02 September 2011

Church History through Maps

This semester, I'm again doing some research on local religion.  Last fall, I wrote a fairly lengthy paper on a local Baptist Church to which I've made some comments on this blog (even going so far as to post an entire paper that I read at the Red River Valley History Conference).  This fall, I'm working on a church building that housed a couple of different congregations over a period of about 100 years.  The building is about to be torn down, as it has been empty since the Grand Forks Flood of 1997.  More about the history of this specific church at a later date.

Today, I spent about three hours in the special collections department of the Chester Fritz Library.  I usually go through documentary evidence for my research, which would include letters, manuscripts, church records, etc.  On this trip, however, I utilized a resource of which I was basically unaware until the last couple of weeks.  Sanborn maps are a great resource for understanding the historical landscape of cities.  The main users of Sanborn maps were originally fire insurance companies.  The maps show the streetscapes of urban areas, complete with color coding to depict the specific building materials utilized in the erection of the respective structures.  Building materials are obviously of particular interest to fire insurers. 

The library has maps from various intervals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.   Several things are evident from a perusal of these maps.  I checked out maps from 1884, 1888, 1892, 1897, and 1901, and I still have several to investigate.  One thing that is evident from the maps that I looked at today is that the number of churches in Grand Forks grew from 5 to 13 from 1884 to 1897.  The number remained steady at 13 in 1901.  Another interesting point that is apparent from looking at the map is that the older, more established churches had structures that employed more durable materials.  One negative to the use of wood is the threat of fire.  Stone and brick are not quite as susceptible to fire damage.  One final thing that I found quite interesting was the growth of ethnic churches over the period.  The original five churches remained--Catholic, Baptist, Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Episcopal.  To the original five, the city saw the addition of Norwegian Baptists and Scandinavian Lutherans, among others.  These ethnic names are not nearly as obvious today.  The rise and decline of specifically ethnic churches is an avenue that I find of interest, and one that I intend to investigate.  I will post some of my findings of interest in the comings months.

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