By Daniel Hubbard | June 14, 2010
A few days ago, I was chatting with an architect and he mentioned how useful Sanborn Maps are for historical preservation. I said something about having looked at them and we chatted a bit more and I started describing some details that I’d seen in the maps. Eventually, I could tell something suddenly clicked. He stopped me to ask why on Earth I had spent so much time looking at Sanborn maps. I knew how he makes his living but it turned out he didn’t know how I make mine.
Sanborn Maps were produced for insurance purposes. Want to know some of the gory details about what a town looked like roughly one hundred years ago? Find out if there were Sanborn maps made for that town. Amazing details wait in them. Not just the outlines and positions of buildings but their uses and materials, whether or not the building had a telephone for summoning help in case of fire, even the direction of the prevailing winds.
Every map seems to have its own little treasures. I once found the most likely explanation for the odd address of a very poor family in Chicago to be a shack shown in the middle of a rail yard. Not something that would have turned up in a caption on a neighborhood postcard but because it might burn or flood, it was on the Sanborn Map.
Part of my own family comes from northern Wisconsin where lumber was king. Some towns where dominated by a long series of sawmills and shingle warehouses. Tens of millions of board feet of lumber were documented on the maps in vast storage yards. The maps of these areas really show how fire and the fear of fire affected lives. Some mill yards are simply marked with words like “burnt ruin.” For existing mills the maps show the enormous water tanks housed in their ceilings in case fire broke out. The positions of phones and fire signals are given. Sometimes large kerosene tanks are shown at distances from sawdust dumps that seem uncomfortably close, which does tend to lead the mind back to those places labeled “burnt ruin.”
This was a region that had good reason to fear fire. One of the greatest disasters in American history, at least one of the greatest disasters that is virtually unknown is the Peshtigo Fire of October 8, 1871. Unknown because October 8, 1871 is the date of the Great Chicago Fire as well, and for that matter the lesser known Great Michigan Fire. Nevertheless, it was the forest fire in northern Wisconsin on that day, not its brother in Chicago, that ranks as the deadliest fire in American history. It was for days like October 8, 1871 that Sanborn Maps were created, or rather for the days before days like October 8, 1871 when people wanted to take out insurance on their buildings.
Today, a Sanborn Map can tell you where your grandparents might have seen a “moving picture” or what the mill where a great-grandfather worked was like. It can show you the intricacies of back alleys that no longer exist or the path an ancestor may have taken to school. Sometimes a Sanborn Map will solve a problem, sometimes it will add an interesting detail and sometimes it will simply provide an appealing stroll passed the butcher, millinery, print shop, barber and grocery store that might have occupied an ancestor’s Memory Lane.Twitter It!