Mae Clair’s Cabinet of Curiosities: Phantom Settlements

Stack of books with round eyeglasses on top, brass vintage candle, and carnivale mask in background

Recently, while reading a novel, I happened upon a curiosity I was unfamiliar with—phantom settlements. No, these aren’t communities where ghosts hang out, or locations that disappear (though the latter might be closer to the truth). Also known as paper towns, these are spots that don’t actually exist, but appear on maps. Cartographers included them as copyright traps in order to point to plagiarism if their work was stolen.

One of the most famous phantom settlements is Agloe, New York.

The tale starts in the 1930s when Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers of the General Drafting Company—a small mapmaking firm—came up with the idea of creating foldable maps for motorists. These were sold at gas stations, and could be conveniently stored in the glovebox. Prior to that, most maps were bound in large heavy books, and weren’t easily transportable. Rand McNally was the industry giant; Lindberg and Alpers, small fish.

But these guys had vision! With more people taking to the roadways, and recreational driving becoming popular, they saw a bright future in foldable maps. They’d also invested a lot of research and time into creating their map of New York State. The last thing they wanted was for a competitor to come along and copy their work, but what to do?

The two men put their heads together and hit upon the idea of creating a fictitious town using letters from their names and scrambling them. They dropped “Agloe” onto a dirt road intersection in the Catskill Mountains—trap set. Years later, Rand McNally produced a map that included Agloe—bait taken. Or so, Lindeberg thought.

He cried foul, citing the phantom settlement, but Rand McNally protested it had gotten the coordinates for Agloe from county records. Those records indicated the Agloe General Store occupied the spot on the map.

How is such a thing possible? Turns out someone had spied the name Agloe on a GDC map, decided to build a store there, and named it after the “town.” The store eventually went out of business in 2008, but if you Google Agloe General Store, you’ll find a Facebook page devoted to it, along with numerous references.

In the case of Agloe, Lindberg and Alpers created a phantom settlement that became an actual place, then later vanished once again. While you can’t step foot in the General Store anymore, you can still visit the area where it stood.

Should you decide to take a drive, you can always use your GPS, but you may want to get there the old-fashioned way and use a paper map. After all—that’s how Agloe was born. 🙂