Amazing Places

Paper Towns and Trap Streets Are How Mapmakers Catch Copycats

Let's say you're on the cross-country trip of a lifetime, and you're doing it the old-fashioned way. Nothing but open roads, greasy food, and, of course, your trusty atlas to guide the way. None of this smartphone or GPS nonsense. Crossing Ohio, you spot a little town called Goblu coming up, and you decide to stop for a bite. Except there's nothing but an empty cornfield when you get there. You've just wandered into a paper town — a place that exists on a map and nowhere else.

123 Fake Street, Madeupsville USA

So once you get to "Goblu" — which is a real fake city, by the way — you might find yourself cursing the work of the incompetent cartographer who made your map. But they actually weren't slouching on the job. They made that place up on purpose, and your spur-of-the-moment decision to visit it is just an unfortunate side effect. In actuality, these made-up places are generally placed as traps for would-be copycats. If a mapmaker suspects another has simply copied their hard work instead of doing the cartography for themselves, they need only look over their work for the fake locations they peppered throughout. That's also how the other variety of these fictional entries got their name: "trap streets."

As you might guess, the practice of including paper towns and trap streets on a map has fallen a bit out of favor in the era of satellite-sourced world maps accessible anywhere and anytime. But technology isn't the only reason why this practice is falling by the wayside. Under federal law in the United States, fictional entries on a map aren't even protected by standard copyrights. The court issued this ruling: "To treat 'false' facts interspersed among actual facts and represented as actual facts as fiction would mean that no one could ever reproduce or copy actual facts without risk of reproducing a false fact and thereby violating a copyright." That doesn't mean that cartographers have to leave themselves open to infringement, though. Style, presentation, selection, and order can all be used to argue against a copycat.

Putting Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook On the Map

Most of the time, paper towns and trap streets end up going completely unnoticed — it's not like anybody is ever going to realize something's wrong when they go to visit their grandma there. But there are a few stories of paper towns that ended up having a bigger impact than anything fictional should have. Most recently, Google Maps itself featured a town that didn't seem to be. It's since been removed from the main map, but with a little digging you can still find a digital memorial to Argleton, an invisible little hamlet located just outside of the real UK city of Aughton. The company has been a bit cagey about if Argleton was included to suss out copiers, or if it was simply added by mistake to begin with. "Argleton" and "Aughton" aren't so far off from each other, after all ... but they're not exactly close, either.

But our favorite story about a paper town has to be the tale of Agloe, New York. This is the only known example of a paper town that wormed its way into the real world. In the 1930s, the director of General Drafting Co., Otto G. Lindberg, combined his initials with those of his assistant Ernest Alpers and mixed them up to form the city "Agloe," and started including the town between the real cities of Rockland and Lew Beach. A couple of years later, he discovered Agloe in a map printed by Rand McNally. Case closed, right? Except a closer investigation revealed that if you actually visited the coordinates on the map, you'd find the Agloe General Store. See, there really were people who lived on that stretch of land. And when they picked up a map at their local Esso, they discovered that the place they called home had a name — one that a mapmaker had plucked out of thin air.

In John Green's hilarious coming-of-age novel "Paper Towns," protagonist Quentin Jacobs searches for his childhood sweetheart in made-up places — including Agloe. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial membership. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas December 20, 2017

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