Chatham Nautical Chart Initiative

Preserving and Making Accessible
The Atwood Museum’s
Nautical Charts Collection


The Chatham Nautical Chart Initiative is a multi-phase project (described in more detail below) to restore and create digital replicas of the Museum’s Nautical Charts Collection. The initial phase was begun in 2013 with grant support from the Town of Chatham through its Community Preservation Committee. Forty of our charts have been professionally restored and digitally imaged under this Initiative.

The benefit of the project is that the charts are not only cleaned and restored as needed, but future preservation is greatly enhanced by making it unnecessary to handle the charts in order to view them. And at the same time, the digital collection is vastly more accessible to the public, and to researchers. One can view an entire chart on the computer screen, and can also zoom in on any small section of a chart to see the full detail of the original chart at high resolution.

The originals are kept (along with the rest of our collection) under archival conditions in our climate-controlled storage area. (The collection of original physical charts is described in more detail on the Nautical Charts page in our Collections section.)

In addition to the forty charts processed in the initial phase of the Chart Initiative, our digital collection includes a high-resolution digital image of our most-prized nautical chart, a rare and unusual chart of the area just to the south of Chatham. This chart, famously known as the “Upside Down Chart”, was produced by George Eldridge of Chatham in 1852. A virtual exhibit of this chart, including a zoomable digital image, is displayed on the Eldridge Upside Down Chart page. (Digital image courtesy of Maps of Antiquity in Chatham).

The Chatham Nautical Chart Initiative

The Chatham Nautical Chart Initiative


Over the years the Atwood Museum of the Chatham Historical Society has acquired a significant collection of antique nautical charts. Most are 19th century working charts of the oceans and coastal areas that were used by shipmasters, many of whom made their homes in Chatham. The charts themselves found their way from local attics to the museum in various bequests. A few years ago an archive storage area and vault were constructed in the renovated lower level of the museum and the collection of approximately 130 charts was vacuum-cleaned and stored under climate-controlled archival conditions either stored flat in archival folders in the drawers of special metal cases purchased for the purpose or rolled in archival storage tubes.

At about the same time a bequest allowed the establishment of the Wendy Wade Costello Gallery in the lower level corridor of the museum for special displays of nautical charts and documents held in the archives. This small gallery, however, allows for the display at one time of only two or three of the museum’s charts and, while any item in the collection is available to the public by special request to the Archivist, there was no easy way for a visitor to browse the collection or even identify a particular chart that might be of interest.

Our chart collection, the most extensive held by any museum on Cape Cod or the Islands, represents Chatham’s maritime heritage and is an important piece of the history of the town that needs to be preserved for the future and made readily available to the citizens of Chatham and to the wider public. Many of the charts in the collection contain handwritten notations and plots of specific voyages that were accomplished and some have been identified with specific Chatham sea captains and particular ships and voyages. Research on the charts is on-going.

In addition to the chart collection referred to above, Chatham is important in the history of North American chart-making and the Atwood Museum intends to publicize that fact. The Chatham-born mariner, George Eldridge (1821-1900), was injured at sea around 1850 and, unable to continue a seafaring career, taught himself hydrography and chart-making. His first chart, published in 1852, was the now-famous “Upside-down Chart” of Monomoy Island and the surrounding shoals that became instantly popular with local sailors and fishermen. Its publication launched his chart-making career. The enterprise that he founded was joined by his son George W. (1840-1912) and came to include, in addition to charts, pilot books and tide and current tables. It continues today with the annual publication of the Eldridge Tide and Current Book by his great-great grandson, Robert Eldridge White and his wife Linda. In his book, United States Coastal Charts 1783-1861, Peter J. Guthorn states that the two most important private chart-making establishments in America were those of E. & G. W. Blunt and that of the Eldridges. Of the two, the Eldridge enterprise was, while smaller in scope, the more innovative and longer lasting.

The contributions of “Chart George” Eldridge, as he was known, and his son are embodied in the current exhibit in the Wendy Wade Costello Gallery which features the 1852 upside-down chart: “Chatham Lights to Southwest Handkerchief”, a gift from the Executive Board to the Museum in recognition of the outstanding service of John J. King, II as chair. A large, small-scale Eldridge chart of the Northeast coast is displayed as well as an example from a portfolio of forty-eight Harbor Charts published in 1901 by Geo. W. Eldridge.

The Chatham Chart Initiative

Two factors influenced the leadership of the Atwood Museum to undertake the Initiative project. The first was the recognition that the museum’s significant chart collection was virtually unknown to the citizenry of Chatham or the wider public and was effectively unavailable to these audiences. Second was the realization of the importance of the Atwood Museum’s unique nautical chart collection to the maritime heritage and history of Chatham.

The project was designed to insure the preservation of the charts, each in its best possible condition, in a rigorous archival manner and, at the same time, to make the collection readily available to Chatham residents for research, general interest and educational purposes. The Chatham Chart Initiative was begun in 2013 by Dennis McFadden, former Executive Director of the Atwood Museum and the museum archivist, Mary Ann Gray. This project was described in a proposal to the Town of Chatham, Community Preservation Committee authored by McFadden and Trustee Norman Pacun. Realizing the importance of the AHM nautical chart collection to the maritime heritage of Chatham and the need to preserve it and make it readily available to people of the Town, the Committee approved the proposal which was funded by a vote of Town Meeting, actions most appreciated by the Chatham Historical Society.

The project is being carried out in phases of which the first has been completed. The first phase concerned forty of the most important charts including those most in need of restoration and stabilization prior to having digital images made. First, necessary professional restorations and repairs to the forty charts were carried out to get them in condition for long-term storage and to be digitally imaged.

Digital Commonwealth (DC), a non-profit organization with a facility in the Boston Public Library, produced high-resolution digital images of each of the forty charts, as well as providing an on-line platform whereby the individual charts can be viewed at

An important benefit of the project is that our charts have not only received necessary cleaning and restoration, but future preservation is greatly enhanced by making it unnecessary to physically handle to the charts in order to examine them. Of equal importance is the fact that the digital collection is, for the first time, easily accessible to the public and to researchers who wish to browse our collection and examine individual charts in detail. One can view an entire chart on the computer screen, and can then zoom in on any small section of a chart to see the full detail of the original chart at high resolution including any handwritten notations and courses plotted.

The Digital Collection, and Viewing Tips

Here on the Atwood Museum website, we have created a “Virtual Gallery” of the 41 charts in our digital collection. This gallery provides an overview of the digital collection. The charts, with Eldridge charts listed first, are collected in categories by the region of the world they cover. Accompanying each thumbnail image is a description of the chart with any Chatham-related information included. Clicking on an image will open the Digital Commonwealth web page for that particular chart. On that page you will find a large image, plus additional catalog information for each chart. Clicking this large image will in turn bring up a Zoomable window, which allows viewing the chart in close-up detail. (See viewing tips below).

For the full list of all 41 nautical charts in the Digital Collection, please go to the Nautical Charts Virtual Gallery page.

Alternatively, one can go to the Nautical Chart Collection of the Chatham Historical Society page on the Digital Commonwealth website, and click on “View All Items”, to see a list of all the chart images. Note that when accessed in this manner, the charts are not categorized by geographical area and there is no detailed description as is found on the Atwood Museum website, although there are powerful search options provided by Digital Commonwealth.

Viewing Tips

When you click on an image in the list of charts on the Virtual Gallery page, a new window opens showing a page on the Digital Commonwealth website. This page presents a large image of the chart, plus some additional catalog information. When you click on this large image, a new popup window will appear, showing the chart with a black background. (There may be a noticeable delay before the zoom-capable image appears.) This is the Zoom window.

In this Zoom window, a single click will cause a magnified or “zoomed in” section of the chart to be shown. There are multiple levels of Zoom available; you can keep zooming in until the magnification of the chart does not change. You can also “drag” the chart to see adjacent areas of the chart by holding down the mouse button and moving your mouse. The Zoom-level is also controlled by the five circular buttons in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.

In the upper right corner of the Zoom window, a small image of the chart shows the section of the overall chart you are viewing, in a red-outlined box. You can also “drag” on this red-outlined area to move the viewing area of the magnified chart.

The five buttons in the lower right hand corner of the screen have the functions:
Plus sign: “Zoom In”
Minus sign: “Zoom Out”
Double curved arrows: “Return to original image”
Counterclockwise curved arrow: “Rotate the chart counterclockwise by 90 degrees”
Clockwise curved arrow: “Rotate the chart clockwise by 90 degrees”

Closing the Zoom Digital Commonwealth window returns the viewer to the Atwood Museum website Virtual Gallery webpage.