To illustrate the value of fire insurance maps for historical research, maps of a number of locations around the country are reproduced here and presented with a brief history of the site and some explanation of significant features as portrayed on the maps. These locations were selected because of their historical importance, their popularity as places to visit, or because they represent important types of structures or businesses that are well documented in fire insurance maps.
Details about each place, such as symbols or features of portions of maps, have been annotated to show the different aspects of urban landscapes that can be studied through fire insurance maps and how specific types of structures or activities are depicted on them.
Gary L. Fitzpatrick
Sampler: Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Facilities
Railroads played an important role in both the settlement of America and its industrialization. They moved people across the continent and through the placement of stations helped establish the urban centers that served rural populations. Since both raw materials and finished goods were shipped by railroad, major industrial centers developed alongside major transportation hubs. Some of the most important early railroad centers were those that provided links to the other major form of bulk transportation, river transportation and ocean-going vessels. Baltimore, Maryland, one of America's great ports, was also the location of one of the first commercial railroads, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
A terminus or an important node on a railroad line had three major components: a station for the embarkation and debarkation of passengers, switching yards where boxcars of goods were assembled into trains, and repair facilities. Fire insurance maps provide excellent coverage of both passenger stations and repair facilities. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's Mount Clare Car Shops facility is shown on the two sheets illustrated here. The most prominent feature, which is spread across the two sheets, is the nearly 600 foot long machine shop. Immediately adjacent to it are a storehouse and a boiler factory. Two other prominent features on the map are the roundhouses. One, approximately 150 feet in diameter, was for the repair and maintenance of freight cars, and the larger one, approximately 225 feet in diameter, was for working on passenger cars. Other specialized support facilities included a foundry and blacksmith, paint, machine, and wood shops. The network of railroad lines that connected the different buildings appears clearly.
Sampler: Bethlehem Steel Corporation
Mass production of iron and steel made possible the railroads, ships, bridges, and automobiles that constitute America's transportation system. Steel is also the backbone of most large buildings, whether in the form of rods that strengthen poured concrete or beams that support the walls and floors of skyscrapers. As with most major industries, the evolution of the iron and steel plants of America can be traced through fire insurance maps.
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania developed early as a major center of steel production. In 1857, the Saucona Iron Company was established there. It changed its name to the Bethlehem Iron Company in 1867. The company prospered through the last half of the nineteenth century by producing iron rails, heavy forgings, and armor plate. In the early 1900s the company expanded by adding iron mines overseas and shipyards on both the East and West Coasts.
The Sanborn Map Company's fire insurance map of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for 1912 depicts the main facilities of Bethlehem Steel Corporation on three sheets. The massive capital investment required for such an industry is clearly evident in the size of the buildings in this facility. The combined blacksmith shop/open-hearth department/steel foundry is shown to be nearly 2,100 feet long and as much as 150 feet wide. Machine Shop Number 2 is nearly 1,500 feet long and the Armor Plate Department is 800 feet long and nearly 200 feet wide. Of particular interest is the detailed portrayal of the array of railroads on which raw materials were brought to the plant and finished steel and iron products shipped from it. The map also represents a wide variety of specialized buildings and activities, including a brass foundry, a drop forge, a structure described as a "shears", and a large field of traveling cranes. A bridge shop (Bethlehem Steel produced major structural elements for the Golden Gate Bridge, among others) and a tempering room for naval guns reflect some of the specialized functions of steel and iron mills.
With literally hundreds of furnaces of various types in use, Bethlehem Steel was deeply concerned about fire protection. An extensive note on the fire insurance map provides insights into the types of alarm systems and fire fighting equipment available. It is notable that the company had a private fire company consisting of 150 men. This note provides further insight into the industry with its statement that the Bethlehem Steel Corporation employed approximately 12,000 workers.
Sampler: Chicago Union Stockyards
For decades, one of the largest features of Chicago and one of the most important parts of the local economy was the sprawling meat processing facility known as the Union Stockyards. Cattle, pigs, and sheep from the Midwest and West were brought by train to Chicago, where factories bearing such well-known names as Swift and Armour butchered and packed the meat which was then sold throughout the United States. Many Americans probably knew of the stockyards, but few had occasion to visit it, nor was it a part of most people's everyday concerns until publication of Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle in 1906. Sinclair, one of the investigative writers and reporters known as muckrakers, described the often brutal working conditions and unsanitary processes in the Union Stockyards' meat packing firms. This work greatly influenced President Theodore Roosevelt and helped motivate Congress to enact laws governing the processing of foods and drugs. Because Sinclair's novel has been part of the curriculum in many schools since its publication, no doubt many Americans have mental images of the Union Stockyards.
The firm of Charles Rascher had a virtual monopoly on fire insurance mapping in Chicago in Sinclair's day. The fire insurance atlas that Rascher produced for the city ultimately consisted of almost sixty large volumes. The Union Stockyards were so significant, however, that Rascher issued a completely separate publication about them, with a general plan of the stockyards and separate sheets for each of the major processing facilities.
The map of the complex of buildings belonging to Armour and Company is reproduced here. Letters on each building help users relate the perspective view in the upper right corner to the appropriate part of the detail plan on the left. Major structures supporting different components of the business include a packing house, two ham houses, various warehouses, cattle pens, a slaughter house, fertilizer works, a butter house, tallow house, wool house, hair press, and an ice machine and boiler facility. These are all connected by an extensive complex of railroad spurs and animal passageways.
Sampler: Cripple Creek Mining District
Fire insurance maps documented more than America's great cities. Some small towns were mapped more frequently than the big cities, and some places with very short lives were captured in great detail. Many mining towns in the West fall into this category. Cripple Creek is one of the better-known mining communities in Colorado, and the fire insurance map of the town from 1896 depicts the aboveground structures that supported most of the major mines. Sheet 16, the one reproduced here, is an excellent example of how the different types of cartographic materials complement each other, for many of the structures illustrated in the margins of the panoramic map of Cripple Creek were mapped by the Sanborn Map Company.
The fire insurance maps of Cripple Creek highlight the importance of this style of cartography to historical studies. Like many mining towns, Cripple Creek grew rapidly after its founding in 1892. The enormous wealth that flowed out of its mine shafts caused the population to swell with people eager to make their fortunes from mining or from providing services to those who did its hard work. A town is more rapidly built with wood than with more durable or fire-resistant materials. The city grew faster than the infrastructure necessary to ensure the safety of such a community, and in 1906 two fires within days of each other destroyed much of the town. Most of Cripple Creek as depicted on this 1896 fire insurance map completely disappeared. The mines which lay outside of town were not destroyed by the fires, but they too largely disappeared once the town went into economic decline in the early part of the twentieth century. Buildings that supported the mining operations were torn down and their lumber used for new structures elsewhere.
Sampler: John Deere and The Development of Mechanized Agriculture
The tractors produced by Deere and Company are common sights in both farmland and construction sites. Like so many major corporations of today, Deere and Company has origins that can be traced to a specific location depicted in the fire insurance maps in the collections of the Library of Congress. Here is an illustration of the Moline Plow Works of Deere and Company, as published in January 1886, just four months before the death of the firm's founder, John Deere.
John Deere (1804-1886) learned and practiced blacksmithing in his native Vermont until he was thirty-three years old. He then headed west, setting up his forge in Grand Detour, Illinois, in 1837. There he began experimenting with iron plows after recognizing that New-England-style wooden plows were inadequate for the soils of the plains and muddy river bottoms. By 1846, his company was producing approximately one thousand hand-made plows a year.
Believing that Grand Detour did not have the connections to transportation systems that he needed, Deere sold his business to his partner and moved to Moline, Illinois, on the Mississippi River, where the company that bears his name was founded. By 1857, he was producing nearly ten thousand plows a year. Shortly thereafter, he brought his son and son-in-law into the business and gave it the name of Deere and Company.
Although the Deere plows were iron, much of the framework to which they were attached was made of hardwood. Consequently, the Deere Company Moline Plow Works was more or less equally divided between iron working facilities and wood shops. As the map shows, the heart of the facility was a four-story building housing numerous forges. Arrayed around it in a U shape were buildings for the curing, planing, steam bending, shaping, and polishing of hardwood. Painting and varnishing took place in several different locations. John Deere's concerns about access to transportation are reflected in the integration of rail lines into the factory, with its two separate turning tables for bringing freight cars in and out of loading facilities, as well as in the plant's riverside location.
Sampler: Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, New York
The history of baseball is well documented in fire insurance maps. Famous stadiums of the major leagues as well as small, temporary ball parks in minor league towns were captured on paper by the agents of the fire insurance mapping companies. Many important stadiums of the major-league teams were constructed on the edge of town or in areas with large vacant lots, and the oddities of field dimensions and stadium designs often reflect the idiosyncrasies of their sites. As professional baseball became more popular and profitable, the stadiums were enlarged and remodeled, a process which can often be traced through various editions of the fire insurance maps of a given city.
Ebbets Field was the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The relocation of the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1957 and the subsequent destruction of Ebbets Field was a watershed event marking the beginning of the rapid expansion of teams and construction of new, modern stadiums in many professional sports. Ebbets Field is still fondly remembered by many people who attended and played in games there. Fire insurance maps provide insights that cannot be readily gained from contemporary photographs. The playing field, for instance, favored left-handed sluggers over right-handed batters. The short right-field fence that provided that advantage was merely a reflection of the irregularly shaped block in which Ebbets Field was built. Had home plate been placed at any of the other three corners, it would have been difficult to configure as large a playing field while providing as many good seats. With fire insurance maps, it is possible to measure the dimensions of the park, study the angles where foul lines and fences met, and look at the relationship of the seating and bleachers to the playing field.
Sampler: Ford Motor Company
Henry Ford (1863-1947) was a pivotal figure in the development of assembly line production. At the turn of the century, he was just one of many entrepreneurs throughout the country experimenting with the development of gasoline-powered automobiles. These machines were perhaps the most complex consumer good produced up to that time, and the expense of hand manufacture and assembly meant that they were readily available only to the wealthy.
Starting in 1900, Ford was involved in two failed automobile manufacturing efforts before organizing the Ford Motor Company in 1903. Although the company was immediately successful, three different cars, the Models A, K, and N, were developed before Ford was able in 1908 to implement his idea of mass production of a reliable and inexpensive automobile for the general populace, the Model T, in 1908. By 1910, the Model T was so popular that Ford was able to build a spacious plant that permitted the production of tens of thousands of cars per year. That facility, in the Highland Park area of Detroit, is shown on the 1910 edition of the Sanborn Map Company's fire insurance plan of Detroit.
The main building of the Highland Park plant was approximately 200 feet wide by 850 feet long. It was supported by an office building roughly 60 feet by 300 feet in size, a foundry 150 by 200 feet, and two smaller buildings. Half of the large structure was made of reinforced concrete, and the remainder was made of brick. Ford's business grew so rapidly that most of what is depicted on this sheet had been either replaced or greatly modified by the time of the next edition of the fire insurance map in 1915. The first moving assembly line for automobile manufacture was introduced in the expanded version of this plant. It was here, also, in 1914, that Ford radically altered basic concepts of industrial development by paying his employees the unheard-of sum of five dollars a day, almost double what they had been making before.
Sampler: The Ryman Auditorium
Nashville has been linked with country music for several decades. Today, it is the center of a huge recording business and the site of many nightclubs that cater to country music fans. The city and the music came to be identified with each other largely because of the popularity of the Grand Ole Opry, the radio program that began in 1925 on station WSM. As the show became more popular, it was shifted from one location to another to accommodate the live audience. In 1943, it finally moved to the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, where it stayed until 1974.
Although many people associate the Ryman Auditorium primarily with country music, it was in fact a multi-purpose facility that was completed in 1892 as a tabernacle for a popular minister of the time. Because of the cost of the building, however, Tom Ryman, the man who funded its construction, also allowed it to be used for conferences. Needing additional income, he soon promoted it as a site for music performances and theater. It became an important cultural center that saw performances by world-renowned artists in many musical and theatrical styles.
The Sanborn Map Company's 1914 fire insurance plan of Nashville depicts the Ryman some twenty years after its construction. The balcony shown was not part of the original plan, but was added to make the building more attractive to renters. The seating capacity is given as five to six thousand, which is an overstatement by about fifteen to twenty-five hundred. The sheet is interesting not only for its portrayal of the Ryman but for what it shows of downtown Nashville. Immediately adjacent to the Ryman Auditorium was a synagogue and another large tabernacle. Slightly further away was a college and a summer theater, then unused. In the neighboring blocks there was a heavy concentration of printing and publishing firms.
Sampler: Tuskegee Institute
America's higher-education community includes several thousand colleges and universities of various types. Tuskegee Institute is one of many that were established to educate African-American students. It opened in 1881 under the direction of Booker T. Washington and gained particular fame as a result of its principal agronomy instructor, George Washington Carver. The fire insurance map of Tuskegee illustrated here depicts the college in 1929, by which time it had expanded from its initial single building to a complex of academic, administration, housing, and support buildings.
The map reflects the substantial nature of the college at that time. Nealry all major buildings are brick, as indicated by the pink color, and some are quite large. This particular sheet is drawn at the scale of 1 inch to 100 feet, which was usually employed only where there was little development. Thompkins Hall, for instance, measures nearly 225 feet by 175 feet, and White Memorial Building is approximately 200 feet long. The note about the school that is found above the name indicates that there were fourteen hundred students at the time. The large number of dormitories probably indicates that many students came from beyond the immediate.
Fire insurance maps reveal details about the buildings in which institutions were housed provide insight the communities in which they were situated.
Sampler: Waikiki, 1914
The world-renowned beach of Waikiki, adjacent to Diamond Head in Honolulu, is depicted on this map as it looked sixteen years after the annexation of Hawaii by the United States and shortly after the beach's first tourist hotels were constructed.
The sheet illustrates how fire insurance maps frequently broke up geographically contiguous places to better make use of the space on a sheet of paper. The lower left portion of the sheet is an inset that continues the coverage ending at the bottom of the main portion of the map. Note that the "Hustace Villa Boarding House" is repeated in the inset so that users can understand the relationship of the inset to the main map.
This plan indirectly illustrates the challenges inherent in tracing the history of particular buildings, businesses, or institutions over time. The Outrigger Canoe Club, for instance, is now located further east, closer to Diamond Head. The Seaside Hotel was replaced by the most distinctive of the early resort hotels, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, which was situated in downtown Honolulu at the time this map was made.