The quintessential Colton railroad map of America.

Colton’s Intermediate Railroad Map of the United States.


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Date: 1882
Place: New York
Dimensions: 136 x 228 cm (53½ x 82 in)
Condition Rating: VG+


For almost a hundred years, it was impossible to speak of or imagine a railroad map of America without automatically implying that it came from the Colton firm. The Colton firm was so commercially successful that between 1850 and 1887, it constituted the single biggest mapmaker and map-seller in North America and distributed tens of thousands of railroad maps across the young nation during its most formative years. 

This gorgeous example of such a railroad map was produced in 1882. It was so monumental that it needed to be issued in eight separate sheets (later joined to constitute four), each backed on linen and all fitting elegantly into the original slipcase from London-based map seller Edward Stanford. That the map was prepared and sold in England rather than the United States is a tell-tale sign behind the Colton success and a theme to which we shall return shortly.

An incredible level of detail always characterized Colton maps. Land ownership is indicated in the more western states – including Texas, Louisiana, and Kansas – revealing how extensive some of the early land grabs had been. By 1882, most states or territories had been defined, so we find them present and labeled. Nevertheless, there are also remnants of an older world present in this map. Oklahoma, for example, does not yet exist, and most of what would soon be known as the panhandle state is still labeled as ‘Indian Territory’ on this map.

Above all, this was a map made for the countless travelers and emigrants that gathered all their belongings and moved west during the latter half of the 19th century. Others were keen to explore this young nation, which, during the 19th century, had expanded twice to virtually triple in size (Louisiana Purchase in 1802 and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848). The broad new national horizons needed to be explored to be fully appreciated and incorporated into the nation. Consequently, the late 19th century was a period of mass emigration west and the dawn of America’s travel and tourism industry. 

Hopeful emigrants and intrepid travelers alike used maps like the one on offer to plan and execute their journey. In such a setting, it is unsurprising that there was a pressing need for accurate railroad maps. Colton’s large four-part map does not disappoint, for it conveys not only the extent of America’s growing railway infrastructure but also meticulously notes and labels every single stop along the lines. Having been published during a time of incredible momentum – especially regarding the construction of new railroads – the map also includes dashed lines to indicate those routes still under construction. These planned routes cemented how up-to-date the map was at a time when the face of America was changing rapidly and irrevocably.



The Colton firm produced a large number of maps, especially pertaining to the railroads. As is often the case, some were more successful and printed in larger editions than others, causing certain Colton maps to be common while others are exceedingly rare. This particular railroad map from 1882 is among the scarcest Colton maps on the market.

The OCLC lists only two institutional copies (no. 5565078): one at the Library of Congress (digital ID and the other at Pennsylvania State University. The low OCLC number indicates how early this particular map was considered worthy of being archived for posterity.


George Woolworth Colton and Charles B. Colton

Colton & Co: The Colton mapmaking company was founded by Joseph Hutchins Colton in 1831. A native son of Massachusetts, Colton set up his firm in the metropolis of New York, drawing at first on established cartographers and engravers (e.g. David H. Burr and Samuel Stiles) to license maps. By the 1840s, however, the Colton firm was producing its own maps. They produced anything the market desired, from massive and impressive wall-maps to pockets guides, folding maps, immigrant guides, and atlases. One of the things that set the Colton company aside from many of its contemporaries in terms of quality, was the insistence that only steel plate engravings be used for Colton maps. These created much more well-defined print lines, allowing even minute features and labels to stand out clearly.

In the 1850s Colton’s two sons, George Woolworth and Charles B., were brought on board to the firm. This inaugurated a process of expansion in which the company began taking international commissions and producing wholly independent maps and charts.

Condition Description

Printed on 8 sheets, joined into 4 sheets, backed with linen and sectioned for folding, with old slipcase of English bookseller Edward Stanford. The 4 sheets each measure approx. 68 x 114 cm (26¾ x 41 in) plus margins. Slight toning and dust soiling, a few neat repairs, a few short splits at dissections, very good.


Ristow, Walter W. American Maps and Mapmakers: Commercial Cartography in the Nineteenth Century. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1985; pp. 318-21, fig. 19-10.

Modelski, Railroad Maps of the United States, #60.