You can’t always get what you want

Today we arrive at the intersection of geography and history. What happens when a place that should be there isn’t, and a place that shouldn’t be there is? Find out.

You can’t always get what you want

The Rolling Stones once sang “You can’t always get what you want.” That famous lyric applies to money and relationships, but surprisingly, it also applies to geography.

I’m James Dykstra. This is History.icu. The topic for today is things that go away and things that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Back in the 16th century, Spanish cartographers mapped the tiny island of Bermeja just off the coast of what’s now the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. It was located at about 22 degrees north latitude and 91 degrees west longitude. For centuries, map after map placed the tiny island at the same location, give or take a few miles. In the eighteenth century, it appeared in fewer and fewer atlases, and a 1921 atlas of Mexico was the last one to include Bermeja.

After that, it seems, no one included the 80 square kilometre island because no one believed it was really there. The island, much like Atlantis, became a thing of legend. The Mexican government sent out surveys in 1997 and 2009 to try to find this dot on the map. If they could positively locate the island, it would extend their territorial waters, and, with that, their oil drilling rights. There was a lot at stake.

But the Mexican government failed and a lot of people were left wondering, “What happened to Bermeja?” There’s a few possibilities.

Some believe it was worn away by the sea, possibly washed away in a series of storms. Some speculate that it was a deliberate mistake by the Spanish, so that if their maps fell into enemy hands they’d be seen as unreliable. Some Mexicans, with no love lost for the United States that captured much of their territory in the 1800s, believe the CIA blew the island up. Other people believe that the island was nothing more than a group of low lying clouds that were mistaken for land, a so-called Dutch cape. And a few believe that the island was what’s now known as a copyright trap gone wildly wrong, where a map maker inserts a tiny bit of fake geography in order to foil anyone that would copy his map.

While each of the explanations has its charms, you have to remember that the island’s location was very precisely mapped, it was well described, and it appeared in government documents until about 1945. The island sounds like it should be there, so why isn’t it?

In contrast with this story is that of the hamlet of Aglo, New York. In 1937 the General Drafting Company set out to publish a map of New York state. In order to stop their map from being illegally copied they inserted a non-existent community on the map. They took the initials of the two owners of the firm, put them together, and that became Aglo. Aglo was nothing more than a copyright trap. It had no right to exist.

About two decades later, Rand McNally published their own map of New York. When the people at General Drafting saw that the new map had the community of Aglo on it, they pounced. Aglo, they declared quite rightly, isn’t real. And Rand McNally retorted, quite rightly, Oh, but it is.

You see, for reasons that are a little obscure, someone decided that a gas station was needed at the very intersection of highways where Aglo was supposedly located  Well, if you set up a service station, the natural thing to do is look at a map and see just where you’re located. The map said Aglo, and so the gas station and attached general store formed the nucleus of a new hamlet. You can guess what it was called. 

Aglo lasted for several decades claiming a gas station, a general store, a couple of houses, and even a hunting lodge among its streets. As cars became more efficient, the gas station became less and less frequented, and eventually closed. The other businesses followed, and the couple of homes were eventually abandoned. The community of Aglo didn’t exist, then did, and then didn’t again.

Bermeja seemed to be real, but probably isn’t. Aglo seemed to be unreal, but it is real. And for the historian, that may be why these two places are fascinating. Sorting out the real from the unreal, and the solid facts from the myths is what allows the telling of history. It’s also what allows us to get through life in an honest, profitable way. Figuring out the truth from the conjecture, exaggerations, myths, and outright lies gets us to something we can use to move forward. Sometimes we like the results, and sometimes they’re disappointing. And while you can’t always get what you want, if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/agloe-new-york

You can’t always get what you want

The Rolling Stones once sang “You can’t always get what you want.” That famous lyric applies to money and relationships, but surprisingly, it also applies to geography.

I’m James Dykstra. This is History.icu. The topic for today is things that go away and things that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Back in the 16th century, Spanish cartographers mapped the tiny island of Bermeja just off the coast of what’s now the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. It was located at about 22 degrees north latitude and 91 degrees west longitude. For centuries, map after map placed the tiny island at the same location, give or take a few miles. In the eighteenth century, it appeared in fewer and fewer atlases, and a 1921 atlas of Mexico was the last one to include Bermeja.

After that, it seems, no one included the 80 square kilometre island because no one believed it was really there. The island, much like Atlantis, became a thing of legend. The Mexican government sent out surveys in 1997 and 2009 to try to find this dot on the map. If they could positively locate the island, it would extend their territorial waters, and, with that, their oil drilling rights. There was a lot at stake.

But the Mexican government failed and a lot of people were left wondering, “What happened to Bermeja?” There’s a few possibilities.

Some believe it was worn away by the sea, possibly washed away in a series of storms. Some speculate that it was a deliberate mistake by the Spanish, so that if their maps fell into enemy hands they’d be seen as unreliable. Some Mexicans, with no love lost for the United States that captured much of their territory in the 1800s, believe the CIA blew the island up. Other people believe that the island was nothing more than a group of low lying clouds that were mistaken for land, a so-called Dutch cape. And a few believe that the island was what’s now known as a copyright trap gone wildly wrong, where a map maker inserts a tiny bit of fake geography in order to foil anyone that would copy his map.

While each of the explanations has its charms, you have to remember that the island’s location was very precisely mapped, it was well described, and it appeared in government documents until about 1945. The island sounds like it should be there, so why isn’t it?

In contrast with this story is that of the hamlet of Aglo, New York. In 1937 the General Drafting Company set out to publish a map of New York state. In order to stop their map from being illegally copied they inserted a non-existent community on the map. They took the initials of the two owners of the firm, put them together, and that became Aglo. Aglo was nothing more than a copyright trap. It had no right to exist.

About two decades later, Rand McNally published their own map of New York. When the people at General Drafting saw that the new map had the community of Aglo on it, they pounced. Aglo, they declared quite rightly, isn’t real. And Rand McNally retorted, quite rightly, Oh, but it is.

You see, for reasons that are a little obscure, someone decided that a gas station was needed at the very intersection of highways where Aglo was supposedly located  Well, if you set up a service station, the natural thing to do is look at a map and see just where you’re located. The map said Aglo, and so the gas station and attached general store formed the nucleus of a new hamlet. You can guess what it was called. 

Aglo lasted for several decades claiming a gas station, a general store, a couple of houses, and even a hunting lodge among its streets. As cars became more efficient, the gas station became less and less frequented, and eventually closed. The other businesses followed, and the couple of homes were eventually abandoned. The community of Aglo didn’t exist, then did, and then didn’t again.

Bermeja seemed to be real, but probably isn’t. Aglo seemed to be unreal, but it is real. And for the historian, that may be why these two places are fascinating. Sorting out the real from the unreal, and the solid facts from the myths is what allows the telling of history. It’s also what allows us to get through life in an honest, profitable way. Figuring out the truth from the conjecture, exaggerations, myths, and outright lies gets us to something we can use to move forward. Sometimes we like the results, and sometimes they’re disappointing. And while you can’t always get what you want, if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bermeja

https://www.lonelyplanet.com/articles/mexicos-missing-island

https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/caribbean/bermeja.htm

https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2020/may/03/imaginary-american-town-tourist-attraction-agloe-new-york-state

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/agloe-new-york

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