The Analog and Digital Raleigh Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

While working as a research assistant in the Department of History, I had the task of taking 82 pages from the Raleigh Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of 1914 and mapping them for usage in Geographic Information Systems software, a process called georeferencing. Through this research position, I had the opportunity to visit the UNC Libraries and see this map in person before they released the digital version to the public. Although that project focused primarily on automobile infrastructure and another project I used these maps for looked at the disappearance of a predominantly Black neighborhood, I spent plenty of time working through the intricacies of this map in hopes of creating an accurate snapshot of what Raleigh was like in 1914.

The purpose of these maps are not necessarily for navigation, but rather on detailed structure and road information (which is what makes this so valuable to historians). Like all good maps, the symbology and coloring is consistent between pages; houses are yellow, community buildings are red, streets are labeled, horse stables are marked with a large X. On a day-to-day basis, this map would maybe be used when researching a specific location to see what buildings surround an incident; for this use case, the reader can clearly look at the colorful key page, then navigate to the more detailed page directly. For instance, if I wanted to see what buildings surrounded a fire in Oberlin Village (near modern Cameron Village), I could look at the key map:

and then I could navigate to pages 71 and 72. 

Page 71 of Raleigh Sanborn Fire Insurance MapsPage 72 of Raleigh Sanborn Fire Insurance Map

However, as a researcher, I was looking for a systematic stitching of all pages together. The design choice to nebulously end lines makes it difficult to line up each page perfectly with its neighbors. In addition to some streets being renamed, entire neighborhoods in Downtown Raleigh have disappeared between 1914 and the modern day, such as the predominantly African American Fourth Ward neighborhood. While georeferencing all 82 pages, I would constantly need to flip between the key page and each individual page to get a general location, followed by identifying three real-life reference points on OpenStreetMaps. In addition, the lack of modern reference points for certain areas (especially around the abandoned St. Agnes Hospital) map it difficult to fit the map to my specific need, often ending in frustration. Overall, the georeferencing process was tedious; however, now a comprehensive file with all pages stitched relative to each other exists and can be used by researchers. One of the ways which my research mentor used this file was to bring it into Google Maps, overlaying the 3D structure of Modern Raleigh over the maps and roads of Old Raleigh. The georeferencing allows for greater usage of this map across disciplines for its designated purpose; this map has limited utility as a navigation tool, but provides a snapshot of what the high-level architectural and urban landscape was of Raleigh prior to World War I. 

Raleigh Sanborn GIF