Weird Geography

Dear Liza,

Floyd’s Coffee

Last night we went to a really old part of Portland. The buildings here were built in 1888, 1900, 1906… these are old! These buildings are beautiful, built of brick with either cast iron or glazed ceramic tile decorations. They were originally used as offices, warehouses or apartment buildings.

This part of town used to be busy and prosperous, but now it is more run down. Like many neighborhoods that have fallen into disrepair, it is looking toward a rebirth. There are some restaurants and offices being installed in these lovely old buildings.

The 1888 Blagen Block, now being used by Air BnB

But the reason we went was to hear a talk by Joe Streckert on “The Mythical Geography of the Pacific Northwest”at Floyd’s Coffee Shop.

Joe also writes and does a podcast called “Weird History” and, it turns out, is an old friend of Auntie Katie! They went to college together in Eugene and are now both here in Portland. It’s a small world for history geeks, I guess.

Joe’s talk was about how people made maps of this part of the world in the old days. With no satellites or GPS, map making was really hard. People had to sail or walk across the land, making measurements and drawing them very carefully.

Sometimes, they just guessed.

Joe showed us a map drawn by Gerardus Mercator, drawn in 1606 that is supposed to show the North Pole. It includes things labeled “pygmies” and refers to a giant polar vortex where the waters of the ocean are sucked into the Earth to produce currents. Knowing what we know now, this seems silly. But he was a respected cartographer (map maker) and this map was taken seriously for a long time.

Joe Streckert

There were also maps that described what we called the Bering Strait as being a narrow passage, (which he called the Straits of Anian) between North America and Japan, showing the Pacific Ocean as very small so it was just a short hop from North America, to Japan, to China. Ooops.

Another idea that stuck around for a long time was “The Island of California”. Spanish explorers sailing up the Sea of Cortez between Mexico and Baja California decided this peninsula was really an island. This reminded people in Spain of an old story about Queen Califa and her race of Amazon women who lived on an island paradise, so they named that area after her! Califa = California.

After just a few years, it was discovered by more sailors that it wasn’t an island, but the idea was so strong that it kept being on the maps!

There were lots of other mix-ups and historical mistakes about maps, which were very interesting. After the talk, we caught a ride home with Auntie Katie and were grateful for the cooler weather.


Grandma Judy