Places That Aren’t There

wessex map
Map showing the Wessex of Thomas Hardy’s novels.

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
– Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

There are places that we have heard of, read about, and perhaps even seen on a map, but they don’t exist. Or, at least, they don’t exist in the world we walk through today.

These places appeal to me. You are reading now about a place called Paradelle that exists online but cannot be found (yet!) on maps. Maps and imaginary places have fascinated me since I was a kid. It started with places in novels (like Treasure Island) which led me to love maps, which led me to draw maps and write about my own imaginary places.

When I was teaching middle school, I had my students create maps of the fictional settings of novels they read. Even if the setting was a “real” place or based on a real place, the maps needed things that you wouldn’t find on existing maps – the empty lot or the church that burns down in The Outsiders; the roads and ranches in Of Mice and Men; Scout Finch’s hometown and Boo’s tree in To Kill a Mockingbird or where Romeo, Juliet, Benvolio or Friar Lawrence lived in Shakespeare’s play.

I started a novel years ago that was set in Camptown, New Jersey. That is a town that did exist on maps at one time. It changed its name to Irvington. But my Camptown is a blended town that mixed my hometown of Irvington with other places I have lived along with things I wish were included in the place where I live. The river that runs through the town is all the rivers and creeks and streams I have known. It is the Elizabeth River that I knew as a boy, the Peckman River that runs through where I now live and the Passaic River. That river cuts across New Jersey and is sourced from a now-swampy glacial lake that dinosaurs edged up to for a drink. It spills spectacularly over the Great Falls in Paterson and on to Newark Bay, New York Harbor, the Hudson River and out to the Atlantic Ocean.  As I wandered along riverbanks and paths such as the Lenape trails around me as a child and adult, stories were always coming to me from the past.

All this came to mind back in 2015 when I saw ads for the film Paper Towns which is based on a novel by John Green.  You’ll see the novel and maybe even the film labeled as for “young adults” but that is a term I never liked. Are Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird young adult novels just because they are often read by young adults? Green is a very popular novelist among teenagers, but a lot of adults know his writing either from his book, The Fault in Our Stars, or the film version of his bookJohn Green tweetedCelebrating the release of #papertowns with a road trip to a place that wasn’t, then was, then wasn’t, and now…is?”

In that novel, the character Quentin loves, loses and searches for Margo.  Clues lead Q to believe that Margo may be possibly hiding out (or buried) in one of the many abandoned subdivision projects (also known as “pseudovisions”) around Orlando, Florida. Those turn out to be dead ends, but he does find a map in an abandoned strip mall which he then connects with another map he made in an attempt to locate her. He matches up the holes from the pushpins in the mall map to his map and this leads him to believe that she is hiding in Agloe, New York.  He and some friends skip graduation and head to Agloe to find her.

I read the novel and since I first wrote this post in 2015, I have seen the film. I liked both of them and it led me to dig deeper into these imagined towns.

map
Fictional “copyright trap” showing Agloe, New York. This is a real 1998 Esso state map of New York, United States.

The Agloe in the novel is/was a fictional place in Delaware County, New York, that became an actual landmark, if not a real town.

In the 1930s, two mapmakers (Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers) made an anagram of their initials and placed it as a town at the intersection of NY 206 and Morton Hill Road, north of the real town of Roscoe, New York.

Were they merry pranksters? No. The town was meant as a “copyright trap.” It turns out that mapmakers sometimes place a fictitious place on their maps so that if someone plagiarizes it, they have a way to easily check.

However, in the 1950s, a general store was built at that intersection and was named the Agloe General Store.

agloe store-001

The fictional town appeared on Esso (now Exxon) gas station road maps that were widely distributed. Agloe appeared on a Rand McNally map and Esso threatened to sue Rand McNally for copyright infringement. But that never happened because Rand McNally pointed out that the place had now become “real” and therefore no infringement could be established.

That store went out of business, but Agloe continued to appear on maps until about 25 years ago when it was deleted.

But – update –  it appears in Google Maps and the very official United States Geological Survey which added “Agloe (Not Official)” to the Geographic Names Information System database in February 2014.

Places that aren’t there are nothing new and there are lots of examples.  There are the ones created by writers, such as Stephen King’s Castle Rock and Derry, Maine, and Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. In my abandoned novel, I considered placing Camptown in the county of Wessex in New Jersey as the western portion of the real county of Essex.

There are also places created by mapmakers.  Besides the paper towns, another copyright-protection technique is to include a “trap street” on a map. This fictitious street on a map, often outside the area the map nominally covers, has also been used as a way of trapping copyright violators. Alternatives are nonexistent towns, rivers or perhaps a mountain with the intentionally wrong elevation inserted for the same purpose. Of course, you don’t want to add something that confuses users or just looks like an unintentional mistake. The mapmaker may add nonexistent bends to a street, or depict a major street as a narrow lane, without changing its location or its connections to other streets.

Phantom settlements are settlements that appear on maps but do not actually exist. They can be accidents or copyright traps. Some examples are Argleton, Lancashire, UK and Beatosu and Goblu, Ohio, USA.

map
The Zeno map of 1558 shows Frisland – a phantom island in the North Atlantic

As a lover of islands, I have always had an interest in “phantom islands.”  They are islands that appeared on maps for a period of time (sometimes centuries) during recorded history, but were later removed after it was proven not to exist.

These are not copyright traps. They often came from reports of early sailors exploring new waters. Some were purely mythical, such as the Isle of Demons or Atlantis. Sometimes actual islands were mislocated or just a plain old mistake. The Baja California Peninsula appears on some early maps as an island but was later discovered to be attached to the mainland of North America. Some phantom islands were probably due to navigational errors, misidentification of icebergs, or optical illusions due to fog or poor conditions.

An interesting subset are islands that existed and were destroyed by volcanic explosions, earthquakes, submarine landslides, or rising waters and erosion. Pactolus Bank, visited by Sir Francis Drake, may fit into this category. It was discovered by Captain W.D. Burnham on the American ship Pactolus on November 6, 1885.

It has been postulated that this was the sunken location of Elizabeth Island, discovered by Sir Francis Drake’s ship the Golden Hinde in 1578. Drake anchored off an island which he named “Elizabeth Island,” (for Queen Elizabeth I) where wood and water were collected and seals and penguins were captured for food, along with “herbs of great virtue.” According to Drake’s pilot, their position at the anchorage was 57°S. However, no island has been confirmed at that latitude. A map was drawn by a priest that accompanied Drake, Francis Fletcher.

Elizabeth Island might be a good setting for another novel – or for my Paradelle.

Francis Fletcher’s map of Elizabeth Island

In this video, John Green talks about finding Agloe on an old Esso road map

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Ken

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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