Watson’s New Rail­ Road and Distance Map of the United States and Canada


Cartographer(s): Gaylord Watson
Date: 1869
Place: New York
Dimensions: 127 x 93 cm (50 x 36.75 in)
Condition Rating: VG+

In stock

Watson’s New Rail­ Road and Distance Map of the United States and Canada.


This exquisite large-format railroad map — endowed with a beautiful engraving of the locomotive ‘San Francisco’ — is among the finest railroad maps of America made in the 19th century.


This striking map is essentially combining two stories: on one hand, it relays the joyous narrative of reunification and the strength that came from national unity; on the other hand, it embodies the story of how America’s western frontier was tamed by the steam engine. While the reunification narrative may have been getting old by 1869, the role played by the railroads in this reunification was still unfolding on a daily basis. It was as relevant and fresh to Americans as anything could be. One might argue then, that this map straddles the divide between American reunification maps (e.g. Colton’s Map of the United States of America, Showing the Country from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean from 1867) and the new cartographic hype surrounding the rapidly growing railroad network (e.g. The American Union Railroad Map Of The United States, British Possessions, West Indies, Mexico, And Central America from 1871).

The main map shows the railroad lines of the eastern half of the United States, until Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas. It was compiled by Gaylord Watson, engraved by Fisk & Russell, and published in New York in 1869 (see census section below). It was specifically intended to meet the demand for an up-to-date map of the growing American and Canadian railroad systems, and sought to provide a comprehensive overview of distance and connectivity within the nation. It was printed as a color lithograph and was originally issued as a folding map in a brown cloth folder with an impressed title in gilt lettering. This suggests that the original idea was to provide a portable yet comprehensive railroad map that travelers could bring with them on voyages. Nevertheless, measuring an impressive 50 by 36.75 inches (127 x 93 cm), it was also clearly a map that was meant to be taken out a looked at, or even put on public display at train stations and the like. 

The style of the map is very different from the later Watson maps of the mid 1870s. It is more diagrammatic and less romantic; there is an explicit focus on the railroad systems, but other than that, cartographic elements have been kept to the bare minimum: plotting towns and cities, applying toponyms, outlining political boundaries, and color coding states. That’s it. The map aligns with international standards by using Greenwich as one of its prime meridians, but at the same time stresses its American origin by also incorporating Washington DC as the second prime meridian in the map.

Interestingly, and unlike the preceding Colton map from 1867, which focussed largely on the reunification of a splintered nation, Watson’s map does not show the entire country. The east and south coasts are shown in ample detail (with the odd exception of Florida), but in the west, the map only reaches as far as Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska. The omission of the west on the map is puzzling, bordering on the ironic, since it was issued as a direct consequence of the completion of the first trans-continental railroad that same year. 

This decisive break-through is recognized on the map, but only in the form of an elongated inset along the top, in which the western routes of the Union Pacific Railroad have been depicted. The scope of the insert extends from Illinois and Missouri to California and the Pacific Ocean, thus incorporating the entire country’s rail road network in the map, even if significant parts of the country are omitted. Interestingly, the insert includes the both initial route opened in 1869, and the southern route, which was not completed until 1883. While this may have been more than a decade off, it was in the making, and this was an age of optimism and can-do mentality. It’s inclusion on a map like this must therefore have seemed a natural thing at the time.

The transcontinental railroad connected California and Nevada to the rest of the country in new ways and brought the pioneering cities of the Pacific, such as San Francisco and Astoria, firmly within the federal fold. Developments in the West were crucial to the economic boom experienced in the US during the latter half of the 19th century. Among the important achievements was the construction of the western railroad lines, which traversed not only the Sierras, but also the steep pinnacles and deep valleys of the Rockies. Even so, in 1869 many Americans  – and many American cartographers – still perceived the West as peripheral to the nation. The ‘East Coast outlook’ of this map is further corroborated by the map’s other three insets found in the Atlantic Ocean. These depict the vicinities of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston respectively, symbolically elevating them to the most important urban centers in the country. The insets do not show much of the cities themselves, but rather constitute overviews of the railroad infrastructure into and around each metropolis.

In light of the contrast between the space and attention afforded the east as opposed to the west of the United States, one is almost tempted to attribute to Watson the self-absorbed outlook for which many New Yorkers have been (in)famous. A more likely motivation, however, was that this was where Watson would have found his customer base. In the late 1860s, Americans were moving west. For opportunity, for freedom, and even for leisure. The same thing applied to immigrants, most of whom crossed the Atlantic from Europe before continuing their journey west. These were the people who were going to buy this map, not the limited number of Californians or Oregnonians heading east. The fact that Watson had a keen business sense and knew how important it was to promote each map is seen from the inside of the map’s front cover, which includes a full catalogue of Watson’s previous maps.

Below the three Atlantic insets we find one of the most prominent features of this map, namely its fine engraving of the steam locomotive San Francisco. The steam engine was perhaps the greatest technological marvel of the 19th century and the leading factor in expanding and stabilizing mobility and trade over enormous distances. The spectacular engraving of the locomotive thus serves a double purpose: on one hand it immediately sets the stage and informs the viewer of this map’s main theme, on the other, it celebrates steam engine technology as the instrument of progress and prosperity. One might even argue that the choice to depict a locomotive entitled San Francisco helps to balance the skewed geographical focus of the map. The railroad theme is further underlined by the inclusion of extensive lists on both fringes of the map, which list all of the railroad tracks in America, as well as the main stations and the distances between them. Also noted is the cost of roads and equipment. With this map in hand, travelers venturing across the United States would have had all the information they needed. 


Gaylord Watson

Gaylord Watson (1833 – 1896) was an American map publisher and engraver based in New York City.

Condition Description

Excellent condition. Backed on archival linen.


Modelski, Andrew. Railroad maps of the United States, 52 (1871 edition); Rumsey 3436 (1871 edition); Phillips p. 920.