Fire Insurance Maps of Cities and Towns

 

 

Recently, fire insurance maps have received recognition as superb historical sources. Since the 1870s several companies have mapped hundreds of Iowa communities, both large and small. A large mapping scale was used (I inch to 50 feet), as was a color coding system which distinguished between building materials and between types of structures. The resulting collection of maps offers "an invaluable historical record of urban growth ... over more than a century. Local historians, genealogists, urban planners, geographers, economists, and other specialists and scholars consult the maps today for the wealth of data which they embrace".

In 1981 the Library of Congress published a list of the approximately 700,000 fire insurance maps in their collection produced by the Sanborn Map Company. Inspired by this fine publication, a group of Iowa librarians and archivists determined to compile a bibliography and union list of holdings of Iowa fire insurance maps. In order to keep the project within manageable bounds, only the holdings of the three largest fire map collections in the state were surveyed. These collections are located at the Office of the State Historical Society (represented by the symbol HS in this list of holdings), the University of Iowa (UI), and the Iowa State Archives (IA). 

Additionally, the Library of Congress kindly supplied the compilers with a list of the fire maps in their collection prepared by the Bennett Map Company. This, combined with their published bibliography of Sanborn maps, provided enough information to list Library of Congress (LC) fire insurance map holdings as well. While there was no attempt to make this list of holdings a true union list of all Iowa fire insurance map holdings, the compilers believe this to be a complete list of all existing state fire maps. If anyone using this list of holdings discovers a fire map of an Iowa town not listed, please contact tile Office of the State Historical Society. 

Almost every map listed in this list of holdings was prepared by one of three commercial agencies: the Sanborn Company (denoted by S), the Bennett Company (B), and the Iowa Insurance Bureau (1). Maps for which a maker could not be determined are denoted by U (U). The history of the Sanborn Company is described in the introduction to Fire Maps in the Library of Congress. Little information is available about the Bennett Company, however. The firm was located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, throughout its existence. The first Bennett map the compilers located was dated 1897. By 1915 the firm was apparently out of business, as they were no longer listed in the Cedar Rapids city directory. It is probably not coincidental that the third firm, the Iowa Inspection Bureau, was founded in Des Moines in 1915. In 1971 this company merged with several related firms to form the Insurance Service Office (Iowa). 

Dating some of these maps proved to be a major problem. Over the years, almost all of the Iowa Insurance Bureau maps were corrected and updated by pencil drawings or pasted-on additions, In most cases it was impossible to determine when this updating ended, so these maps are dated in the following form: 1939- . This indicates the date the map was originally drawn, and that tile map was revised at some uncertain later date, Whenever the date of tile last additions and corrections Could be determined, the following format Was used: February 1937-june 1954. This means that the original map was drawn in 1937, but corrected in 1954 to reflect new conditions in the town. 

Determining the number of pages for each map was sometimes difficult. Many of the updated maps have overlays, handwritten notes and sketches, and unnumbered additional sheets. To simplify this situation, we used the number on the last numbered page as the total number of pages for the map. Users should be aware that many of the maps are actually longer than the page number suggests. Also, many of the maps for larger Iowa cities were issued in several volumes. This has been ignored here; the page figure given includes the total number of sheets in all the volumes.  

Town names likewise presented a challenge to the compilers. Town names were spelled exactly as they appeared on the maps with cross-references provided so that readers can find all the maps for a specific town. The town of Sutherland, for example, apparently spelled its name "Southerland" until sometime in the early twentieth century. Thus, it is listed under both names, with appropriate cross-references. Name changes can be historically interesting in themselves. Germania, Iowa is no longer on the map, although early fire insurance maps show it to be a large and thriving town. Investigation revealed that the town changed its name to Lakota in 1918, an event that will not surprise any student of the World War I era anti-German hysteria in the United States. Each town listing includes the county it is located in (or counties, in the case of towns which cross county lines).

These maps tell many stories of growth and change. Not all are happy. The map of Percy, for example, bears the laconic, handwritten notation, "rates cancelled, . . . town site under Red Rock dam." Yet without this map, little would remain of Percy, save the fading memories of its former residents.

 

 

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