Looking at an old map of your hometown gives a snapshot of barely remembered local history. Taking a glance at a framed 1895 map of North Kingstown at Picture This in Wakefield, for example, reveals the precise route taken by the Newport and Wickford railroad – from Wickford Junction to the former ferry terminal on Pojac Point; the intersection of Post Road and Ten Rod Road was once mysteriously known as Coalition Corners.
Most Rhode Islanders know Beavertail Point as home to Jamestown’s famous lighthouse, but old maps show that there was also once a place called Beaver Head on the island as well. “A lot of these maps have stories to tell if you just look at them,” says David O’Brien, who runs the three Picture This framing stores and galleries, along with partner Craig Berry.
Custom framing is the main business at Picture This, but over the years O’Brien and Berry have amassed an impressive collection of original maps of each city and town in Rhode Island, mostly from the 19th century. The maps of North Kingstown, Peace Dale and other local communities produced as an atlas in 1895 by Everts & Richards of Philadelphia are the most common. Framed original maps start at about $250 in the Wakefield store, ranging up to $1,295 for a rare map of Block Island.
In fact, all of the hand-colored maps are becoming harder to find and, as a result, more collectable. Never produced in large numbers, the oversized atlases also tended to be stored in basements that were flooded during the 1938 and 1954 hurricanes. Most of the old maps were destroyed.
Used by insurance companies and other businesses as well as local governments and travelers, the maps reveal just how rural South County was a century ago, with just a few scattered homes outside small mill villages and seaports. Interestingly, the maps produced in 1870 and 1895 typically omit street names, but do include the names of individual homeowners and in some cases the footprint of their houses and outbuildings.
Brick buildings are colored pink, yellow is used for wooden structures, and for stone buildings, purple. The location of stone post boundaries, used to delineate town borders, are noted, and many of these still exist. “The maps show you a lot that you can compare to today,” says O’Brien.
The maps also reveal much that has been lost. “If you look at the 1895 map of Narragansett, the contour of the land has changed,” O’Brien points out. “In Charlestown, the breachways have changed since the 1938 hurricane.” Some small islands in Narragansett Bay have simply vanished, either due to storms or because they were cleared for navigation.
O’Brien and Berry continue to acquire a handful of community maps from 1870 and 1895 at auctions, estate sales, and from people’s attics each year, but some maps have become very hard to find. Providence maps are pretty common, for example, but if you’re looking for Barrington, good luck.
Picture This also sells framed nautical and topographic maps along with original watercolors, oils and pen-and-ink works by local artists liked Edward Gordon, George Furbish and Bruce Martin, as well as images from famed local photographer Richard Benjamin. The maps are unique, however, for their practical beauty, historic detail and distinctive clientele. “One thing about maps is that they’re boy toys,” says O’Brien. “Guys love maps.”