Mapping the past: Man’s historic discovery shows new side of Grand Rapids

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – After purchasing a Paris Avenue rental home, Don Smalligan wasn’t expecting anything eventful.

“So we bought it and began renovating it,” Smalligan said. “I was climbing around in the attic where there was all kinds of things from the last 100 years [and] I found, buried back in a corner, these booklets.”

Don, an architect by trade, pulled them out, gave them a look, and immediately realized he had accidentally stumbled upon a treasure.

“I was familiar with what Sanborn maps were,” said Smalligan. “I opened them up and I could see that they were authentic and they were in really good repair. They hadn’t got water damage.”

And few were as old as these. The Sanborn Map Company began making maps for cities back in 1867, mainly for use by fire insurance companies to better assess risks in their area. Don thinks these maps were left behind in the home by a former insurance worker. One map is from 1878 and the other is from 1874. Experts think it’s the third oldest Sanford map in existence.

“We did not think they existed, because we’d never heard of them,” said Julie Tabberer, manager of the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections. “It shows this really detailed view of what Grand Rapids was like in the 1870s as the city was growing and developing that we haven’t seen outside of these maps before.”

Smalligan donated the maps to the Grand Rapids Public Library, where, with the help of Western Michigan University, they’ll be digitized and available for viewing.

“This is a really unique and rare find,” says Tabberer. “Everything that’s happened in the past informs what happens in the future; we don’t live in a vacuum. We’re part of an ecosystem that goes back and forward.”

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