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Veteran's Research Shows New Value for Old Maps

The tables of the Veterans Curation Program lab in St. Louis are usually covered in artifacts and documents from the vast archaeological collections of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

The Corps has a responsibility to preserve cultural resources of the nation, and the three Veterans Curation Program labs have employed and trained more than 120 veterans in archiving and digitizing the Corps' huge collection of materials since 2009. 

For Nicholas Genthon, an Army veteran and criminal justice student at St. Louis University, it was a piece of the Corps' history that grabbed his attention and started a research project that connects the past and future through digital archives and modern mapping technology. 

Genthon worked in the Veterans Curation Program as part of the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center's summer internship program and was helping restore of a collection of documents from Harry S. Truman Reservoir on the Osage River in Missouri. The collection of documents, images, and maps were given to the Veterans Curation Program lab by the Corps' Kansas City District for restoration and preservation.

"The original plans included all of the historical context: the costs for everything, where towns and train tracks were relocated, even photos of places that are now under the lake," Genthon said. "I wondered how much it had changed since then." 

Comparing the maps to satellite images, he could see changes in the landscape. Erosion had turned some peninsulas into islands. With changes in the banks immediately evident, Genthon wanted to find out if sediment in the reservoir was accumulating as expected in the original plans.

Genthon spent nearly three months working in partnership with NGRREC and the Corps of Engineers in St. Louis and Kansas City.

As part of his work, Genthon digitized and scanned the original maps, converting what were paper maps into a digital file useful in modern Geographic Information System software. Once in the GIS software, he was able to create overlays to put on current imagery of the reservoir. 

"The level of detail from the original maps blew my mind," he said. "Compared to the satellite maps, they perfectly fit in." 

With help learning GIS software from Dr. Mark Smith, an archaeologist with the Corps' St. Louis District, Genthon used raw survey data taken by contractors in 2011, the digitized maps, and modern maps to create a 3-D model of the lake bed to compare to the original stream bed. He found that sediment was accumulating faster than expected.

"The original maps and plans had an expected 100-year life cycle for sedimentation," he said. "I found sedimentation was at the 183rd year of that 100-year life cycle."

While Genthon acknowledges more study of the problem is needed, his project highlights the potential for digital archiving and GIS software.

"GIS is going to be the bread and butter for a lot of government agencies very soon, and the digitizing of these archives to a publicly accessible forum will make it so much easier to do a project like this," he said.

The use of the rehabilitated archives in current research is one more positive outcome from the Veterans Curation Program in addition to employing and training veterans and preserving the nation's cultural heritage. 

"We're showing how the Corps can use these archival collections in our operations," said Andrea Adams, project manager for the Veterans Curation Program and Genthon's mentor for the project. "By having a digital collection, you can get this wealth of data out there to use."

Genthon finished his time along with the other members of the Veterans Curation Program St. Louis lab at their graduation Sept. 27. He plans to return to school finish his degree. While some of his skills as an Army intelligence analyst helped spark the research project, it's the outcome that will help him in the future.

"I'm prior Army intelligence, so I'm used to asking questions and I'm naturally curious as to why things are the way they are," he said. "My experience with the Corps and GIS on this project will make me a lot more marketable when I look for a job." 

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