The 19th-century St. Louis fire insurance maps are an important source of historical information to study the growth and development of post-Civil War St. Louis. By 1870, a tide of immigrants had swollen the St. Louis population to over 310,000 and the city had grown from an important frontier commercial center to the 4th largest city in the nation. Originally created for the fire insurance industry, these maps provide the most complete visual record of the evolving built environment in St. Louis, covering commercial, industrial, and residential neighborhoods. Urban planners, architects, urban archeologists, and historians as well as to those engaged in family, neighborhood, and house history regularly consult the fire insurance maps.
Washington University Libraries and the Missouri Historical Society hold approximately 3,300 fire insurance maps produced in St. Louis by Alphonso Whipple between 1870 and 1898 that are not part of any existing digital collection. Currently, use of these maps is restricted by their brittle condition.
Using LSTA grant funding from the Missouri State Library the maps were scanned by Digital Preservation. The grant funded project was completed in the Summer of 2008, and the 19th-century St. Louis fire insurance maps are now available digitally via the Washington University gateway. In addition to delivering a digital surrogate of the original volumes, a web-based finding aid was developed that will provide clickable links from a base map of St. Louis to the stored images available for each city block. Additionally, the Libraries have completed a pilot project testing the combination of other data search and delivery techniques with the maps to enhance their usability and research potential.
Part of the project involved testing two small areas of St. Louis with GIS (Geospatial Information Systems) technology to explore techniques for enhancing the value of the 19th-century fire insurance maps in relationship to other maps of St. Louis. Maps for the two test areas from the variant Whipple editions (1870, 1874, 1876, 1892, and 1897) were geo-referenced allowing them to be treated as geographic information rather scanned images from a book. Images from the individual pages will be knit together in a seamless historical map of St. Louis, having different layers by time period. The two test areas are as follows:
North Test Area – between the approaches to King and Eads bridges, known today as Laclede’s Landing. This 12 block area is bounded by the Mississippi River, Washington Avenue, 4th Street, and Franklin Avenue. (Historic city block numbers: 14, 15, 16, 25, 26, 27, 66, 67, 68, 91, 92, and 93.) The first commercial district in St. Louis to be placed on the National Register, this area includes the western approach to Eads Bridge and Raeder Place, the finest surviving cast-iron front building in St. Louis.
South Test Area – centered on the junction of interstates I-70, I-55, and I-64. A 19 block area bounded by the Mississippi River, Valentine (or Almond) Street, Broadway, and Gratiot Street. (Historic city block numbers: 1, 2, 39, 40, 41, 42, 51, 52, 53, 54, 76, 77, 78, 79, 108, 109, 160, 853, and 854.) While mostly parking lots today, historically this was a mixed residential and industrial area including the Bridge and Beach Stove Works, Eugene Field house (1845), and the St. Mary of Victories Church (1843).
Regarding opportunities for collaboration with the Libraries In undertaking the digitization of the fire insurance maps, it is not the intent of the Libraries to produce a “final product” but rather to provide a springboard or platform from which students and faculty can launch their own research into the historic built environment of St. Louis. The Libraries would welcome individual or class projects that address one of the two test areas in terms of linking other visual or documentary resources from the Washington University, Missouri Historical Society, or other collections with the scanned maps to produce a more robust treatment of St. Louis history or architecture.
About the Title
The title of the Unreal City collection was taken from The Wasteland, published in 1922, by T.S. Eliot. Eliot was a native of St. Louis and attended Smith Academy, a boys' college preparatory division of Washington University. He was also the grandson of William Greenleaf Eliot, a co-founder of Washington University.