Take a Virtual Tour of Ancient Manhattan

Reading Time: 2 minutes

New York City is one of the world’s top tourist destinations. Yet the rise of the greatest city in the world has obliterated most traces of what the island was like before Henry Hudson sailed into New York Bay.

But now everyone can take a virtual tour of ancient Manhattan, circa 1609. The tour shows Manhattan and the surrounding land in its original shape and topography. They’re all there: the salt marshes, ponds, rivers and native settlements, all available at the click of a mouse.

Mannahatta by Eric W. SandersonMannahatta by Eric W. Sanderson

Mannahatta by Eric W. Sanderson, illustrated by Markley Boyer

The virtual tour is part of the Mannahatta Project, a decade-long project of the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo. It includes not only the website but a beautifully illustrated hardcover book, and an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York that closes on October 12.

I found the book when I was researching for a fiction story I’m writing set in ancient Manhattan. I quickly discovered that information on this period is scarce. When I found this book, I thought “hey! someone wrote a research book just for me!”

It’s more than a dry list of maps, it’s a fascinating comparison of now and then and a detective story that relied on modern technology for the solution.

The project started with the discovery of a detailed map created by the British military in 1782. This inspired the Wildlife Conservation Society to re-create the island all the way back to 1609 when Henry Hudson sailed in New York Bay. The re-creation relied on old maps, soil cores, and other information which was fed into a geographic information system (GIS) database developed for the project. The result is a virtual map that can be laid over present-day Manhattan with an error of less than 40 meters, or half a block.

I won’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent, clicking on various neighborhoods, comparing past and present. Definitely a site I go geeky for.

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