Inside the Northwest History Room: Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

Sanborn 1914 title pageHere in the Northwest History Room of the Everett Public Library, we get frequent visitors looking into the history of buildings and land usage. One of the first resources we point people to is our collection of Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. We have the set of 1914 maps, and a copy of the 1914 maps that was updated in 1955 to show the present state of the land. These dates come in handy for people who own older non-compliant structures because they can be grandfathered in if they predate 1955.

Aside from being able to check if your porch or outbuilding might be able to be grandfathered in, a lot can be gleaned from comparing the 1914 and 1955 maps. For example, in these two photos, you can see how the old Everett Flour Mill was gradually replaced by the sprawling Scott Paper Co. Mill (click images to enlarge).

1914 view1955 view

Over time, this expansion meant altering the natural landscape by filling in some of the tidelands and building over them on piers. Roads and rails were altered to make way.

These two photos show the expansion of residential buildings that happened at 26th and Rainier. One can see how some buildings changed use, for example going from being a dwelling (‘D’) to being a shed, or gained or lost outbuildings. Some houses, surprisingly, remained mostly the same over the course of those 41 intervening years (click images to enlarge).

1914 view1955 view

Lastly we have the key that helps us interpret all the colors and symbols used in the maps. This provides us with a wealth of information about the construction of the buildings, from the materials used on the exterior walls, to the types of windows and skylights present, to the appearance of the chimneys. This is really useful for people who are looking to restore their homes to an earlier appearance, or for people who are trying to discover what a demolished building looked like when no pictures exist (click image to enlarge).

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps key


I invite you to come down to the Northwest History Room at Everett Public Library’s Main Library to see what you can find out about your home, or any other Everett property you might be curious about – either David or I would be happy to show you how to use our map collection.

Map It

Reading an atlas, and I won’t even discuss asking for directions, is one of those activities that can cause division while driving down the highway. If you have ever been appointed navigator for a road trip you know what I mean. Figuring out which way is north or thinking the blue line is a road instead of a river, can easily lead to arguments and recriminations while looking for the correct exit.  

I have to admit that I’ve always loved maps and atlases. I think the key to appreciating them is divorcing maps from the everyday function of finding directions. There are many atlases that are beautiful, fascinating and have nothing to do with getting you from point A to point B.

Let’s start with atlases that map places you will almost certainly never go. Unless you have access to a bathysphere, you probably won’t recognize the terrain in Hidden Depths: Atlas of the Oceans.  Far from just a collection of ocean maps, this book includes information on currents, climate and the creatures that inhabit all the world’s oceans.

The Compact NASA Atlas of the Solar System lets you explore the cosmic neighborhood. Each planetary system is mapped, incorporating the stunning images from spacecraft missions.  A truly spectacular book is the New Atlas of the Moon.  Each phase of the moon is mapped in detail. There is also a Lunar Cartography section that has photographs of each feature and how they came to be.

Animals and atlases are an interesting combination.  The Atlas of Pacific Salmon brings together a lot of key data about salmon populations. The graphic display of their movements and the human population’s impact on their numbers is eye-opening.  Tracking fellow long distance travelers, The Atlas of Bird Migration displays the movements of birds by species. Fascinating information about the how and why of migration is provided as well.

Sometimes the definition of atlas is stretched a bit thin. The World Atlas of Whisky is clearly a labor of love, with displays of major brands and bottles, but to be honest, it is a little low on the maps. If whisky is your thing, however, this book is definitely for you. Where else could you find a flow chart for “Irish pot-still production”?

Finally, for those ready to leave the traditional atlas behind, take a look at Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities. Based on a popular blog, this self-proclaimed “anti-atlas” is a treasure trove of maps that are both real and imagined.  Looking for a map of the barbecue regions of South Carolina?  You have found your atlas.