Sanborn Maps of Washtenaw County

Another great way to get a historical sense of what the cities and towns making up Washtenaw County were like a hundred years ago are Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. These maps were used by insurers to assess fire risk, set rates and figure out who needed to be billed.  These maps were first published in 1866 and serve as one of the de facto resources chronicling the development of the American city.

They are invaluable resources!

Most libraries have print copies of these maps or microfiche versions. For example, Ann Arbor has copies of maps from Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Dexter, Manchester, Milan, Saline and Ypsilanti from 1884 to 1948 on microfiche (

This being the internet age however, we don’t really want to go to the library to dig through micro-fiches to view these maps (as nice as our libraries are and how much we like them) so let’s explore our online options.

Free Option

A limited (but sizable) number of these maps are available to view for free at the Library of Congress (

Pay Option

If you have a ProQuest account and can get behind the paywall, most of the Sanborn maps published between 1866 and 1970 can be found there

Example Sanborn Map Exploration

I don’t have a ProQuest account so here is an example from the Library of Congress (LOC) – Depot Town in Ypsilanti!

Clicking on the LOC Sanborn map link, I navigate to Michigan and then pick out Ypsilanti.

Sanborn 1.png

1899 sounds like as good a year as any so I click on it and get the below screen:


This is the set of 1899 Ypsilanti Sanborn Maps. The first sheet in any Sanborn Map is always an overview of the city and an index showing which parts of the city are detailed. It’s always good to start with this sheet – looking at it, we see that Depot Town is located on Page 10.


And here is a map of Depot Town in 1899! (aka the Showerman & Compton Addition)


The color coding and other symbols have very specific meaning. For example, Solid pink means a brick building while yellow means wood framed. The Library of Congress provides a guide on what the other codes and colors are here:

It is clear that the focus of these maps is fire protection/fire risk analysis. We can learn that the “Ypsilanti Machine Works” has no watchmen, steam power, gas lights, coal for fuel, city water, a stock of rubber hose, and “Barrels of Salt Water and Pails all through Bldg.” for fire-fighting purposes. The side benefit for us is a historical snapshot of what existed here in 1899.


There are too many fascinating details from these maps to go into any more detail about them so this post is more a primer on how you can explore/enjoy the Sanborn maps yourself and begin to understand what life used to be like here in our fair County.

As one last note, the size and diversification of local commercial and industry interests in the late 19th and early 20th century is something that seems astonishing to me today.

In Depot Town alone, we have a

  1. Flour Mill
  2. Malt House
  3. Condiment Manufacturing Company
  4. “Wheel Barrow Seeder” manufacturer
  5. Foundry/Machine Works
  6. Cigar Factory
  7. Two Butchers
  8. Two Bakers
  9. Grocers, installment goods, jewelers etc…

That is a lot of industry/commercial interests packed into one small area!

The title blocks are always beautiful too! 🙂

Sanborn 6.png


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