How to Find Places No Longer on the Map

In our quest to find lonely, out-of-the-way places to photograph, we often get recommendations from people, and many times, the coordinates of those places are just a search away. However, we’ll occasionally run across the name of a place, and when we enter the name into mapping software, the search turns up zero results. Maybe it was an “unofficial” townsite, never incorporated, and there’s no record of it… Here’s one way to find places no longer on the map


Banks, North Dakota

Banks, North Dakota is shown above on a Rand McNally railroad map from 1942, not far from the banks of the Missouri River, and not far from Seneschal, North Dakota, another pioneer settlement that would end up underwater after the construction of the Garrison Dam. Banks, however, was on high ground, and the location should still be dry. However, it no longer appears on modern maps, and a search in Google Maps returns nothing for the location. Let’s use GNIS to pinpoint the location.


The United States Geological Survey maintains a database (admittedly in a somewhat dated web presentation) of most named geographic locations. If it ever had a Federally-recognized name, it is likely in this database, known as the GNIS, or Geographic Names Information System. Visit the site, and click on “Domestic Names,” as shown above, then click “Search.”


On the next page, type the name of the place you’re looking for in the field labeled “Feature Name,” and select the state from the dropdown menu. Here, I’ve typed “Banks” and selected “North Dakota” from the dropdown. When you’re ready to search, click “Send Query.”


On the next page, we get three results. Watford City was originally known as Banks, so it appears in the search shown above. However, we want to see the location of the other “town” of Banks, so we click the one designated as Banks, “Populated Place.”


At the bottom of the “Banks, Populated Place” page, take note of the geographic coordinates, highlighted in blue in the image above. That’s what we’re looking for. With your cursor, highlight the lat/long coordinates. We want to plug these in to our favorite mapping software.


I like to use Google Earth. In the upper left corner search field, paste in the coordinates from the GNIS page and click “Search.” Voila. The location of Banks, North Dakota.


In this case, it appears there’s no remnant of a town. Further research would reveal Banks was only a rural post office, located on a farm, but if we wanted to check it out in person, we would have the coordinates.

Using GNIS is just one way to find old places no longer on the map, and we’ll cover a few others in a future post. Do you have any tips or tricks for finding lost places? Please share in the comments.

Original content © Sonic Tremor Media

6 thoughts on “How to Find Places No Longer on the Map

  1. Thanks for the information on the US place name database! That might be very useful. Apparently there are a variety of commercial satellites in operation that take extremely high resolution images in a variety of wavelengths. Using the satellite data, and enhancing the imagery, it is possible to detect the remains of long vanished structures, buried beneath a layer of vegetation and soil. Most likely the data is not free, but supposing that you had access, think of what all you’d be able to detect!


    1. Yes, Richard we would love to get our hands on some infrared imaging for many of these places, but unfortunately, we have been unable to figure out where the imagery is available commercially, outside of an academic/research setting.


      1. Aerial photography from the National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) flown in 2017 was captured at 60 cm resolution in 4 bands, meaning it can be rendered in natural color and/or color infrared. The 3-band version is available for download from the NRCS Geospatial Data Gateway, but you can buy the 4-band data fairly cheaply from APFO. Though I’ve never tried it, it may be possible to tweak the wavelengths to show vegitation response to growing on top of buried features (i.e. roads, building walls and foundations, etc.).


  2. I enjoy following abandoned rails on Google Earth. Occasionally find the junction of 2 abandoned rail beds and wonder if a town never formed there. Also interesting seeing the towns that have “Railway Ave” or “Railroad St.” when there is no longer a railroad in that town.


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