Paper towns and trap streets: when mapmakers get it wrong on purpose

Argleton: actually a collection of fields. What's going on, Google? Image: Google Maps.

Bad news, folks. Much as we like to rely on them, and, in fact, view them as a lone source of stability in a confusing and ever-changing world, maps can be wrong. And not just wrong by accident. Wrong on purpose. 

The reason for this actually stems from maps' very purpose: that is, their attempts to accurately represent of the world around us. If you’re just documenting what’s already there, there’s nothing to stop other map-makers copying your work – and, if you’re as accurate as you’d like to be, you’d have no way to prove that they’d done so. 

So, to protect their work, many cartographers fall back on a simple trick: “easter eggs”. These are small errors or jokes buried somewhere in the map, which act as a kind of watermark for the map-maker: fake towns, say, or imaginary streets. This is great for map companies; but less great for those of us led astray by the mistakes.  


Mount Richard

In the 1970s, the official map of Boulder County, Colorado, contained a very misleading feature indeed. According to Mark Monmonier's How to Lie with Maps, the sketch of the Rocky Mountains included a peak called Mount Richard, which, as you may have guessed, didn’t exist. Sorry, confused mountain climbers. 

It’s assumed that this was a matter of avoiding imitation – though the coincidence of its drafters name, Richard Ciacci, suggests ego might have had something to do with it, too. 

London's trap streets

According to a BBC2 programme broadcast in 2005, London’s A-Z street atlas contains around 100 “trap streets”: made-up roads used to trick imitators. Most are small, connecting streets between larger arteries, such as Moat Lane in Finchley.

There are other idiosyncrasies, too – for a while, Haggerston park appeared to have its own ski slope:

Agloe, New York

This example is particularly uncanny, as the fake settlement (often called a “paper town”) actually became a reality. In the 1930s, cartographers placed a non-existant town called Agloe on a map of Delaware county, New York state. In 1950, a general store was built in the area. It was near “Agloe” on the map, so its owners named it “Agloe General Store”.

Beatosu and Goblu

OK, this one doesn’t have much to do with copyright at all. Beatosu and Goblu were two made-up Ohio towns, inserted into the 1978-79 official map of the neighbouring state of Michigan. Go Blue was the slogan of the University of Michigan; Ohio State University (OSU) was its rival. Peter fletcher, chairman of the state highway commission and University of Michigan alumnus, asked the map's cartographer to include the fake towns as a dig at his rival college.

You gotta get your kicks somewhere, I guess. 

Argleton 

This was a mysterious town marked out on Google Maps near the West Lancashire village of Aughton. It was discovered, and brought to the internet's attention, by Mike Nolan, an employee at Edge Hill University, in 2008, but was only removed last year.

Google have kept quiet on their reasoning for the town’s existence, and the long interlude before its removal – though it’s possible that, like creators of physical maps, they just wanted a way to protect their content.

Alternatively, keen-eyed commentators have pointed out that the town’s name is an anagram for “Not Real G” and “Not Large”. (Also, according to our independent research, ”Angle Rot” and “No Gel Rat”). Perhaps we’ll never know. 

 
 
 
 

Tatton MP Esther McVey thinks Leeds is south of Birmingham for some reason

Great hair, though: Esther McVey. Image: Getty.

Earlier this morning, while everyone was focused on the implosion of the Labour party, former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey decided it was the perfect moment to promote her campaign against High Speed 2.

A quick reminder of the route of the proposed high speed rail link. Phase One will run from London to Birmingham. Should Phase Two ever go ahead, it will split just beyond Birmingham to create a y-shaped network, with one arm running to Manchester and the other to Leeds.

The map McVey tweeted this morning suggests that she doesn't know this. But that is, at worst, the seventh worst thing about the map, because, look:

Let’s look at that a big more closely:

Yep. How many things are wrong with it? Let’s count.

1) Manchester is not east of Leeds;

2) Leeds is not south of Birmingham;


3) Both Manchester and Leeds are further from London than Birmingham, rather than, as this map suggests, closer;

4) To get from London to Manchester you kind of have to pass Birmingham, Esther;

5) There is no railway line that runs from London to Leeds to Birmingham because that would be a really stupid way round, what with Leeds being quite a long way north of Birmingham;

6) Should the government decide to boost the north by scrapping Hs2 and improving east-west lines instead, those improved east-west lines will not cross the proposed route of HS2 Phase One because they are quite a long way to the north of it.

Okay I'm going to stop there and get back to staring at the flaming bin fire that we loving call the Labour party. But for the record, Esther: I'm not taking advice on transport policy from anyone who doesn't know where Leeds is.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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