manchester is just south of 43 degrees north and just west of 71 degrees 30 minutes east.

Map Scales

Topographic map scales are typically expressed as ratios. A map at a scale of 1:24,000 means one inch on the map measures 24,000 inches on the ground or one inch is 2000 feet in real life. Since the 1950s, the USGS topographic maps have been published in scales of 1:24000 and 1:25000. 1:24,000 maps of Northern New England began publication in the 1960s and have not been scanned as a part of this collection but are available from the USGS website.

7.5 Minute Series Maps, Scale 1:31680

Maps in this series were first published in the late 1930s and had a scale of 1:31680 until the mid 1950s.

This collection is complete in its geographic coverage of Massachusetts. Some of the earlier maps in this series covering the northern border of Massachusetts cover areas in Vermont and New Hampshire that were not surveyed. For these maps the area north of the Massachusetts border is not covered and appears as all white.

15 Minute Series Maps, Scale 1:62500

This series includes the first maps published by the USGS of New England. There was complete geographic coverage of southern New England by about 1900. The USGS stopped publishing new 15 minute series maps of southern New England in about 1920 so we have no newer maps in this series for Massachusetts unless they overlap the border with New Hampshire or Vermont.

In some cases it is clear that the areas south of the Massachusetts border were not revised. The Groton 1935 quadrangle stands out in this respect as a rail line was built after the original edition was surveyed. The rail line exists on the map in New Hampshire but not south of the border even though it continued on south to Ayer, Massachusetts.

30 Minute Series Maps, Scale 1:125000

Very few of these maps appear to exist. We have six covering parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts. They were created from the surveys for the 15 minute series maps that were done before 1900.

Edition, Survey, and Revision Dates

Nearly all of the maps have an edition date and one or more survey and revision dates. The survey and revision dates are listed for each map when available, along with the edition date. For more recent maps the type of survey (aerial photographs, etc.) is also listed. The survey and revision dates can typically be found in the lower left corner of the maps and are the best gauge of the age of the content of the map but not the map itself.

Edition dates (in the lower right hand corner) can be confusing because the USGS has changed how these are assigned over time. For the earliest maps in the 1890s new edition dates were assigned nearly every time the map was reprinted. We have not collected each edition when this is the case and have relied on the survey dates to distinguish between maps. Later this date was kept for reprintings and the date was roughly the year the map was first published. Some list a “reprinted” date as well.

As best we can tell sometime in 1951 the policy for edition dates was changed and the date of the last survey has been used. This can lead to some confusion as to whether the content of one map is different from another. For example, in the collection, we have Fryeburg, Maine 15 minute series quadrangles with edition dates of 1909 and 1911. On the 1909 map there is a small line with the date 1964. The two maps are really the same with the earlier one actually being a reprint made much later.

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