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Thursday, Oct 30, 2014
Lifestyle Stories

Fire maps offer intriguing look at old buildings


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EDITOR”S NOTE: This is the final in a four-part series on using maps in genealogical research.

In post Civil War 1860s, the Sanborn Insurance Company began creating maps to assess fire liability in American cities. During a period that ended in 2007, the company mapped about 12,000 cities.

The company was headquartered in New York, with offices in San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta. Sanborn sent surveyors out into cities to record building footprints and details about the buildings. From this information the company could predict liability from fires.

From those same large-scale maps (50 feet to an inch) family history researchers can glean minute details for visualizing their ancestors’ properties.

The Library of Congress Geography and Map division has the biggest collection of Sanborn maps, estimated at 700,000. Copies can be ordered for maps out of copyright. Check their site at www.loc.gov/rr/geogmap/sanborn for details.

The Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative also has an impressive collection of maps. Through the library website (www.hcplc.org), individuals with library cards can access a digitized collection of Florida’s Sanborn Maps from their home computers. Researchers also can access the maps from computers in branch libraries.

On-site at the John F. Germany main library (900 N. Ashley Drive, Tampa) researchers can find the Sanborns of many other states on microfilm and also a collection of the paper maps for Tampa.

Many states have digitized the maps inside their boundaries and offer them online through library systems. For example, Florida maps are available through the University of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, online at http://ufdc.ufl .edu/sanborn. Type “Tampa” in the search box and you’ll get 14 maps to explore.

Use a search engine with keywords such as “Sanborn maps Missouri” (or whatever the state of interest) to find maps for most cities. If your family members were city dwellers and business owners, you’ll likely find drawings of the buildings on their property. It is fun to “walk” around the map and imagine how your ancestor, perhaps the owner of a furniture store, would have strolled down the street or across the square to visit the banker, the butcher or pharmacist.

The maps show outlines of the buildings, but data written on the maps provides construction materials, how the buildings were heated, building heights, locations of doors and windows, sidewalk widths, property boundaries, building use and house numbers. Keep in mind that Sanborn wanted these details to aid in assessing each building for fire liability.

Neighborhood details such as pipelines, railroads, wells and dumps also are on the maps. Each map has a key that links symbols and colors to these details. Readers can see one of these keys at http://sanborn.umi.com/HelpFiles/key.html.

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For those who haven’t ordered Thomas Jones’ new book, “Mastering Genealogical Proof,” a Kindle version now is available for $9.99 through Amazon.com. The National Genealogical Society (ngsgenealogy.org, select “store”) still is offering the print version at the nonmember price of $25.

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Have you ever been hot on an ancestor’s trail only to discover a website that doesn’t seem to be working? Is it just you or is the site really ailing? There is a link titled www.downforeveryoneor justme.com that let’s you check to see whether it is “just you.”

Knowing that doesn’t fix anything except to tell you whether the problem is on your end.

Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching individuals. Past Heritage Hunting columns are available online at tbo.com, search words “Sharon Tate Moody.

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