Matthew Erickson

The Resuspended City

Camille Dry’s colossal 1875 panoramic lithograph of St. Louis rivals Google Maps in its precision, its scope, and its Collection of random dudes standing idly on street corners

Discussed: The Cholera Epidemic of 1849, Immobile Acres of Life, The Sistine Chapel of Panoramic Maps, Sprawling Viral Trajectories, Map Publishing, Twenty-Eight-Year Cartographic Burnout, Ill-Fated Canal Companies, Overwhelming Intricacy, The Day That Modern Architecture Died, Hot-Air-Balloon Assistance

Near the intersection of two rural thoroughfares—each broad road dotted with horse-drawn hay carts and carriages the size of dimes—stands a wide cemetery of a few dozen graves. Rows of leafy trees project slats of shade over the tombstones, some shaped as simple blocks and others bearing upright crosses. A broad pond sits just north of the cemetery grounds, glimmering dully gray and black within the surrounding pastoral landscape. Almost too small to see, at the cemetery’s arched entrance gate stand two figures, a formally dressed couple approaching the graves. About fifty yards behind them on the path, a family of four makes its way toward the cemetery in a miniature phalanx. The husband wears a hat and coat, his wife wears a dark short-brimmed hat and a black dress that trails in the dirt behind her. Their two children walk between them, a possibly teenage boy nearly the height of his father, and a toddler clutching the mother’s hand. A colossal piece of text, each letter the size of one of the nearby houses, hovers like a low mist above the scene. The people making their way toward the cemetery are oblivious to the floating message, which reads old picotte cemetery. Chances are they know it by a different name: the same plot was variously called Old Picker’s Cemetery, Piggott, Vickert, and Riddle. Prior to these, in 1845 it was officially known as Holy Ghost Evangelical and Reformed Cemetery. Many victims of the city’s devastating cholera epidemic of 1849, which killed nearly 10 percent of the local population, were buried there.

Like plots in a graveyard, sites on a map are the eternal resting places for the once-bustling activity of human life: here lies the halted movement of history. Though the visitors to this cemetery are presumably fictitious mourners—one cartographer’s set of emotional placeholders, akin to the artificial pedestrians of an architectural model—the bodies in the graves, though unnamed, must be actual characters from the city’s narrative.

These immobile acres of life, from the turn of the twentieth century in St. Louis, Missouri, represent only a fragment of the immense panoramic map called Pictorial St. Louis, Metropolis of the Mississippi Valley: A Topographical Survey Drawn in Perspective A.D. 1875. Charted by the nomadic draftsman Camille Dry, the map is widely considered the pinnacle of the form, and one of the more impressive feats of mapmaking in the modern era. Cartographic historians have called it “the most ambitious of all American city views” and “the Sistine Chapel of panoramic maps.” As the largest such map ever produced, Dry’s project remains staggering in its size: if each of the 110 individual lithographic plates were separated from their binding and assembled into a full tapestry, with each plate measuring eleven inches by eighteen inches, the full map of the city would sprawl out to an eight-by-twenty-four-foot spread.

There are panoramic—or “city view” or “bird’s-eye view”—maps of nearly every American metropolis from this time period, though none is as precise, lucid, or sweeping as Dry’s portrait of St. Louis. In the nineteenth century, the single largest genre of printed lithographs comprised these city views. People craved vistas of their towns from above, whether they lived in Tacoma, Washington, or Trenton, New Jersey. Most of these maps show a similar arc of development, regardless of the city they depict: we can see an urban core along a waterfront in the foreground, a dense residential segment in the middle of the picture plane, tapering off into a variously rural landscape peppered with occasional dwellings in the background. The panoramas from this era show the seeds of urban expansion, radiating outward in rough concentric circles like the rings of a tree. We can usually predict the sprawling viral trajectory with which the emerging city will overtake the idyllic landscape, although St. Louis would prove to be a sad exception.

In the spring of 1874, Dry arrived in St. Louis to begin preliminary sketches for his map. He was one of the few dozen notable cartographer-artists who made a living charting the country’s rapidly expanding urbanism and feeding the national appetite for panoramic maps. In the three years before his arrival in Missouri, Dry was remarkably productive and had already drawn maps of nearly a dozen burgeoning communities throughout the southeastern US, with panoramas of Vicksburg, Mississippi; Galveston, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; Raleigh, North Carolina; Norfolk, Virginia, and several others all bearing his imprint. The considerable scale of Pictorial St. Louis, both artistically and materially, made it a far more labor-intensive project than any of these previous maps. Anticipating today’s fusion of marketing and mapmaking technologies, the map’s publisher, Richard J. Compton, partially funded the map’s production by selling small advertisements for local businesses and industries—breweries, pork houses, brick works, and foundries, among others—which were numbered on the rooftops, indexed, and written up as paragraph-long footnotes. The index within the bound map-book featured 112 pages of these thinly disguised advertisements, which followed the 110 illustrated cartographic plates of the city view. The final product, which was fairly lavish in its production value, retailed at $25 per copy (around $530 today); many copies were sold through advance subscriptions that Compton had advertised in the local newspapers. In its time, the project undersold and ended up being a wash financially, more ruinous for Compton than for Dry, who appears to have suffered only a severe case of cartographer’s burnout after completing the drawing process. He would make his next map in 1903, some twenty-eight years later.

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Matthew Erickson has written for Parkett, the Wire, Frieze, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Gladtree Journal and a few other publications.

Detail of Camille Dry’s Pictorial St. Louis
Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

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