Have you heard the news about the Library of Congress new digital Sanborn maps? Nearly 25,000 maps are now online, with more to be added over the next three years for a total of 500,000.
Sanborn fire insurance maps were published for insurance companies to assess a structures risk of catching fire. They were published in different years for different places, and usually after 1920, a set of maps for a particular town might be updated by pasting over a new building.
The maps show subdivision names, streets, buildings, and building details such as address, purpose, composition, windows and doors. You can locate your ancestors address before renumbering and renaming that mightve happened, and you get a good look at your ancestors neighborhood at the time.
Heres an example of how I used the collection to see where my ancestors lived:
1. Much of my mom’s family lived in Covington, Ky., so thats what I searched for (typing the full state name) in the Search box at the top of the page. Maps were published in 1886 and 1894.
I chose 1886.
2. Next, I looked up a few ancestors addresses in city directories. In 1886, Louis Thoss lived and worked at a hardware business at 73 E. 12th st. His mother, Elizabeth, was a widow at the southeast corner (sec) of 13th and Garrard. His deceased brothers widow, Jennie, lived at 165 E. 13th.
3. Each set of maps took up many pages in a book. An index map, labeled Map 1, is the first in the series and shows which page covers each area.
Zoom in on the index map and drag it around to get a better look at street names.
For larger cities, check the last page in the series for a street index that lists which range of house numbers and the map page theyre located on. It also lists specials, or major buildings.
The corner of East 13th and Garrard is on Map 30. Jennie’s address on East 13th could be on map 29 or 30.
I Googled Louis’ address to get a better idea of its location today. It’s probably on Map 20, but might be on a different map if houses have been renumbered since Louis day.
4. At the top right of the web page, switching from single image to gallery view and clicking Go gets me to the view of all map pages in this set, so I can find and click image 30.
Here’s where it helps to check a Google map if you don’t know the area. Thirteenth street was shown running north/south, because it was probably positioned horizontally on the page. But in real life, it runs east/west. If I didn’t know that, Id pick the wrong corner of 13th and Garrard. You can rotate the map using controls in the lower right corner.
Elizabeth Thoss lived at No. 133. No. 165 is 11 doors to the east.
5. Elizabeths home is mostly pink and some yellow, with numbers and Xes, and the notation no opgs on the side. Youll find a key on the index map page and more information about the colors and symbols here, along with notes such as the areas population and size of the fire department.
Colors indicate construction materials. Green indicated a high-risk building. The numbers tell how many stories. An X marks a door, and Xes on walls mark windows, with dots for windows on second or higher stories. An O is an iron chimney. Elizabeths building was mostly brick (pink) and 2-½ stories, with a 2-story wood (yellow) addition. The front section held a saloon (sal), with a dwelling (Dwg) in the rear.
6. You can download this map in several formats, all the way up to a TIF, using the Download menu at the lower left.
If youre looking in New York City, you can use the New York Public Librarys Map Warper to view Sanborn and other old maps layered over modern maps. If not, you can upload your map to Google Earth and do an overlay there. Find a tutorial in the July/August 2015 issue of Family Tree Magazine.