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Last updated: October 11. 2013 7:12PM - 1172 Views

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A resource created generations ago to help insurance companies assess risks has found a new purpose in genealogy.


Insurers of the late-19th and early-20th centuries ordered special maps showing individual buildings and the changing character of neighborhoods to help them determine the level of fire and other kinds of hazard risk before writing policies. For today’s genealogists, they are in the words of one expert “a snapshot of what the community looked like over time.”


Hank Loftus recently spoke about the old maps to an audience at the Genealogical Research Society of Northeast Pennsylvania in Peckville.


“Many times you don’t have photographs,” he said of our ancestors’ towns. “You can get a lot of clues about your family. (The maps) will put them in the context of the larger community. They’re a great resource.”


The maps, he said, were often called Sanborn maps, after the company that made them. They described the construction materials of individual buildings in a community and plotted locations of fire stations, hydrants, industrial buildings and oil refineries. That was all important information to someone about to issue a policy in the days of slower transportation, rapid urban growth and primitive (if any) building codes.


Over a century, Sanborn made about 1.2 million maps covering some 12,000 towns, with insurance companies subscribing to them. “I came across Sanborn maps four or five years ago, and they are treasures,” said Loftus, an avid genealogist.


Loftus lives at White Mills and is the curator and project coordinator for the Dorflinger-Suydam Wildlife Sanctuary there.


How do you get your hands on a Sanborn map today? Because they were copyrighted when produced, the Library of Congress acquired many of them and now has “probably as complete a collection as Sanborn’s own collection,” he said.


Pro Quest (www.proquest.com) has put a lot of them online, and some libraries have subscriptions. Pre-1923 maps, which are no longer under copyright, may be downloaded, Loftus said.


Some big research universities, such as Penn State (www.libraries.psu.edu), have Sanborn maps for their states, accessible through their websites. Also, go to www.oldhouseonline.com for a list of some sources. While I don’t often mention Wikipedia, their Sanborn map site has a clickable list of sources. Beyond that, there’s no telling where scattered local maps might turn up in libraries or historical societies.


Sanborn (www.sanborn.com) is still in business as a major provider of mapping products.


Shutdown News: Because of the federal government shutdown, some resources genealogists have depended upon are entirely or partially unavailable. The National Archives website (www.archives.gov), for instance, explains what it can and cannot provide. The U.S. Census Bureau site (www.census.gov) tells visitors that no services are available. Visitors to some other federal websites are told that the website itself is not operating and will not resume until the shutdown ends. What else is unavailable? There are many federal government websites. You’ll just have to try them and find out.


News Notes: Don’t forget the October meeting of the Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society on the 22nd at 7 p.m. It’s in Room 104 of the McGowan Building, King’s College, North River and West Union streets. It’s free and open to the public. John and Bert Stevenson will discuss their book “Our Back Mountain Families.” You can help out the society by buying a book because the Stevensons will donate the proceeds from the first 20 book sales to the society. The group also will elect officers to serve for the next two years.


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