For more than a century, the Kroll Map Company has been a fixture of the downtown business community in Seattle. Three generations of the Loacker family have continued the work started by founder Carl A. Kroll (1881-1981) in 1911, with hundreds of maps produced ranging from plat record maps of Washington counties to customized maps showing Seattle's changing landscape and infrastructure. Evolving technologies have both offered advantages and posed challenges to the cartography craft, with the advent of scanners and other digitization mandating a refocusing of the processes by which maps are produced, copied, and stored. All of these efforts have collectively defined the Kroll Map Company as a family-run business with a shared interest in preserving the history of Seattle and the greater Pacific Northwest.
A Tale of Two Families
The beginning of the Kroll Map Company can be credited to two men: Carl Kroll and John Loacker (1874-1964). Kroll, an immigrant from Germany, arrived in Seattle in 1903, part of an influx of new businessmen looking to capitalize on the building boom the city was experiencing at that time. After first working for the Anderson Map Company, Kroll opened his own company, initially called Kroll Maps, in 1911. The company's office occupied a rented space on the 4th floor of the Melhorn Building at 814 2nd Avenue in downtown Seattle.
John Loacker was the first and only employee of Carl Kroll's new map company. Loacker had preceded Kroll to the area, having arrived in Seattle in the late 1800s from the Midwest after immigrating to the United States from a small town in western Austria. A pauper, Loacker rode the freight trains out West since he had no money or prospects. After settling in West Seattle, he married Lena Bartell (1875-1912) and she gave birth to their son, Waldemar, in 1902. Lena Loacker died of tuberculosis on June 3, 1912.
The Kroll and Loacker families met after they each set up small cabins near Duwamish Head on Alki Beach. Following the first decade that established the company as a prosperous business, Loacker bought into what was by then called the Kroll Map Company in 1920, nine years after it first opened, paying $7,500 for 50 percent ownership. In 1925, Carl Kroll sold his remaining interest and Loacker completed purchasing the entire company by paying the second half of the $15,000 price. Kroll had relocated back to Europe after 1920, but later fled the rise of fascism in his native Germany. He decided to return to Seattle and went to work for Lockheed Shipyards as a drafter.
The Kroll Map Company was in good hands, and John Loacker intended to keep it in the family. The elder Loacker's only son, Waldemar "Wally" Loacker (1902-1995), worked for the company for 72 years, from 1920 until 1992. Initially, the relationship between father and son was not without its difficulties when it came to the map company, as related by Waldemar's son John Loacker (b. 1955):
"My father worked as I did as a little boy, but in 1920 when my grandfather, John Loacker, purchased half the company he asked my father to return from his 'dream' college experience at Brown and help him run the company (my dad must have been on scholarship since they were quite poor). My father, Waldemar was devastated by this but found a good career working with his father" (Loacker email, February 24, 2020).
In 1958, Kroll Map Company moved to the street level of the Melhorn Building and had a new address of 816 2nd Avenue. In the winter of 1975, under the direction of Wally Loacker, the company made a substantial investment in a new location at 3rd Avenue and Cedar Street in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood, acquiring a building of its own for the first time. Wally's son, John Loacker, helped with the major transition. John had started working at Kroll with his father in 1966 during the summers and by 1977 was a full-time employee.
As the third generation of his family to help with the business, John Loacker continued to build upon the reputation and legacy of his father and grandfather as the procedures for cartography changed over the years and the company adapted to new technologies. A 2018 article in The Seattle Times noted:
"John had to reinvent the company several times in order to keep it alive. When he started, Kroll made maps by hand: linen cloths, cast-iron printers, glass plates exposed by sunlight. Local governments and generic maps of the city accounted for most of the business. Now he makes customized maps on his computer and stores them on a flash drive. Local governments are his biggest competitors" (Jenks).
Map Making and Changing Technologies
Up until the late 1990s the primary business of the Kroll Map Company was the publication of large plat books, drawn at a scale of one inch equal to 200 feet. Each atlas was about 18 by 30 inches in size, so that when opened an entire survey section (or township), approximately one square mile in size, could be viewed. The use of these atlases became widespread in parts of Washington, most notably King and Snohomish Counties, with plat-book atlases also produced for areas including Bellingham, Wenatchee, Yakima, Bremerton, the Tri-Cities, and Olympia-Lacey. These atlases were omnipresent in many county and city offices, commercial and residential real estate offices, surveying and engineering firms, and title companies.
In the early days the plat survey records used in the atlases were prepared on glass photographic plates. The earliest of these plates were originally the property of the Washington Map and Blueprint Company, which sold them to the Anderson Map Company, which in turn sold them to Carl Kroll and Kroll Maps. Title companies, sometimes referred to as abstract companies, which keep records of real estate transactions, needed to place copies of recorded plats in title reports, and surveyors and civil engineers also needed the documents for their research and clients. In the first half of the twentieth century, new maps were created by using the glass plate negatives of these surveys to make prints on an original type of blueprint paper. Plates were placed in wooden frames on top of the paper, and set out in the sun to expose the underlying blueprint paper, rendering a positive print from the glass negative.
The glass plates containing the original maps were so valuable that at one point early in the company's history someone broke into the Kroll Map Company's office and stole them. Fortunately, they were later recovered by law enforcement and returned. A few of the old glass plate negatives were kept by the owners for posterity's sake (such as one titled "Town of Seattle"), but most were donated to the King County Archives in 2015.
The process of producing the atlases was very time consuming. After printing each page by hand, it involved coloring the various plats (with stencils) by hand, and then pasting the sheets back to back, so they appeared as one printed sheet, which made for a very durable product. The primary mechanism for making a profit on all this work was not the sale of the atlas itself, but the subscription to an "update service" that provided copies of new plat additions that the atlas owner would paste in the atlas (Loacker email, March 9, 2020). This would occur about two to four times a year, depending on development activity.
In 1987 the Kroll Map Company bought its first computer system, with a large map plotter. The investment represented a clear commitment that the company looked to continue into the next century and was serious about incorporating new technologies. This system cost almost $40,000 and it took another six years for Kroll to develop any sort of strategy to make money with this technology.
The company tried drafting its first atlas electronically in 1987, the year of the computer purchase, with the owner owner later recognizing that first effort as a "learning experience" (Loacker email, March 9, 2020). The company was unprepared for the accuracy that the new digital realm of technology demanded. It was a challenge to reconcile the many inaccuracies inherent in in map design and layout when producing maps digitally -- in contrast to hand-drafted maps, where the thickness of a line could absorb considerable discrepancies. Kroll completed its first digitally produced atlas in the early 1990s just as a shift was occurring in the cartography industry to digital maps sold on CD-ROM (the internet and its proliferation of maps to download was not yet a consideration).
In 1994, the company's map production changed again with the purchase of a new large-format scanner that captured all map content. The Kroll Map Company operated in what might be called a hybrid environment, where it made updates electronically and produced new images. This applied not only to its 1-to-200 large-scale maps but also to its street maps and more generalized mapping.
The company next started "vectorizing" its maps in the late 1990s, which gave greater "intelligence" to the elements in the maps, such as true distances and coordinate values (Loacker email, March 9, 2020). This effort was credited by the owner as instrumental to the company's continued existence as a viable map business.
Since the start of the twenty-first century, the focus of the Kroll Map Company has been on custom cartography, which has included some contract mapping and customization of its existing cartographic map databases. This customization has been facilitated by the technical ability to import a vast amount of public-domain data that resides on the internet, with this data then added as new layers to the mapping process. Kroll remains distinct from the database-driven mapping that is commonly seen in digital device-created maps, in that each element has been carefully crafted and authored for a "static view" (Loacker email, March 9, 2020).
Among products the company produced as of 2020 were maps for Seattle City Light (including showing new easements), maps for book publications, custom large-format wall maps, maps displaying demographics, and other maps customized for clients. Many of these originated through the Metsker Maps store in Pike Place Market. Metsker (then located in Pioneer Square) was purchased by the Kroll Map Company in 1999, with many of Kroll's township and county maps made available through the store's inventory.
The Loacker family has kept the Kroll Map Company's core business a close-knit operation since the days in the 1920s that it was operated by the grandfather of the current owner. In 2018, it had only two employees. John Loacker was also a co-owner of Metsker Maps along with his wife, Debra Loacker (b. 1958), with that company transitioning to an employee-owned-and-operated business model. Reflecting the company's more than a century in operation, Kroll maps are found in archives both local and nationwide, ranging from the Seattle Municipal Archives to the Library of Congress.