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Historic maps of Charlottesville online

By Melissa Norris

In the Charlottesville of 1920, Vinegar Hill had not been razed, the downtown railroad roundabout was still in existence, and the residential area on Jefferson Park Avenue was still developing. At the University, the amphitheater was not yet built and dormitories on Dawson's Row were still in use. Maps of these areas and others in the city that clearly show land parcels, street and utility networks, and homes and businesses can be viewed online at a new U.Va. Web site.

The Corner

The University of Virginia Library holds a complete microfilm collection of all Virginia city and town maps that were drawn by the Sanborn Map Company from 1885-1970. The library also holds a pair of original map books for the City of Charlottesville, for 1907 and 1920.

This is a detail from map 6 of U.Va.'s Sanborn collection, showing "the Corner" area from the entrance to the Corner Parking Lot (at Littlejohn's) to the intersection of 14th Street and University Avenue.

See Sanborn fire insurance maps at the U.Va. library's Geostat Center Web site,

Created by the library's Geospatial and Statistical Data Center, the site allows viewers to browse more than 40 highly detailed, hand-drawn maps produced by the Sanborn Map Company, formerly of New York. The maps were originally produced to assess the risk of fire and cost of insurance. The company produced hundreds of thousands of such maps of cities and towns throughout the United States from the 1880s until after World War II.

Comparison of succeeding series of maps can aid historians, urban planners, architectural historians and others in tracing the development of American towns over the first half of the 20th century.

"Maps were sold primarily to national or regional underwriting associations. ... Sanborn [held] a virtual monopoly by 1920, and by the late 1930s the company had surveyed 13,000 towns," wrote Chris Nehls, a U.Va. history graduate student and staff member at the Geostat Center, in a brief historical essay linked at the Web site.

Though the maps depict most of Charlottesville's major business district and many of its residential areas, they do not show all of Charlottesville in 1920. Areas that were not heavily developed are not depicted. Local historians will note that predominantly African-American communities such as Fifeville are not shown on the maps, although that area of town was well built at the time.

The library's Special Collections Department holds two of the original, 21 inch-by-25 inch map books for Charlottesville: the newly digitized one for 1920, and another for 1907, which will be photographed and added to the Web site in the future.

In addition to the maps, the site also includes a key to the symbols used, a bibliography for further research and an index to similar maps on microfilm. The site was developed with assistance from the staff of Special Collections and the Early American Fiction Project.

Sanborn also produced maps of Charlottesville for 1886, 1902, 1913 and 1937. A complete microfilm collection of all Sanborn maps for Virginia communities and the District of Columbia is available in the Government Information Resources department, on the third floor of Alderman Library.


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