How to Turn Historical Maps into 3D Interactives

Tapestry Media is dedicated to bringing history to life. As a passionate lover of history myself, I often wonder what it was like to live in different eras of the past. Reading history can teach us a lot about our present day, but we are often cut off from the source; instead of immersive detail, we get brief summaries. Instead of identifying with the people and places that shaped our history, we often end up separated from its important truths.

Thanks to Mapbox GL JS, we are now able to place historical maps onto current-day satellite maps and use accompanying altitude data to view these maps in 3D. The updated version of the digital mapping platform has introduced an altitude layer, literally giving traditional map views a whole new dimension.

So we built an interactive historical map of San Francisco.

In the 1850s, San Francisco experienced a massive gold rush that brought people all around the world to the city. While the rush itself came from gold deposits discovered inland in Coloma, many started their journey in San Francisco, and many settled there after the boom ended in 1855.

The Gold Rush brought fame and fortune to many, and transformed San Francisco from a town of 500 to a city of 150,000 between 1847 and 1870. Local Indigenous groups, however suffered immensely from racial violence and territorial disputes.

After discovering this map on The Library of Congress digital archives, I wanted to tell the story of San Francisco in a way that made it more relatable and accessible to the average user. So how did we do it?

For starters, we wanted to align the map with present-day San Francisco. This required using QGIS, one of most important pieces of free software in the GIS community. Using its georeferencing tool, we identified street corners on the 1857 map from San Francisco in 1857 that still exist today. 


After aligning the map, we uploaded the map via Mapbox Tilemill to Mapbox Studio and added the map to a standard theme that did not visually interfere with the current view. From there, we identified multiple points of interest on a local San Francisco historical blog, Found SF. These photographs were not only stunning, but helpful in identifying the exact location of the POI. 

san francisco historical 3d map

We chose images that featured both the geographical and historical characteristics of the past. From the dozens of ships in the harbor to the rugged terrain of Nob Hill, many of the images show a city in motion, one developing at breakneck speed. 

This innovative way of looking at historical maps can be an important tool for educating youth on the history of a city, and how cities evolve from small outposts into international metropolises. 

Mapbox map historical

At Tapestry Maps, not only do we sell prints, but we offer services to media companies, nonprofits and institutions who want to bring history to life. Please contact us if you are interested in converting your repository of historical maps into a fascinating 3D experience.