Discovering history through aerial photographs

Over on Facebook, I belong to three groups that deal with the history of where I grew up: League City and the Clear Lake area of Texas. We’ve had some very interesting discussions on a number of topics. Many of those discussions have been sparked by vintage photographs.  A few of those vintage photographs have been aerial photographs that I found on the web.

One of the first places I found vintage aerial photographs is Their selection varies widely, depending on the part of the country you’re interested in. For my primary area of interest (the Houston area in general, the Clear Lake area in particular), I’m in luck; they have historic images, where historic means 1999 and earlier. More specifically, I found images from 1953, 1957, 1964, 1973, 1981 and a few other years. But if I were interested in historic images from, say, Nebraska, I’d be out of luck; they don’t have any.  Now HistoricAerials charges for its photos; I’ve bought some from them in the past.

A site that contains more government-generated photos and data is Earth Explorer by USGS. I’ve found data from 1953, 1954, 1955, 1969 and some other years for the Houston area.  These photos contain a great amount of detail.  They’re also huge in size; 100 MB is a fairly common size. Thank goodness for speedy connections and large hard drives! The interface isn’t too difficult to use, and the photos I retrieve are free!

Even Google Earth has vintage aerial photography. For League City, you can go back to 1944. Now that’s really mind-blowing for me, because in 1944, there was no Gulf Freeway (that only dates back to 1952), but there was a second bridge crossing across Clear Creek, that being Old Galveston Road (not the current Highway 3, but the original road, which is known in LC as Kansas Street). Unfortunately, there are big gaps in that photo set, because the area west of town isn’t covered, so you can’t see the land without the freeway.  I’d sure like to see the land like that. I’d like to find more aerial photos, and of different years, to see more of the history and the changes.