We could call this story a number of things. Google Maps versus Cocalico Creek. Or dare to question what you see online.
It was last fall when Manheim Township resident John Friel was chatting with fellow paddler Nick Di Bernardo of Lancaster. Di Bernardo is a beginner fly fisherman and uses a kayak to navigate promising waters. He was telling Friel about a float where he set up on the Conestoga River near where Friel has a riverside home and paddled upstream to the confluence with Middle Creek.
You mean “Cocalico Creek”, not “Middle Creek”, corrected Friel. His friend looked doubtful. So they went to Google Maps, the source for where you are and where you want to go for billions of people around the world.
Friel was amazed to see that Cocalico Creek had indeed disappeared from Lancaster County and was instead labeled Middle Creek which actually empties into Cocalico Creek. Thus, the rather incongruous situation of going to street view on Google Maps and seeing a photo of Cocalico Creek Road next to a creek of another name.
“All-powerful, all-knowing, billionaire Google got it wrong,” Friel says. Later, he dusted off one of his old paper maps just to check that he wasn’t going senile. He was not.
The geographic redevelopment of Lancaster County did not stop there. Rich Kulawiec, a paddler and member of the Lancaster Canoe Club whom Friel had contacted, took a closer look and discovered that Google Maps had done wrong to Lancaster County in other places.
Hammer Creek, after leaving Speedwell Forge Lake en route to Conestoga, simply disappears without a trace near Brunnerville, Kulawiec found. If you go to the street view, however, there are plenty of photographs along the roads where you can see the creek and sometimes Hammer Creek emblazoned with signs where bridges cross the waterway.
Lititz Run, after leaving its namesake borough, suddenly becomes the Conestoga River near Oregon Village and a few miles later merges with itself, the real Conestoga River, Friel discovered to his dismay.
How could this happen?
“I suspect this is probably due to an error in the geographic database that underpins Google Maps,” reports Kulawiec, who is familiar with datasets and logarithms. “It is updated periodically and chances are someone or something has gone wrong.
“I’ll try to get Google’s attention on this, but they’ve spent the last few years making it as difficult as possible to reach a real, living human being, so it may take a while.” He ended up leaving a comment on the online map where Google allows it.
I haven’t been able to contact Kulawiec for the past few days, but apparently his efforts to save Cocalico Creek have been successful. Cocalico Creek, not Middle Creek, again flows through Ephrata and into the Conestoga River.
However, Lititz Run continues to be partially mislabeled as the Conestoga and Hammer Creek continue to disappear on Google Maps.
My own questions about how this can happen and how to fix it, sent to Google’s site for media contact, went unanswered.
“It just scares me a little bit that three feeds in Lancaster County are wrong and Google is global,” Friel reflects. “If you extrapolate that, there could be so many streams with confusing names because that’s where we go to look for information these days. Where else is Google rewriting geography?”
A Google search for “Google Maps and Errors” yields a feed of aggregations of the “25 Biggest Google Maps Errors”.
Most are humorous. For example, for five years tourists who plugged in “Mount Rushmore, SD” were instead directed to the Storm Mountain Retreat Center, 13 miles away.
Sometimes the results aren’t so funny. In 2017, a motorist trying to exit Grand Canyon National Park was directed onto a road that didn’t exist. After wandering around the area, his car eventually ran out of gas. She had no cell service and lacked food and water. She even recorded goodbye videos for her family. She was saved on the fifth day.
In 2016, a woman from Rowlett, Texas was shocked to return home to find her house had been demolished. The wrecking crew said Google Maps had an incorrect listing for the address.
According to CNN, in 2010 Nicaraguan troops, using the location of the border on Google Maps, crossed into neighboring Costa Rica, removed the flag and planted their own. The border dispute ultimately had to be arbitrated by the United Nations Security Council and the Organization of American States, which determined that the Google Maps border was incorrect.
Last summer, the weekly where my family has a mountain home in West Virginia ran a front-page story about an 18-wheeler that got stuck in the mud when Google Maps pointed it down a narrow road from mountain to earth.
You had the idea.
For Friel, the moral of the story is: “We rely on the omnipotent Google, perhaps to a dangerous extent. People have driven into bodies of water because the GPS told them to. go straight. This will shock some people, but you really can’t believe everything you read online.
Ad Crable is a LNL | Outdoor Writer LancasterOnline.