August 1, 2005

Chicago Google Earth Overlays

After learning about Google Earth and discovering Sam Perkins-Harbin’s excellent overlays including CTA maps and Chicago traffic overlays, I decided to play around with the technology a little myself. Since I’m currently in the middle of reading Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago and I’m interested in Chicago history, I decided to start out with a few overlays related to those topics.

In experimenting with these overlays, I’ve become particularly intrigued by the potential of Google Earth in combination with historical and sociological maps for educational purposes–for instance, some sort of open-ended, classroom-based exercise using overlays like this could be interesting. More notes on this are contained in the description of each overlay below.

Also note that every overlay here is taken from an image that is publicly available on the web. If the owners of any of these images would like me to take them down, however, please let me know.

As usual, feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments about this page.

Chicago Community Areas


I initially set up this overlay so I could more easily relate to some of the concepts covered in Heat Wave, which in one chapter makes frequent references to these community areas. The overlay is also just generally useful for getting an idea of what neighborhoods make up Chicago and where they’re located, despite the fact that these community areas don’t necessarily map to current neighborhoods (see this Wikipedia article for more information). Random observation: Fuller Park is now essentially a chunk of the Dan Ryan Expressway.

The image source used for this overlay was taken from The City of Chicago Geographic Information Systems Website. The authors of the image made everything outside the borders of Chicago transparent, which helps the overlay a lot.

World’s Columbian Exposition - 1893


This one is fun. The overlay is a highly detailed 1893 Rand McNally map of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Sliding the transparency control between the overlay and the satellite imagery from Google Earth feels like peeling away layers of history; perfect for fans of The Devil in the White City.

The image source used for this overlay was taken from The Newberry Library’s Historic Maps in K-12 Classrooms; Indexed Standard Guide Map of the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1893). Newberry Library call number: Map 2F oG104.C6:2W6.

Chicago Extensions of City Limits - 1885


This is a map from 1885 outlining the extensions of Chicago’s city limits from its incoporation in 1835 up through 1869. Perhaps more interesting than the extensions themselves are the geographic features of the time: the Illinois & Michigan canal is right on top of today’s Stevenson Expressway, and the shoreline along Lake Michigan appears a lot closer to Michigan Ave. than it is now, which may have something to do with the ashes of the Chicago Fire.

The image source used for this overlay was taken from the UIC Urban Experience in Chicago: Hull House and its Neighborhoods; A. T. Andreas, Map of Chicago Showing the Extensions of the City Limits History of Chicago, Volume II (Chicago: A. T. Andreas, 1885): 49.

Chicago Neighborhood Types - 2000


An overlay mapping parts of Chicagoland to the Neighborhood Types model using data from the 2000 census. Combining this with the community areas overlay reveals some stark contrasts between neighborhoods, such as North vs. South Lawndale, Austin vs. Oak Park, and Hyde Park vs. everything around it.

Original image source taken from the University of Chicago Map Collection.

Great Chicago Fire Burned District - 1884


Overlay of an 1884 map of the burned district of The Great Fire of 1871. I cropped the original image and highlighted the burned district in red, which makes for easy viewing when the overlay is set to semi-transparent. I may not have highlighted the full extent around the mouth of the Chicago river, however, since that part got really fuzzy in my low-resolution source image.

Original image source taken from the Chicago Public Library Great Fire webpage; A.T. Andreas, History of Chicago from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, Chicago, 1884.

Chicago Elevated Map - 1913


Overlay of a map of the Chicago Elevated from 1913. This is particularly useful in conjunction with Sam Perkins-Harbin’s CTA System Map, as the evolution of Chicago’s elevated transit system can be seen by sliding the transparency control back and forth between the two overlays. Visible are the various segments that were abandoned (e.g., the Paulina Connector) or demolished (e.g., the Kenwood and Stockyards branches) over the years, as well as the various parts of the transit system that weren’t built until later (e.g., the Dearborn and State Street Subways).

Original image source taken from

© Atul Varma 2020