Off Beat: Mapmaker’s sense of humor spurred wild goose chase

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter



The late Phil Arnold spent hours poring over his hand-drawn work, a tiny portion of which came from his imagination.

In John Talbot’s line of work, maps could be a matter of life and death.

So when a few irregularities popped up on some local maps, it got Talbot’s attention. Those irregularities came from a longtime Vancouver mapmaker’s subtle sense of humor.

An entry in this space a week ago noted how Phil Arnold spiced up his county atlases with nods to family members. Arnold, who died on Jan. 14 at age 96, would slip a few nonexistent roads into his maps, or add names of family members to some routes that officially didn’t have names. It was also his way of detecting copyright infringement.

It brought back a lot of memories for Talbot, a retired emergency services official.

Talbot said that the Jan. 23 “Off Beat” column reminded him of a few problems when the regional dispatch center implemented enhanced 911 and a computer-aided dispatch system about 20 years ago.

“In developing the databases for these two systems, Sgt. John Dush from (the Clark County Sheriff’s Office) and I had to manually research and enter every roadway and intersection in Clark County into the system,” he said.

They also had to designate which police agency, fire department or medical responder should be dispatched to a particular address.

“As you can imagine, it was a big project and we relied heavily on Phil’s maps, as they were more accurate than the ones the county produced,” he said.

“One of the roads we came upon on Phil’s map was Nead Road on Mount Norway,” north of Washougal, Talbot said.

“None of our existing records showed this road, nor was the local fire department aware of it,” Talbot said. “Sgt. Dush was an absolute stickler for details. He decided to drive out to Mount Norway to see for himself.”

“Well, guess what? He could not locate it,” Talbot said.

“The next day, we stopped by Phil’s house to let him know about the error in his map. He started to laugh when we told him about the error and said, ‘I have a little secret to tell you.’ And he proceeded to tell us about those nonexistent roads. We promised not to tell anyone,” Talbot said.

(“Nead” is a scrambling of “Dean” — one of Arnold’s sons).

“I stayed in contact on and off with Phil for many years and he would on occasion stop by the 911 Center to visit and talk about maps.

“The database we developed with the help of Phil’s maps was still being used in Clark County by 911 dispatchers, police and fire until about a year ago, when the center switched to a new computer system.”

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.