I fell down another rabbit hole recently and finally figured out how to make nice maps. I’ve always loved studying and drawing maps. In the railroad business it is “no map, no meeting” according to the famed railroader Jim McClelland. I had, for years, done lousy work using Paint to illustrate concepts, while it gets the point across, the results are really unprofessional.
In my post on anthracite coal, I really wanted to include a map to illustrate the various tariff routes between the coal region and the B&A. I attempted a version in Paint and junked it because it was going to be too much work for a lousy result. A week later I needed to create some maps for work. Although the results would have been good enough, I was really sick of working with Paint. With that I went out looking for something better to use. George Sebastian-Coleman of Trains says they use Adobe Illustrator, which I’m sure is great but you need to pay a monthly subscription to use. I went looking for a freeware replacement for Adobe Illustrator and found Inkscape.
To quote Wikipedia,
Inkscape is a free and open source vector graphics editor used to create vector images, primarily in Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) format. Other formats can be imported and exported.
Inkscape can render primitive vector shapes (e.g. rectangles, ellipses, polygons, arcs, spirals, stars and 3D boxes) and text. These objects may be filled with solid colors, patterns, radial or linear color gradients and their borders may be stroked, both with adjustable transparency. Embedding and optional tracing of raster graphics is also supported, enabling the editor to create vector graphics from photos and other raster sources. Created shapes can be further manipulated with transformations, such as moving, rotating, scaling and skewing.
I read a little about the basics of Inkscape and then found a tutorial for hobby map making online at Deviant Art. I followed along and created a map of the Akron Canton & Ohio’s line across the Buckeye State. AC&Y is about as simple a railroad to map as can be imagined a good choice. Every step took some effort to work through, but I got it done. With that done, I had a much better idea on how to attack a more serious project.
First Real Result
With the basics under my belt I then put together a map for my blog post. On this one, I watched some YouTube tutorials as I went along and learned some short cuts. For base maps, I used a snip of Norfolk Southern’s 2016 system map as the primary map and also fitted an old map of the anthracite fields over it so I could outline those areas. Below you can see what I was able to come up with. I hit pretty close to the mark I was aiming for. That I was able to do something like this almost from jump street speaks to how easy the software was to learn to use (or at least learn to use when you really want to learn).
Looking at it in the light of day, I see a bunch of stuff I’d do differently now that I know more about the tools and how it looks when posted through WordPress. First off, saving the SVG as a PNG file reduces the size and pixilates the image, then posting to WordPress further reduces the size.
Opening these in a new window, by right clicking on it it and selecting the first option in the drop down menu, produces an image only abut 5% larger, but with much better appearance. If I were to redo this one I would use slightly larger and more readable fonts, improve the contrast for the state labels and turn the basemap onto the north-south access. I will also be able to do a better job with the coast line next time too.
With that under my belt, I went out and tried to duplicate the style that Trains used in the early 1990s. I charted out the surviving routes of Erie Lackawanna, just to have something to do (also in honor of Conrail Day 4/1/76!). I quit before I was finished, mainly because I proved to myself that this was a workable program and I wasn’t all that interested in the final result….you can check out how far I got below (again, this wasn’t designed to have the file compressed to post on WordPress – the printed version on 11 x 17″ paper looks perfect).
All that said, for a first try, I am really happy with the way this came out and will be able to do the next ones much faster. I might try and duplicate the style Trains used in the 1960’s to illustrate topics on this site (lots of Futura and bold Century Gothic) or try to match their current style which usually features a highly transparent satellite image below. Another skill added to the toolbox.