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A window to the past...

What if there was a way to look into Iowa’s past, to see what kinds of industries and operations were on a site 70 years ago see where former buildings were located

...where quarries, city dumps, or petroleum tanks existed but are now gone?

Through an innovative project, designed to provide ease of access to the public, it is now possible to "look back in time" through the Iowa Historic Digital Aerial Photo Project.  Using state-of-the-art computer technology, Iowa State University and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources have teamed up to collect, sort, and transfer historic aerial photos into a digital format.

This web-based, publicly accessible, historic view of Iowa  from the late 1930s will be an  invaluable tool for documenting Iowa’s environmental and natural resource history. Land owners and managers, developers, and planners often need to understand how a property was previously used, in order to evaluate if past activities have contributed to environmental contamination, changed the property’s character, or otherwise impacted the site’s resources. Information regarding past uses can be difficult to find.

Property abstracts, building permits, and maps often did not record the type of land use that could have had environmental and natural resource impacts. The Iowa Historic Digital Aerial Photo Project provides a new resource to explore these past uses and to ensure that the valuable information on these photos will be permanently preserved.

How the Project was Conducted

With funding provided by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) initiated the collection and conversion of 1930s aerial photos of Iowa into a digital form that can be used in a Geographic Information System. The IDNR has partnered with the Iowa State University Geographic Information Systems Support & Research Facility to collect photos from the Iowa Department of Transportation archives and the University of Iowa’s Map Library. When photos are not available, orders for copies are placed with the National Archives. Once collected and cataloged, the photos are scanned to convert them to a digital format. Finally, they are georectified, or aligned, with their proper locations on the earth’s surface, by comparison with newer aerial photos that already have assigned geographic locations.

Counties Available through the Project

In the first two years of this "pilot" program, Iowa’s most populous counties, and those with the most industrial and development history, as well as some counties with agricultural and land use variety, were selected to be included in this 1930s aerial photo collection. Hopefully, complete aerial photo coverage for Iowa from the 1930s will be obtained through this pilot program. However, additional funding and partnering with other agencies and associations will be necessary to expand the project to include subsequent decades of photo coverage.

Where Did They Come From?

In 1933 Congress established the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which conducted aerial photo fly-overs of many states to assess crop compliance for entitlement payments to farmers. The first statewide fly-over for Iowa was conducted through this program in 1938. Periodically since then the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and now the Farm Services Agency, have continued to conduct these aerial photo surveys on a routine basis. Many of these historic aerial photos of Iowa were shared among state agencies, with the National Archives retaining the master photos. However, over time these photos had fallen into disuse and were relatively unknown. There is no single, comprehensive, catalog of this unique historical resource that is readily available to the public.

A Resource for Many Fields of Study

Important natural resource and environmental changes between the 1930s and today can be documented with the help of historic digital aerial photos. Better decisions on land-use development and agricultural management can be made with the help of an "historical perspective." Trends in land use and natural resource management can be compared by noting changes like those shown and listed below.

  • Historical land use
  • Development changes
  • Agricultural practices
  • Soil and streambank erosion patterns
  • Conservation improvements
  • Changes in natural vegetation and habitat

Where to Access Photos

Historic Photo Interactive Mapping Site

24th St. & Grand Intersection - Ames, IA (1939)

24th St. & Grand Intersection - Ames, IA in 1939

24th St. & Grand Intersection - Ames, IA (2002)

24th St. & Grand Intersection - Ames, IA in 2002