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Chicago, the Last Great Capital of Cartography

As America grew in the late 19th century, so did mapmaking—and Chicago was at the heart of it.
Rand McNally's "new" official railroad map of the United States and southern Canada, 1920.
Rand McNally's "new" official railroad map of the United States and southern Canada, 1920.Library of Congress

If there's a capital of commercial mapmaking in the U.S. today, it's probably in Silicon Valley. But from the late 19th century to the post-World War II era, Chicago was America's city of maps.

Strategically located at the edge of the West, Chicago quickly became the country's largest railroad hub in the mid 19th century, a position it exploited to tremendous economic and demographic growth. What began as a lakeside outpost with fewer than 200 residents in 1833 was home to more than one million people by 1890. By 1930, some 3,376,438 Chicagoans crammed within city limits of more than 210 square miles. The population peaked in 1950.