An unrecorded San Francisco wall map

B[enjamin] C[orbett] Turnbull / Lith. Britton, Rey & Co. S.F., MAP OF SAN FRANCISCO EXHIBITING the General Proportion of BRICK AND STONE FRAME BUILDINGS Throughout the City. San Francisco, 1874.
Lithograph on four sheets joined, 64”h x 48”w at neat line plus margins, with traces of original color. Small sheet of letterpress pasted on below and to right of title.

A monumental, unrecorded San Francisco wall map for use of the fire-insurance industry. Published in 1874 by Benjamin Corbett Turnbull (1824-1905), an obscure immigrant surveyor, it depicts the city in an unprecedented degree of detail, and is in fact the most detailed of the city to appear prior to the Sanborn atlase of the mid 1880s.

Turnbull’s map depicts the city’s complex street layout, including projected extensions onto filled land in the Bay, with a fine line demarcating the original shore. The extensive network of “street rail roads” is indicated by double lines running down many thoroughfares, with a few projected extensions drawn in blue pencil. Above all, the map attempts to show the footprint of every building then extant, from the large warehouses flanking Mission Street to small residences and perhaps even sheds around the edges of town. All were color coded to indicate construction of brick or stone, plastered or unplastered [wood] frame, or iron. The map also indicates the locations of firehouses and fire alarm stations, and at the base are lists of public schools, warehouses, public buildings and major hotels. The whole is ornamented by a Greek key border with geometric elements at the corners.

A subsequent owner or owners—presumably a city engineer, public safety official or an employee in the fire insurance industry—went to great effort to keep this copy of the map up to date. He (or they) drew in hundreds of buildings and numerous corrections to streets and street names, documenting the expansion of the city into its southern and western outskirts. Someone also pasted on a small sheet listing the varying widths of city streets, printed “in response to an inquiry from a subscriber and for the information of readers of the Post in general” (This was likely the Daily Evening Post, published in San Francisco between 1871 and 1885.) Sadly, much of both the original color-coding and manuscript additions were lost when the map was conserved. However, the map was previously scanned at high resolution, so this valuable information remains available to a determined researcher.

Benjamin Corbett Turnbull (1824-1905)
Map maker Turnbull was born in Berkshire, England in 1824, emigrated to the United States in 1852, married and had several children, and died in Alameda in 1905 (U.S. censuses of 1880 and 1900, and other sources). He first appears in Langley’s San Francisco Directory for 1862, which lists the partnership of Kaelitz & Turnbull, “house, sign and ornamental” painters. He bounced from job to job, including lithographer (1864) and clerk (1865), but by 1868 had found his way into the insurance industry as a surveyor for the Pacific Insurance Company, a job he held until at least 1871. Thereafter his Directory entry mentions no profession for a couple of years until 1874–the year this map was published—when he is listed as a “surveyor and draftsman, office at 420 California,” dwelling at 1109 Jones Street. His name is absent from the 1875 Directory, but he reappears in 1876, with the same occupation but now residing on Bush Street.

After 1876 Turnbull disappears again for a few years, but by 1880 he had moved to Alameda, where he resided until his death. By this time he seems to have had enough of self employment, and he spent the next two decades in a variety of positions in the fire insurance sector. These included among others stints as a clerk for the Liverpool and London and Globe Insurance Company (1880), as a surveyor for the Board of Fire Underwriters of San Francisco (1885), and—most interestingly—as a draftsman and then surveyor for the Sanborn Map Publishing Company (1886-1890). Thus, he was at that firm the very years it issued its first fire insurance atlas of San Francisco, which essentially superseded his map of 1874. He re-emerges in 1895-1896 as a clerk at the New Zealand Insurance Company, after which he disappears from the Directory for the last time. However the United States census for 1900 lists his occupation as “sign painter” and indicates that he was sufficiently well off to own a home unburdened by a mortgage.

That San Francisco needed a map such as this is undeniable: In 1849-51 alone the city had been ravaged by no fewer than five “great” fires. The particular circumstances that prompted Turnbull to make his map remain a mystery, how he made it even more so. As mentioned earlier, at the time of publication he was working independently as a surveyor and draftsman, and surely he would have been hard pressed to self-fund the project, much less to perform on his own the immense amount of necessary surveying. The map’s great rarity and specialized content strongly suggest that its print run was very small, presumably targeting an audience primarily of insurers and perhaps fire safety officials. Turnbull presumably obtained subscriptions in advance of publication, or perhaps the sponsorship of the Board of Fire Underwriters or the City Council, though no such support is indicated on the map itself. At any rate, the map’s extraordinary rarity suggests that the project was not a success, as does the fact that in the mid-1880s it was replaced by the more-convenient atlas format of the Sanborn atlas.

The map is unrecorded in the standard bibliographies, though one is held by the California State Library (call #Map c912 S19t 1874).  I find no record of another example having appeared on the antiquarian market.

Not in Heckrotte, Preliminary List of Maps of San Francisco (unpublished typescript, Feb. 23, 1995); OCLC; Online Archive of California; Phillips, Maps of America; Rumsey, or the on-line catalogs of the Bancroft or San Francisco Public Libraries. Neither Antique Map Price Record nor Rare Book Hub list any examples having appeared on the market.


Professionally conserved with reinforced cracks and mended tears; significant residual discoloration, soiling and staining; and small areas of image loss reinstated in blank. Lined with modern replacement linen.