SOMEWHERE NEAR AGLOE, N.Y. » It is one thing to lose your keys or your iPhone, even the love of your life, but to lose an entire town? Yet that is what just happened in upstate New York.
Last week, Google did something it almost never does — it wiped a town off its maps. Don’t blame Google. The town’s provenance was suspect.
How Agloe, a speck of a hamlet in the western Catskills, wound up on maps 90 years ago remains a cartographic enigma. How it persevered is an existential riddle.
"I’ve never heard of it before," said Matt Nelson, manager of Beaverkill Angler in Roscoe, a tiny town within shouting distance of Agloe, at least on some maps.
Describing Agloe as a mere hamlet is particularly apt. When it was first acknowledged, on a free road map distributed by Standard Oil Company of New York, or Socony, gas stations in 1925, its population was given indeterminately as from zero to 500, which was probably a peak.
Agloe’s anomaly begins with its name. Is it a-GLOE or AG-loe?
"You can take your choice on how you want to pronounce it," Roscoe’s official historian, Joyce Conroy, said.
Even the precise location of Agloe has been a conundrum. The Driving Route Planner website lists its exact geographic coordinates (for the record, latitude 41.964111300, longitude 74.907832100). Complying with those coordinates would deliver you just beyond Bill and Darlene Beers’ backyard in the Town of Colchester in Delaware County, barely across the Sullivan County line from Roscoe.
Following Google’s slightly vaguer driving directions, before they were deleted from the web, would still leave you in Sullivan County near a secluded concrete shaft protruding from the Pepacton Reservoir.
"We were thinking of putting up a historic sign," said Elaine Fettig, the former president of the Roscoe-Rockland Chamber of Commerce, "but where, exactly, would we put it?"
Last week, a reporter for The noticed a mention on Twitter about fake towns, which mapmakers would invent to guard against copyright infringement. An Internet search turned up Agloe and the Google map, complete with the driving directions. Agloe was a mapmaker’s creation.
"It wasn’t uncommon for cartographers to put something fictitious so if they spotted another work with it, they knew it was lifted," said William Spicer, the president of Maps.com.
Among those countless copyright traps, Agloe achieved a rare distinction: The name stuck. As early as the 1930s, a fishing lodge named Agloe opened nearby (which later helped Rand McNally successfully claim in a lawsuit that the Agloe on its own map had not been copied from Socony’s).
Agloe survived on road maps by Esso and Exxon into the late 20th century and even long enough to evolve from a so-called paper town into a digital one on websites like Google, where it made its debut only last year.’
It was even mentioned in a 1957 travelogue in The Times about "scenic drives through the Catskills," which rhapsodized about "an unmarked country road that goes north through Rockland and Agloe."
As recently as 2008, Agloe gained a modicum of notoriety, and, since then, an occasional teenage tourist, because it figured in the climax to John Green’s young adult novel "Paper Towns." (Last week, Fox 2000 announced that it would turn the novel into a film.)
"I’d accidentally come across a copyright trap on a road trip with the woman I was dating at the time — I believe that fake town was called Holen, S.D. — and when researching the phenomenon came across a mention of Agloe in The Straight Dope website," Green recalled. "Of course, the idea that a fiction created on paper could become real was really encouraging to me as a writer."
A team of local experts -Beers, Fettig, Conroy, and the historians of Colchester and Delaware County, Kay H. Parisi-Hampel and Gabrielle Pierce, – was asked to dissect Agloe’s pedigree.
What inspired the name? The original mapmakers, Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers of General Drafting Co., scrambled their initials to form the town’s nom de guerre.
Why did they plant Agloe in upstate New York? According to Lindberg’s obituary, he went fishing one day in 1923 and got lost going home.
"A mapmaker by profession," the article said, "he made up his mind to provide the public with maps to prevent such situations."
Any serious trout fisherman, like Lindberg, would have eventually found his way to Roscoe (where there also happened to be a Socony gas station). In 1930, five years after Lindberg invented Agloe, Beers’ grandfather, the son of an immigrant Irish family that fled the potato famine and was squeezed by the Depression, sold off a prime angling spot flanked by the Beaver Kill and Spring Brook. The buyers called their new venture Agloe Lodge Farms.
How had life imitated art?
"Among the first guests at Agloe," a local newspaper explained in 1944 when the lodge was already run down, was "an official of a map publishing firm, who suggested to the owner that he ‘put the place on the map.’ He did."
On March 17, Google removed it, within hours after The Times inquired about its provenance.
"As we’ve said in the past, we’re always working on making Google Maps as useful, accurate and comprehensive as possible," Susan Cadrecha, a Google Maps spokeswoman, said. "The inclusion of Agloe is no exception – stay tuned in the coming months for places as varied as Mos Eisley, Narnia and the lost city of Carcosa."
Just as Google had promised, the 123-mile trip from Manhattan to Agloe took about 2 1/2 hours. For any latter-day Magellan, though, the challenge on arrival was proving a negative: that you can’t get here from there.
Sam Roberts, New York Times