Ever heard of a place called Keith in the Berkshires?
Hint: It’s in Great Barrington.
Is Keith a wood or forest, from the Celtic word? A geologic formation? A ghost hamlet? A souvenir left by a time-traveling member of the Rolling Stones? While I could believe the first, and might like the last, the answer is none of these choices. It’s named for a civil engineer — and shows up on a single map.
Digging into the USGS
A little background. Congress established the United State Geological Survey in 1879 and charged it with “classification of the public lands, and examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and productions of the national domain.” Its series of topographic maps now encompasses some 57,000 individual plats for the contiguous 48 states. The plateau above East Rock in Great Barrington served as a siting station during survey work for the first Geologic Survey map of South Berkshire.
The results of the 1884-85 survey here were plotted out and published in a Sheffield quadrangle issued in preliminary edition by Forbes Co. of Boston in 1890, then printed in a Massachusetts atlas in 1893. This second version is the only one to show the name “Keith” just east of East Rock.
So who is Keith?
Mapmaker Henry F. Walling had charge of the South Berkshire team. Among local professionals assisting was Herbert Fisher Keith (1842-1915). Keith was designing railroad layouts in Boston when an assignment brought him to South Berkshire. And thus began a 30-year off-and-on residency in Mount Washington.
Working with the triangulators, Keith in 1885 suggested a permanent carriage road be built to the top of East Mountain. The Berkshire Courier reported: “H.F. Keith of Mount Washington, who owns a valuable tract of woodland on the mountain east of this town, proposes to survey a route for a carriage road to the summit of the mountain, so that pleasure seekers can visit Mount Bryant and other interesting places in the locality.”
Keith’s nearly 70 acres were just above Forest Ledge, which is above East Rock, now part of East Mountain State Forest. Keith saw tourist possibilities and urged construction of a viewing tower. The idea gained no traction.
The topographic map reissued as a sheet in October 1897 omitted Keith. It’s a pleasant 1:62,500-scale, 15-minute chart in brown, blue and black. The legend says: “This map made from surveys without spirit level control.” The 1934 and later revisions were 7.5-minute versions, in a Great Barrington quadrangle. There have been 1946, 1957, 1973 and 1997 versions since.
Was the Keith name on the 1893 map an inside joke purveyed by Walling, Ernst W.F. Natter, James H. Jennings or others of the survey team? Was it included in anticipation of Keith’s scenic tower being built? Could it have been a copyright trap? No, as USGS maps are not copyright; they’re in the public domain. You’re free to reprint them.
Keith isn’t alone
This brings up the fascinating story of early foldable highway maps prepared in the 1930s for and given away by service stations. General Drafting Corp. map a map for Esso. Founding delineator Otto G. Lindberg and assistant Ernest Alpers, in order to trip up other mappers who might cut corners by simply copying information on its Esso map without doing all the grunt work put in a false village. General Drafting thought its trap had sprung a few years later when it sued Rand McNally for copyright infringement, as its map of the Catskills included the bogus town of Algoe. The name Algoe was made up of initials of Lindberg and Alpers. Rand McNally’s lawyers, however, told the judge there really was an Algoe, so there was no infringement. It turned out the phantom name had been noticed by someone in upper New York who had established an Algoe General Store. A few homes went up nearby. A handful of inhabitants made Algoe a real hamlet (though it has since faded away).
Author Peng Shepherd gives Algoe’s story a mysterious and fantastical twist in her dark academia novel “The Cartographers” (William Morrow, 2022), by the way.
I’ve visited Keith more than once. Rugged hilltop, trees, ledges, mountain laurel, a ravine, the beginning of a woods road going north, the hint of a footpath going east. Far from valuable land, as the weekly newspaper suggested. It’s nice, but not a particularly enchanted place.
Unlike other Berkshire ghost hamlets — Sodom and Gomorrah in Sandisfield/New Marlborough/North Canaan, Dodgetown in East Lee, Jericho in Hinsdale, New State in Savoy — ephemeral Keith may have been passed through by axmen and charcoalers and neighborhood hikers but was never inhabited by humans, though at least one black bear has been spotted napping there.
It’s a puzzle with no answer.