Taking Some Latitude
This is an article from the fall 2016 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Paper town, phantom settlement, trap street, cartographer’s folly, fictitious entry. Any of these may explain why you got lost on that road trip: The expressions all refer to fake landmarks on maps.
Cartographers purposely insert false details like extra roads, nonexistent mountain peaks, imagined bends in rivers, or fictional towns, so that copyright infringers don’t steal their work. Maps of the same place contain pretty much the same information, so they’re easy to plagiarize—but an obscure detail known only to the cartographer can prove who really made the map. Misleading maps also afford protection. The Soviet Union deliberately printed maps full of mistakes for 50 years and succeeded in confusing the German military during World War II.
But two paper towns on a Michigan map appeared for different reasons.
No one had ever been to either place, but “goblu” and “beatosu” showed up on the official 1978–79 road map for the state of Michigan. Peter Fletcher (A.B. ’54), chair of the state highway commission at the time, graduated from LSA with honors as a political science major. One of his pals—another U-M alum—teased Fletcher that the newly painted Mackinac Bridge bore the colors green and white, which represented Michigan State University and its football team. Couldn’t Fletcher have chosen maize and blue instead? Well, no. But he could get someone to sneak a few shout-outs to their alma mater (“Go Blue!” and “Beat OSU!”) on an official state map.
Some people noticed and complained about wasting tax dollars on a silly joke. But Fletcher had prepared a few reasonable retorts: For one thing, the map accurately represented the state of Michigan—the phantom settlements existed in northern Ohio, outside the boundaries relevant to the state map. Furthermore, Fletcher declined to accept the $60,000 per year that he could have collected while serving as chair of the state highway commission; meanwhile, the extra ink to prank the maps cost a measly $6. And anyway, said Fletcher, “We have no legal liability for anything taking place in that intellectual swamp south of Monroe.”
Nonetheless, the state government limited the print run of Fletcher’s maps, and most Michigan road maps produced for 1978–79 do not include those paper towns.
The rare first edition became a collectors’ item. It’s still available on eBay.