Researching the Past: The Sanborn Maps

Written by Robert

Using the guidance on Doug Decker’s web site, I went looking for the Sanborn Maps.  The Sanborn maps are uniquely interesting, more accurate and more detailed than other map sources from the same time period because money.

The Sanborn Maps were created to keep track of fire insurance liability to protect the assets of insurance providers.  So, unlike the city maps, you know they are going to be accurate and we’re about to get some answers.

These maps have a lot of detail because the insurance providers needed to know the footprint of the house, number of stories and construction type so when an owner tried to make a claim, the insurance company could limit their liability and only pay on what their records show thus preventing potential fraud.  They could also more easily calculate their liability in a given area.  Because of the construction materials used back then, fires tended to spread to adjoining structures, much more readily than they do today.

The Sanborn Maps company starting making the maps in 1866 and continued to make the maps until around the 1950s when improved actuarial practices finally overran their usefulness for insurance purposes.  The wikipedia article linked above is interesting because it gets into how a young man named Warren Buffett went after the Sanborn Maps company in the 1960’s for treating their shareholders unfairly.

The reason these are useful to me in my hunt for information about the origin and history of the Going Queen is:

  • If I can spot the house on a map that pre-dates the 1910 construction date found in the public records, then I have a smoking gun.
  • In 1933, there was a city wide change to street addresses.  This complicates trying to get information about old homes because to go past 1933, you need to know what the old address was.  That can be difficult to determine.  If I can find the house on a Sanborn map prior to 1933, then I learn it’s original address.

It’s not guaranteed to have the answers I need because the Sanborn Maps don’t cover the entire city of Portland.  They only cover the most densely populated areas of interest to the insurance companies.  In the early 1900’s, the area of the city where the Going Queen was sitting was on the edge of where the city stopped giving a shit.

Fortunately, the maps are available on-line through the Multnomah County Library.  I had to get a library card first so I could log into the site.  I haven’t had a library card since the 1980’s and I enjoyed filling out the form and going into the NW branch to pick it up.  It took 2 minutes to complete the form.  Once I arrived at the library it took the librarian, who I swear was in a classic librarian cosplay outfit, 5 minutes to get a nice looking and durable library card into my wallet with a bonus miniature version for my keychain.  Now I feel like a real card carrying Portlander

After 3 hours working with the Sanborn Maps, I had all the answers I was going to get.

First thing to do was to use the latest maps, which were from 1950, and try to find the house.  This was a little tedious because the on-line tools are super duper shitty.  The maps pages are big, but the window they give you to view them in is small.  It’s like laying out a map the size of your kitchen table and getting a little window the size of a coaster to view it through.  You have to keep moving it around, zooming in and out, and of guessing where the hell you are in old-timey Portland.

Sandborn Map v5 568 1950.png

Using the 1950 maps, I was able to find the Going Queen at her current address 2624 NE Going Street.  She was found in map book volume 5 on plate 568.  Using the index, I had to find a place that I was familiar with in NE Portland, and then start walking, one plate at a time, towards the house.  It took me an hour and a half to figure out how to navigate the site, maps and index but once I had a decent system, it went a lot faster.

When you get to the edge of a map plate, there is a number indicating the next plate number you will need to keep heading in that direction.  As you can see in the image above, If you want to keep heading east on Going Street, you need to get plate 569.  The system worked like the Thomas Brother’s maps that I grew up with in the 70’s and 80’s which my father still carries around with him in the back seat of his truck even though I got him an iPhone.

You can also see, that the Going Queen is at street number 2626.

The next set of maps were from 1924.  To find the Going Queen on these older maps, I got lucky and opened up plate 568 and there it was.

And, one of the important pieces of information was right there too.  She used to be 848 N Going Street.

I was pretty excited with my winning streak and felt confident I would find the answer.  In the 1950 map, there are 7 empty lots on plate 568.  Going back to 1924, I counted 47 empty lots out of a total of 176 lots shown on the plate.  Plate 568 went from about 70% occupied to over 90% occupied in those 26 years.

The next set of maps were from 1908, 16 years earlier, so I figured I would open the plate and either see the Queen or count her empty lot and know that the date of the house is probably right.

I started with the 1908 indexes.  It was like a different city.  There must have been a huge population boom in that 16 year period.  In 1924, there are 12 volumes of Sanborn Maps, the same number they had in 1950.  In 1908 however, there were only 5 volumes.  The mapped portion of the city was ½ the size and there was no map plate 568.

The population of Portland grew about 130% in the 1910’s and another 25% in the ‘20s.  The Sanborn Map company was probably trying to hire and train surveyors as fast as they could to keep up.

Getting back to the 1908 Sanborn maps, I went through each volume looking for any plates that had Going St, or street names near Going.  I did find a small number of entries for North Going , opened those plates, and started using the next plate number on the edge of the map to ‘walk’ down Going Street toward the house.  The trail ran out on volume 3 plate 238.  A litteral goose egg sits at the end of Going Street on the right hand side of the map telling me that this is the last map for this street.

It’s obvious that there were many properties further east of Going Street, but there wasn’t enough density to justify the surveyors for the Sanborn Maps company to do data collection beyond 15th Avenue.

So, I had the old-time address for the Queen, but I still can’t confirm or deny if she was born before 1910.

However, my new library card has other powers.  To learn more, I have to get off the internet and go into the library to do some research.  I’m going to look up the old address in the Polk Directories to see what I can find.