Sunday, May 1, 2016

Mapping History: How Chasing Sanborn's Show What Once Existed

The Sanborn Map Company 
Those interested in the past often obsess over the "when" of things. The first person settled in 1822. The first brick home was built in 1845. The first train arrived in 1888. Columbus sailed the ocean blue in…

But the "where" is important, too, because things exist in both time, and space. There's a reason your home, your town, or the road you travel is where it is. Hardly anything, in fact maybe nothing, ends up where it is purely by chance.

Understanding the where of an item is difficult because of the inconvenience of change. Think of any routine car ride you take. Is the scenery the same as it was a decade ago? No. The world around us is in a constant state of change. This sometimes happens quickly, as in a fire or flood, but more often change occurs at such a slow rate that we don't even notice until we're reminded. How familiar is the statement: "I remember when all this land was farms."

Historians are lucky in that there are a whole bunch of other kinds of people interested in where things are and how they change. Some of these people are driven by profit. That's a good thing, because generally speaking, the more money that's involved, the better the information tends to be.

Cambridgeboro stamp on 1895 Sanborn Map
So… Let's pretend, for a moment, that it's 1895. You work for a large company in Chicago, Illinois, selling fire insurance. You're asked to provide a bid for someplace called "The Riverside Hotel" in the thoroughly unfamiliar town of Cambridgeboro, Crawford County, Pennsylvania.

What are some of the first things you want to know, besides whether or not the person can pay the bill? A few questions that come to mind: Are you being told the truth about the building? What are its dimensions? What is its construction? What else is it near? After all, a property that stands alone is a whole lot different than one surrounded by gunpowder factories. Is this Riverside Inn up- or down-wind from other likely sources of ignition? Does this Cambridgeboro place have a fire department? What's the water supply like? Where's the nearest hydrant?

It's 1895, remember—you can't hop on the Internet and look this stuff up. Your company certainly isn't going to pay for you to travel to Cambridgeboro. Where do you go for your information? How do you make your decision?

Daniel Alfred Sanborn
Enter one Dan Sanborn (1827-1883), a surveyor and civil engineer who first began working on "fire insurance maps" in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1866.  Shortly after, this sharp and savvy business man founded the D. A. Sanborn National Insurance Diagram Bureau in New York City, New York.

With hundreds of field workers and cartographers, Sanborn rode the wave of post-Civil War reconstruction and growth of the fire insurance industry to produce and provide regular updates of detailed maps of thousands of towns across the country. These high quality drawings provided standardized keys, colors and codes, along with concise descriptions of the towns and their infrastructure. Before long, Sanborn was the source of information that helped insurance companies establish their risks of doing business in new territories.

Our company in Chicago has the 1895 Sanborn map of Cambridgeboro. A look at the summary on the first page and we figure the property is a no-go: This is a small, hick town with a population of 1,500. It has no steam- or hand-pumped fire equipment. There are no independent horse-drawn fire carts. Heck, there isn't even a centralized water supply. Why in Sam Hill would anybody even bother to build a big, fancy hotel in such a rinky-dink little place?

The Riverside Inn on a Sanborn Map
But the Sanborn map contains much more information. The NYP&ORR has a stop and station in Cambridgeboro. There are other hotels in town. Some sort of mineral springs. The Central Crawford Agricultural Society has large exhibition halls nearby. Maybe there's more business to be had.

A check of the Riverside property, itself, tells us another story: The Inn is stick-built, we can tell that by the color of the drawing. It stands on its own. There are other stick-built auxiliary structures to the north, but everything's well-spaced and looks to be planned. The building is modern, with its own dynamo supplying electricity. Best of all, it has its own water tower. Let's write up a quote and see what happens!

Hmm… It's right alongside the Venango River. Might be best to ask the boss if it's prudent to send a memo to the folks over in flood insurance to avoid this one.

Because Sanborns were regularly updated, the evolution of some lucky towns can be tracked with amazing accuracy. Cambridgeboro, which became Cambridge Springs, is one such place, with readily accessible maps for 1895, 1897, 1899, 1904, and 1911.

The obvious modern use of Sanborns is finding where something was at a certain time, but they provide so much more information that is both general and specific. Genealogists can pinpoint homes and factories familiar to their ancestors. Preservationists can establish the importance, or uniqueness of a building within its environment. Those interested in transportation, or industry, can locate and track the evolution of those subjects. Present-day developers or home-buyers can look back in time to see what a property was once used for to help determine the possibility of digging into old pipes, foundations, or unwanted hazardous waste.

But the maps aren't a perfect source of information. A town had to be a certain size before a map was produced. You won't typically find one for a location outside of a town unless the structure is exceptional (like the Hotel Rider near Cambridge Springs). The maps, while very good, have a few quirks, like not always using what a modern ear hears as local vernacular (Venango River instead of French Creek). And, sometimes, they're just wrong, like the 1922 Sanborn Map of Conneaut Lake Borough that calls the nearby body of water "Conneaut River." Those limitations aside, a Sanborn Map is nothing less than a time machine to those with good imaginations.

Daniel Sanborn's effort to provide solid, timely information has grown into a trillion-dollar industry. Cities of any size depend on modern data-mapping to help them find solutions and avoid trouble. Smart communities use what's available to plan their futures. Smart researchers use it to investigate the past.

Many historical societies (Crawford County's, included) hold some Sanborn Maps. Make a visit and ask if you can turn the pages, there's nothing quite like it. Can't make the trip? The Pennsylvania State University Digital Collection holds copies of almost all of this state's Sanborn maps that are out of copyright (up to 1922). They can be accessed online at: HERE or via

If you're after post-1922 maps, they're controlled by EDR, and in case you're interested, Dan Sanborn's mapping company is still going strong.

About the Author

Don Hilton is the second of three sons raised in Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania. After graduating from Conneaut Lake High School, he attended Thiel College, majoring in both Philosophy and Geology, and later earned a Master of Science in Geology from Kent State University. Over the course of his life, Don’s broad mix of experiences have included: passenger boat pilot, gravel pit lab technician, sweetheart, husband, post-graduate research fellow, geologist, statistician, teacher, stand-up comedian, computer support analyst, father, martial arts instructor, freelance writer, and published author. Don has published several works of local history such as Murders, Mysteries, and History of Crawford County, Pennsylvania 1800 to 1956 and Conneaut Lake Ferry Tails. More of Don’s books and writing can be found at

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