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Historic Aerials: How to View Your Property 50 Years in the Past

By Edited May 22, 2015 4 2
Historic Aerials
Credit: mjpyro

If you are lucky and live in the right area of the United States, you may be able to view an aerial of the property as it looked as far back as 50 years ago. It depends on whether or not the Agriculture Department in your state took aerial photos of counties during the decades leading up to satellite photography.

After World War II, state governments begin to document land and how it was being use. There were no satellites at the time of course, so they flew over their territories and took photos from airplanes from as high as 10,000 feet.

Obviously based on that type technology at the time, detail in the old aerial photos is somewhat lacking, however if you are lucky and live in certain parts of the country, your state probably has photos somewhere on microfiche of the location of your property and how it looked at various yearly intervals going all the way back to 1947, sometimes further back in the past.

If you live in the middle of New York City in an apartment building, this would not mean much to you, although you might be able to notice the way various buildings had changed. Well, that is if the state agriculture department of New York even bothered to fly over Manhattan. There was not a lot of farm land in the heart of New York City back then, but there are enough historic photos of that city from other sources that you probably have already seen the area from another time period.

But if you live in practically any other location, especially in the north and southeast, and the Midwest, you can access those records online by going to historicaerials.com and inputting your address.

If you live in a subdivision or neighborhood plan, you can go back more than 60 years to see what was happening in your location and follow the progress up to the present, usually in about 10 year increments.

When viewing historic aerial photos, there is one annoying aspect that you will have to deal with and that is the site’s watermark on their images reminding you that it is for non-commercial use. However, they do not really interfere with anything and you can purchase maps from the site that have the watermark removed.

So I would like to show you a screen shot of the site, but I am afraid I would violate the copyright, so you will have to go check it out on your own.

How to View Your Property 50 Years in the Past
Credit: Historic Aerials

Tips for Using the Site

When you go to the site, put an address in the location and search. The site is very slow. I am not sure how the site is set up or how it accesses the data but it will take a few seconds to load your address.

The result will vary depending on your location. Remember, these are aerial photos, not satellite photos, so if you lived in a more populace area, they probably flew over your area more often, so you will have more data to play around with.

I checked two different properties, one in the suburbs of a major city and the other in a much more rural area to see an aerial view of my house. The more urban location’s latest maps were from 2007, while the rural location was last updated in 2006. The former went back to 1955 while the latter went back to 1947.

To zoom in on the area, scroll your mouse wheel. It will take a second to reload with a zoomed shot of the historical aerials.

Using OverLays

The site features a drop-down menu for selecting options for overlaying the map. You can choose to show all major roads, all roads, counties and cities.

Compare

This is the most interesting feature on the site. The Compare menu offers a choice for Slide and Dissolve.

Once selected, the screen splits. You have a set of dates on the left and right, with a slide bar in the middle of the screen.

Compare allows you to look at your property in the present day (or as close to it as possible) and a previous decade by selecting a different year on the right for example. The right hand side of the screen will then reload with historical aerial imagery from that time frame.

If you selected "Slide", you can use the slider in the middle to slide back and forth to see the same area as it appeared in the present, and how it appeared in 1955 for example. You will probably see that your house was in the middle of an open field or a forest decades ago.

There is also a “Dissolve” feature that will remove features and replace with the modern version as you slide from side to side, but I prefer the “Compare Slide” option.

Survey Tools

The site features a couple of options to survey an area in square feet or note the coordinates of a particular mark.

Archaeology from Historical Aerial and Satellite Archives
Amazon Price: $149.00 $106.80 Buy Now
(price as of May 22, 2015)

Summary

If you want to see an aerial view of your property as far back as 50 years ago, this is probably the only option you have if you are fortunate enough to be covered by the site. Some of the modern imagery may be filled in with satellite imagery, it just depends on your area.

In fact, parts of the western part of the USA is sketchy, but again, it depends on the location. Some parts use modern imagery after 2000 and only have a couple of historic views from the past. For instance, I looked up Billings, Montana and it had a view from 1955, but it was of terrible quality.  do not know if it is because those records do not exist, or the site simply does not have access to them.

The site is slow and not very high tech, so you will never confuse it with Google Earth, but it is very interesting to see your property.

If you like what you see, you can purchase higher quality images of varying sizes through the site. 

For more modern imagery with up-to-date views, Google Earth offers the best satellite maps.

In any event, the site is great time waster and allows you a glimpse into the past as you watch areas that you know change from decade to decade.

Historical Atlas of the United States: With Original Maps
Amazon Price: $47.95 $24.95 Buy Now
(price as of May 22, 2015)
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Comments

Jul 14, 2014 5:46pm
dogman007
Interesting article. Thanks for putting it together.
Jul 16, 2014 11:06pm
mentored1
Very cool site and excellent work on the article.
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