March 31: The First Statewide Aerial Photography Survey in the US


In 1933, Connecticut Governor Wilbur L. Cross, determined to move forward with infrastructure improvements in spite of budget constraints caused by the Great Depression, presented the State Planning Board with a formal request for an aerial photographic survey of the entire state. Governor Cross reasoned that a detailed set of photographs would be an invaluable tool that various state departments — including the water, highway, tax, and health departments — could use to plan for future projects and (perhaps most importantly) apply for federal funding.

The governor’s ambitious proposal quickly met approval by the State Planning Board, and shortly thereafter, the state hired Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc. of New York City –  an innovator in aerial photography and aviation – to carry out the project.  The Connecticut mapping project would be the first government-sponsored statewide aerial survey in U.S. history. Over the course of two months in 1934, Fairchild flew four planes in precise geometric patterns over the state .

To assure that every photograph remained true to scale, each plane carried two men, a pilot and an aviation photographer,  and flew at 100 mph at a constant altitude of 11,400 feet. Mounted in the floor of the plane, on a special mount, was a 45-pound camera  valued at between $3000 and $4000 dollars. The camera was manually operated by the aviation photographer, who was charged with keeping the camera level  (aided by a bubble-level indicator attached to the mount), and snapping a new photograph of the landscape below at a precise interval of every 25 seconds.  Mapping the entire state photographically took a total of 153 hours of flight time.

In the early days of aviation, some places marked their location on the roof of buildings, as way-finding guides for pilots. Connecticut State Library.

The 10,500 individual photographs, carefully numbered and collated, were then pieced together by employees of the Connecticut National Guard and the State Highway Department to create a massive mosaic view of the state, 31 feet high x 42 feet wide. Piecing together the photographs took almost an entire year, and the final cost of the project totaled approximately $25,000.

On March 31, 1935, in the midst of the state’s preparations for the 300th anniversary of Connecticut’s founding, the Hartford Courant proudly introduced the public to the country’s first statewide government-sponsored aerial mapping project. Governor Cross emphasized the survey’s uniqueness and efficiency. “This map gives us for the first time a complete record of the uses to which land is put throughout the state,” he said. “Property owners can point out, on a large scale map, their exact boundaries for tax collectors. Near Danbury, they discovered that one township had been collecting taxes on property that really belonged to another township.” The map would also be invaluable, the governor noted, for water management, highway construction, and many other essential state programs. The Courant also announced that individual homeowners could purchase aerial photographs of their own properties, at various resolutions, at costs ranging from $1 to $9.50.

The photographs were made available to the public for viewing at no charge at the Connecticut State Library, where they instantly became, and continue to be, one of the institution’s most important and widely used reference maps. Recently, the survey photographs have been digitized and are readily accessible on the Connecticut State Library’s website.

Further Reading

Jane Cullinane, “Road Signs of the Air,Connecticut Explored

History of Aerial Photos and Online Finding Aids, Connecticut State Library

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