New Yorkers have spent the past four hundred years changing the coastal island they call home. It’s easy to forget (or not even realize) that Manhattan—or Mannahatta—was once a thin, marshy outcropping that protected the mainland from the ocean.

But a recent look at the earliest known map of New Amsterdam reminds us: you don’t get to eight million inhabitants without making a few landfills. Ellis Island? Built on landfill, in part. Rikers too. FDR Drive, the World Financial Center, and Battery Park City: yep, they’re all sitting on piles of dirt and trash. In fact, it’s remarkable the East River still exists—a plan from 1911 proposed infilling the river (and parts of the harbor) to reclaim fifty square miles of land.


Manhattan's topography—real and artificial—reentered public consciousness late last year, after Hurricane Sandy submerged parts of Lower Manhattan. Some engineers think it’s time to expand the shoreline even further to create “soft edges” to absorb the impact of the storm surge—a strange return to the city’s earliest incarnation as a marshland. As politicians and advocates are suddenly refocusing on the waterfront, the map is liable to change yet again—only this time, it'll be to repair and fortify the city against coming storms.

Curious to compare maps of yore to the Manhattan of today, we dug into some online archives. The GIF above begins with a map drawn in 1776 and ends with a 2004 rendition. What happened in between? This:

The Castello map is the earliest known map of the city, dating back to 1660. Wall Street was the single fortified road, while everything north of Canal was either wild or farmland. Only thirty years later, the city began its first artificial infill project: the construction of new piers along its banks.

The storied Ratzer Map, from 1770, was the subject of a long New York Times profile last year. There are only three in existence, and it's important because it shows us—in great detail—how Manhattan looked just before urbanization took hold. For example, check out Greenpoint, in Brooklyn—it was named Greenpoint because it supplied most of the growing city's produce.

A map of Manhattan in 1776, drawn by Bien and Johnson in 1878, shows the city's defenses against the British (insufficient, obviously).


William Bridges’ map of Manhattan, from 1814, shows inklings of the modern city. "Notice the Empire State Building at 34th Street and 5th Avenue," explain the writers at the Great American Grid. "At the time this map was originally drawn, that area of town was inhabited mostly by squatters, pigs, trees, and hills. The city commissioners had no idea the Empire State Building–let alone elevators, steel, or a city population of 7 million–was just over 100 years away."

This steel-engraved map by J. H. Colton, from 1836, is an interesting layering of the street grid with the old topography of pre-urban Manhattan. This was a time of explosive growth: as demand for land grew, the city began selling “water lots” along the shore, where daring entrepreneurs could create their own plots. Sometimes, engineers would sink entire ships to create a solid foundation for landfill. [Image Via Codex99].


By 1900, the original footprint of the city had expanded outwards by almost 1,000 feet on each side. This 1904 map shows us dozens of streetcar routes around the city—a vestige of public transportation long forgotten.

Manhattan in 1946 is bustling with the post-War economic boom. East River Drive (later, FDR Drive) was built along its eastern edge, which required thousands of tons of landfill. Most of the city’s public housing plots—the ones that flooded during Hurricane Sandy—were built on land created during this era.


A map that probably hails from the late 60s or early 70s shows us a close approximation to the Manhattan we know today. As the city’s economy shifted away from manufacturing, the demand for new land lessened. And in 1972, when construction started on the World Trade Center, the question of what to do with the excavated soil arose. The solution? Truck it down to the tip of the island to create Battery Park City.

And then, of course, there's the city we know today.

So tell us: what maps are we missing? Have any fascinating documents from your own city? Post 'em in the comments!