Denver’s USGS Mapping Center

A 1.447Mb PDF of this article, complete with images,may be downloaded by clicking HERE

Located in the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood, Colorado is Building 810 of the United States Geological Survey, home to the largest distribution site in the world for printed maps. The Mapping Center consists of about 16 acres and employs approximately 200 people. Housed in this facility are every 7.5-minute United States quad sheet, state maps, informational maps, and countless other maps and book products totaling more than 130,000 individual titles and 30 million pieces of paper. The map warehouse alone covers about 120,000 square feet.

For those who remember when surveying and mapping was done before the advent of personal computers, the 7.5-minute USGS quadrangle sheets were something to marvel. At a scale of 1:24,000 (1 inch = 2,000 feet) they were the only uniform map series that covered the entire United States in astounding detail. Beginning in the mid 1940s, the USGS mapping program operated continuously until the series was officially completed in 1992.

More than 55,000 of these maps cover the continental 48 States with at least two-thousand more covering the State of Hawaii and other U.S. territories. The 7.5-minute series was also made available in areas of Alaska around Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Prudhoe Bay. Although the quad maps were in a sense outdated as soon as they were published, they are highly accurate and contain features that enable surveyors to see what an area contains prior to going into the field. Geodetic positions could also be accurately scaled from the quad sheets by a skilled surveyor long before GPS came along.

Some Statistics
According to current statistics being kept by USGS, the most popular 7.5minute quad sheet is Mount Dolomite, California. Recent other most popular sheets were Mount Whitney and Mount Thompson, also located in California. This state also leads all sales for quad sheets, followed by the state of Colorado. The areas of the country that have the least sales are the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska.

The most frequent buyers of USGS-produced maps are recreational users, with academia and professional users also purchasing maps in substantial quantities. Those professional users typically include surveyors, scientists, map makers, search and rescue, fire fighters, GIS users, as well as those in the lumber, real estate, and legal industries and others. The USGS Business Partner Program involves retail businesses that purchase the maps in large quantities at discounted prices, who in turn resell the maps to the public. These businesses account for 60-70% of the total map distribution, with the largest percentage of these retailers belonging to the recreational industry.

Sales at the Mapping Center are worldwide and are received by mail, fax, telephone, Internet, and through the Business Partner network from around the world. About ten years ago the annual revenue from maps sales had grown to between eight and nine million dollars, but has since decreased to about four million, with the advent of computers and the widespread availability of digital maps. Map sales at USGS are mainly considered to be a service to the public rather than a profit generator. USGS is mandated to recover only the cost of printing and distribution, so no profit is made on any product or service. The products produced are classified as public domain and are therefore available for anyone to modify or recreate. USGS sells and also has available for free download many types of digital map data such as Digital Elevation Models (DEM), Digital Raster Graphics (DRG), and Digital Line Graphs (DLG).

Since the United States is the most accurately and widespread mapped nation on the earth, it naturally becomes a concern for national security. Orders for maps from suspected entities that are hostile toward the United States are generally not filled but are forwarded to management for review. Occasionally the State Department may also become involved in such matters.

The need for updated map information is increasing since the industry has shown so much growth because of technology. The 15-minute quadrangle sheets are no longer being updated, although a limited number of titles are still available in special interest areas such as Bright Angel in the Grand Canyon. Approximately 10,000 of the 7.5-minute quadrangle sheets within national forest areas are under contract and updated by the National Forest Service. The rest of the country is moving toward a program called "The National Map".

To facilitate the demand for map sales and other related items at the Mapping Center, USGS has teamed up with the Rocky Mountain Nature Association to provide an in-house store where customers can purchase many items without having to order them. Items such as quad sheets for the entire state of Colorado, replicas of famous brass disks, and interpretive items are easily located in the store, while other items such as quad sheets from other states are quickly retrieved by workers from the warehouse while the customer waits. The store manager works as a liaison between USGS and the Rocky Mountain Nature Association.

In addition to the in-house store, surveyors will also want to view the 3D model of Colorado which is made of machinable plastic weighing 70 pounds per square foot. This model measures more than 5′ x 7′ and was constructed with a laser cutter using the digitized 1,938 7.5-minute quadrangles that cover the state of Colorado. A nearby rotunda has glass wall cases encasing memorabilia that pays homage to the men who conducted the Four Great Surveys of the West King, Powell, Hayden, and Wheeler. Another large glass case displays early instruments and survey markers used by USGS surveyors.

For more information on the Mapping center, visit:

For more information on the National Map, visit:

Jerry Penry is a Nebraska licensed land surveyor. He is a frequent contributor to The American Surveyor.

A 1.447Mb PDF of this article, complete with images,may be downloaded by clicking HERE

About the Author

Jerry Penry, LS

Jerry Penry is employed by Lancaster County Engineering in Lincoln, Nebraska. He has been a licensed surveyor since 1994 specializing in section corner monumentation and GPS surveying. He has presented surveying seminars with a historical aspect combined with modern day application. His special interests in this field include extensively researching historically relevant information, making the original surveyors' work come alive. His meticulous research and thorough writing sheds light on the original surveyors' tools, conditions and limitations. He is also very knowledgeable in various other historical matters including railroad history. He has written numerous surveying articles for newsletters, magazines and journals, and has authored or co-authored several books including The Chicago and North Western Cowboy Line: A History of the Longest Rail-to-Trail Project in America, and The Sunrise Serenade: A World War II Bomber Crew Story. Contact Jerry Article List Below