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Forty million people are expected to visit the New York World's Fair this year, 1.5 million are sure to stare at the bears in Yellowstone, Zion National Park will consider its gorge ungorgeous if it does not draw 700,000, and the lowliest Scenic Overlook is set to rival the drabbest Point of Interest in trying to be the first to break its attendance record. America, in short, is off on its annual highway march, and it is certain that it will go forth and will get back, all without knowing that it owes a debt to the ingenuity of a Mr. William Akin of Pittsburgh and to the enterprise of such duster-and-veil-era motorists as Emily Post, who popularized touring for what it often still is—an adventuresome sport.
It was Mr. Akin who thought of that unique U.S. institution, the free road map, and who thus became the founder of one of the smallest, most secretive, most competitive and least credited segments of the tourist business.
In this modern age 200 million road maps a year are being donated to U.S. motorists by oil companies. The object of this generosity is the same as it was half a century ago: give the American tourist an idea that there is someplace he ought to see, and he will not rest easy until he sees it, burning untold gas and oil in the process. At first the places to see were pretty basic stuff, say Chicago or Mount Hood. But then began a conflict among the companies to put more and better landmarks on their maps than their competitors could offer. The more America travels, the sterner the struggle gets. A new Tidewater Oil Company map of New York and Long Island, for instance, lists 167 yacht and boat clubs that visitors may want to know about, 65 airports and seaplane bases, 184 golf and country clubs and 435 Points of Interest. Some of these may be of doubtful interest to visitors from the provinces—seeing the Rikers Island Penitentiary would make for a dull Sunday afternoon—but more often the Points of Interest on road maps quicken an obscure curiosity. What is that House of Mystery near Artist Lake on Long Island? What is the Zwaanendael House? How does one get to the narrow-gauge railroad that runs through the cranberry bogs near Buzzards Bay? What is the Weaverville Joss House in northern California, hard by Glass Mountain? And why is Glass Mountain given a parenthetical description: "(A Mass of Jet Black Obsidian Glass!")? What roads lead to Craters of the Moon National Monument, so tersely described on the map as "Weird and impressive. Contains many caves and craters. Closely resembles the surface of the moon"?
Since the highways and back roads have been so thoroughly mapped in these past 50 years, the mapmakers obviously have been driven to some extremes in finding Points of Interest that are really interesting. So new mapmaking trails are blazed. Free road maps have become the sportsman's guide. For years many maps indicated prime fishing and hunting country. For example, the Chevron Points of Interest and Touring Map of Idaho, produced by the Goush� Company, carried a line about Pend Oreille Lake: "Famed for its huge Kamloops trout which sometimes attain 30 or more pounds in weight." But the new maps, like Shell's fishing guides to Arkansas and Louisiana, are marked with different symbols to show the different species of fish to be caught in every important river and lake in the state, along with the roads to them, campgrounds and boat-launching sites.
Mr. Akin began all this on a glorious day in 1914. He was driving his 1912 Chalmers down Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh when his great idea occurred to him. The reason he was driving on Baum Boulevard was that there were not many other streets suitable for motoring. A court battle had prevented the building of trolley lines, which made Baum and Grant Boulevard, connecting with it, "favorite grounds for automobiling," according to Pittsburgh How to See It, a contemporary guidebook. The drive from one extremity to the other took eight minutes. But even such an ardent motorist as Mr. Akin grew a little tired of shuttling back and forth in eight-minute dashes, in spite of the inspiring view of the beautiful residences high above the Monongahela River. So it came to Mr. Akin that if maps were readily available of the country that lay beyond, motorists would venture upon these distant roads, and in the process they would have to buy larger quantities of gasoline.
Hurrying home to the Ansonia Apartments, he made a rough 10-by-12-inch map of the area. The next morning he carried it to the office of Gale Nutty, the manager of The Gulf Refining Co., then a small company housed on the 18th floor of an annex of the Frick Building. Mr. Akin proposed that the maps be mailed free to anybody who owned a car. The competitive situation in the oil business was so tough at this time that Akin would probably have been warmly received if he had suggested giving away automobiles to stimulate the sale of gasoline. Mr. Nutty told Akin to get on with the free maps before they became standard procedure—as in Standard Oil. Ten thousand maps were mailed as a starter, followed by monthly maps, each suggesting a different Point of Interest reachable in a one-day auto tour from Pittsburgh. The next year 300,000 maps of the highways in the different north-eastern states were mailed to car owners in each state. Akin, who had a little advertising business of his own at the time, moved it into the Gulf office, and carried on from there. The maps were made by local draftsmen, but more and more people were required to check them and bring them up to date. Akin was soon devoting all his time to the project, and in 1917 became advertising manager of Gulf. By that time road maps were being handed out feverishly everywhere, and the oil companies were locked in a gigantic struggle to see which could give away the finest, most accurate and up-to-date. The struggle has never stopped. Each of the 200 million maps now being given away each year costs from 5� to 8�, and the oil companies are not being idly generous. They mean business.
Free road maps are an institution unique to America. The only study ever made of them was a scholarly account by Dr. Walter Ristow of The Library of Congress. He found that these maps, constantly checked by millions of motorists, have had a powerful influence on the folkways of the country. In the very early days the oil companies frequently charged each other with copying. They craftily began to insert errors in each map they made, and if these errors appeared in another company's map the titans of business would publicly lunge at each other's throats. Such deliberate errors were known as thief catchers. Working quietly away in the drafting room of an oil company, a mapmaker would dream up a small river, lake or mountain, and place it in a remote portion of a state. Or the spelling of a place-name might be adroitly changed. In some respects, the early mapmakers resembled characters in today's demented cartoons, gleefully moving communities from one road to another or making up entirely fictitious towns and placing them on some otherwise unoccupied portion of a highway. Thus the pleasant little town of Strong, Me., located on a fork of the Sandy River in the western section of the state, was briefly changed to Story, Me. on Shell maps. Over the years the thief catchers caused enormous confusion, which was complicated by the fact that free auto road maps were more widely distributed than commercial maps, so people thought the road map was right and all the other maps were wrong. Thus when an oil-company map-maker built an imaginary town it became hard to unbuild. Moreover, the oil-company maps were often better than locally manufactured products, so the local producers would change their maps as well. Thief catchers were usually removed after one edition of a map, but the errors were perpetuated on maps that were based on the original. Sometimes a small community that found its name misspelled would obligingly change to conform to the name on the map, figuring, who was it to argue with an oil company.
The greatest victim of all this geographical flummery was the pioneer motorist who drove to some spot marked on the road with the name of a town and found nothing there. "Beware of the so-called road map; it is a snare and a delusion," wrote Arthur Jerome Eddy in Two Thousand Miles in an Automobile. A road that looked good on a map might turn into a quagmire, he warned. It was necessary to ask specific questions: "Are there any sand hills? Is the road bottomless anywhere?" If one had plenty of time, it was all right to ask directions of men or boys, because they answered at length and wanted to look over the car. "Of a group of school children, the girls will answer more quickly and accurately than the boys.... If passing quickly, ask a woman."
But if maps fired imaginations and made tourism at least possible, the roads they so optimistically showed made it all but impossible. It was left to authors to chronicle the madness of early motoring and thus at the same time prove that automobile travel was 1) survivable and 2) stimulating. Books about driving cars make up a fairly extensive branch of American letters, a sort of half-commercialized subliterature, characterized by works that are good-natured, engaging, sometimes funny, often valuable history, but largely devoted to breakdowns, flat tires and getting lost. Eddy, who wrote as early as 1902, was one of the most forceful, a highway prophet of doom. "In a country so vast and sparsely settled as North America," he said, "it is not conceivable that within the next century a network of fine roads will cover the land." On the contrary, automakers had to produce better cars: "For generations to come there will be soft roads, sandy roads, rocky roads, hilly roads, muddy roads—and the American automobile must be constructed to cover them as they are."
Innumerable literary motorists believed him. "I was the first woman to cross the continent at the wheel of a motor car," Alice Huyler Ramsay wrote in Veil, Duster and Tire Iron, a work largely devoted to the progress of a Maxwell-Briscoe of 1909 over appalling roads from New York to San Francisco. A forthright Vassar girl, Miss Ramsay and a college friend entered their red Maxwell roadster in a reliability race from New York to Philadelphia and won. This so excited Carl Kelsy, the sales manager of Maxwell, that he arranged for them to drive from one Maxwell dealer to the next, all the way across the land—"The greatest promotional idea of my career!" he cried. Since his greatest previous promotional idea had been to drive a Maxwell up the grand stairway of a hotel, the girls might have been more cautious.