From Pittsburgh Streets

George T. Fleming. "History told in Pittsburgh street names: Some commemorative designations have been lost, but others are still in use to recall the story of their selection: Haphazard municipal nomenclature." Pittsburgh Gazette Times, Nov. 29, 1914, sec. 5, p. 2. 85906737.

History Told in Pittsburgh Street Names
Some Commemorative Designations Have Been Lost, but Others Are Still in Use to Recall the Story of Their Selection.

IN READING over the list of Pittsburgh street names the thought arises that in this nomenclature there is much history—some unwritten and much little known. Our forefathers who gave the first streets their names did so following a system and in the firm belief that they had fastened the names of Revolutionary heroes upon our streets for all time. Not only the names of such who fought for American liberty, but names of others, pioneers and pathfinders in the then western wilderness.

In this system patriotism and common sense blended nicely. But, alas and alas! where are these names now? Some survive—many survive, is answered. True, but not as first given and many have been lost, never to return.

Thus the memory of true and great men in our city's early days has been permitted to lapse. Who now thinks of Marbury, Irwin, Hancock, Hand and Adams? Who apart from a few old-timers can locate these streets and give their present names? Who can tell why and when changed.

History as evolved from streets can arise from two sources—first, as above, from nomenclature commemorative of historical personages; second, from happenings on or close by a given street—often some event determining the name, or perhaps a historical structure nearby.

Some Early Names.

Thus Fort street, which passed through the site of Fort Pitt, and Fayette street, from the later fort of that name at what is now Sandusky street and Penn avenue. Hence, also, Garrison alley, leading from Liberty street, opposite Seventh avenue, crossing Penn avenue and the short and narrow street nearer the river, once called Fayette, now French street.

With due appropriateness we have also Duquesne way—not so much to honor the Marquis Du Quesne, the governor general of New France in 1754, when Contrecoer [sic] finished the small fort begun by Capt. Trent, but, from the fact that this way or street began at the Point and at the exact site of Fort Duquesne, now occupied in part by the Exposition buildings.

In the naming of streets Contrecoer [sic] was passed by as too "Frenchy." Fate was kinder to his contemporaries, for we have remembered Joncaire, Jumonville and DeVilliers and once had St. Pierre.

On the side of the English we have a long list of commemorated names, but without system and regardless of association. Van Braam (the real Dutch spelling and the correct one); Gist and Dinwiddie afford in street appellations the best continuation of contemporaries and events and locally these streets are neighboring. Miltenberger, a family name, intervenes between Van Braam and Gist, but Washington and Crawford are far enough away to break the chain of history woven in these names.

Next to designations arising from these sources the forest seems to have been liberally drawn on. This seems also to have been early a popular American method of naming brought from the old world.

First Streets Named.

The first street that was manifest in a town was the road that led to or through it. Cross streets arose from necessity. Hence the main road became Main street. Others were quickly and aptly named from trees and perhaps hundreds of embryo cities had its Walnut, Chestnut, Pine, etc. Philadelphia streets so named have become famous in the centuries and they follow in rotation. Cincinnati, like Pittsburgh, separates them regardless of a desired but not absolute essential propinquity.

Thus we have in Pittsburgh Sycamore street on Mt. Washington, Walnut street in the Shadyside district, Elm street on the hill, and Chestnut street on the North side, and a few more here and there with tree names. No system, no association, no key to locality from kindred names.

Only on Mt. Washington at Maple terrace (no maples) is the tree apparent to justify the name. The thought arises, how much better is a name of a person distinguished for some virtue, for a street, thus giving an enduring lesson to posterity.

Sycamore street brings to mind its parallel, Virginia street. Maryland avenue is in Shadyside, Pennsylvania avenue on the North Side, Ohio street likewise, and Kentucky avenue in Shadyside, no logical connection as to locality.

Philadelphia has done better. Beyond the streets of the old city to the southward there come the names of Pennsylvania's governors in proper sequence. To the north, in similar system, streets are named for Pennsylvania counties.

Old Family Names.

The whole system of street naming in Pittsburgh has been at haphazard, a veritable hotch-potch. Bailey avenue on Mt. Washington commemorates the name of a well known Pittsburgh family whose estates lay contiguous. When one comes to the sign "Judicial street," it would puzzle the famed Philadelphia lawyer to determine how the name came to be applied. Near a court house the appropriateness would be at once apparent. When it is remembered that John H. Bailey was for 10 years—1878–1888—a judge of Common Pleas Court of Allegheny county, some faint relation can be seen between the name and the man. But the name is barren of any lesson and is a misfit. Many such examples can be given.

It is to be noted that in thus speaking of our street names they are not utterly condemned. The system that takes away a historic name and a historic lesson, an idea of worth and valor or any suggestion of uplift is a bad system, especially if it gives nothing in return. There is no charm in an ordinal number, merely convenience.

Who would want Lincoln avenue called One Hundredth avenue, or even avenue A? Could we without dismay see the signs removed from Penn avenue and another designation put in their stead? On the subject of dropping the old street names, as long ago as 1893, in a published article in the Pittsburgh Bulletin, reprinted in the little book, "Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt," once sold in the Block House, Miss Julia Morgan Harding said in concluding:

"Here was the scene of a mighty struggle for empire, a struggle of which the only vestiges left are the Block House and the names of our streets, too many of which have been changed in recent years to suit the vulgar needs of convenience and at the cost of our historical identity."

Meaning Is Lost.

Again—Miss Sarah H. Kilikelly [sic], in her "History of Pittsburgh" (1906), in the same vein—

"Unfortunately, these cross streets have lost their historic names, having been changed to prosaic numbers without any practical advantage, as the numbered avenues which cross them only create confusion. The names of these cross streets before they were changed were monuments to men who had been instrumental in laying the foundations of Pittsburgh."

The dropping of the time-honored and revered names of these streets running from Liberty avenue to the Allegheny River and from Penn avenue and Butler street and the substitution of ordinals instead took place in 1868. No one demanded it. The people knew the names and were satisfied. The names stood for something. Thty [sic] were sane and sensible. Many old-timers can recite yet these names in order as far as the Allegheny Cemetery, which was about as far as names then ran.

Then again new streets were put through and the ordinal nature has been changed. It is no longer a true sequence. Fisk street, for instance, and McCandless avenue retain commemorative names, likewise Main.

So the people of Pittsburgh saw the honored names go without excuse and without compensatory benefit. Today if for some freakish reason Council should ordain that Grant street should be known as Ulysses street, Smithfield as Smith street and Wood street as Sylvan avenue one can readily believe a howl would go up and popular indignation compel the restoration of the former and well-loved names. In the event of any reasons that would compel a change of these names the regret would be more widespread than in 1868 for the simple reason there are more people now to regret.

The Cleveland Plan.

Cleveland, spreading its miles of frame homes over half of Cuyahoga county, has within a few years changed the names of all its north and south streets to ordinal designations east and west from the Public square, these designations well above the hundredth mark. There is the excuse for this change that appropriate names were given out; numbers run on forever.

Thus at the proverbial one swoop—known as a fell swoop—mighty Cleveland wiped out the monuments of its history and the testimonials to its growth, as well as the memorials of its good people whose names had passed into street nomenclature. Some day perhays [sic] regret will arise.

Think of London, Boston, New York or Philadelphia dropping names that are hallowed by the deeds of centuries! Pittsburgh has done it once and again. To what good? Many a man whose hair has not begun to change calls more than one street by its first given name. Thus St. Clair, changed to Sixth and lately to Federal, and Hand, once Ninth and now Sandusky [sic]; Hancock, once Eighth, now Ellsmere, recall the once famous question, originating in 1844, as to the identity of James K. Polk:

"Who the (word deleted) is Ellsmere?"

From the names of our streets that any history can be extracted it will be a duty to extract and preserve, particularly a duty to rewrite and arrange that history suggested by names now no longer in our street nomenclahure [sic].

Interesting History.

It is a vast and interesting history of wide range, strong in patriotism, practical in its teaching. It puts in a proper serial nearly all the wonderful story of the great events that occurred around the "Forks of the Ohio." The original names of our streets were reminders to subsequent generations of deeds of valor, of pioneers and patriots, of a glory coincident with the birth of the republic, and some went back even farther. They justly kept alive the fame of men whose deeds and upright lives decreed should live.

Many such names are retained we hear—and many were not. Our civic societies, especially the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, have nobly come to the rescue of our departing landmarks and zealously mark the sites of historic events. They have placed tablets on the courthouse, marking the site of Maj. Grant's woeful battle; on the site of Semple's Tavern, at Ferry and Water streets, at Sandusky and Penn to remind you that Fort Fayette once stood close by.

They enclose the stump of a historic tree marking the site of Gen. Forbes' encampment on November, 1758; on this stump they place a tablet commemorative of that event so decisive of results.

All honor to these women. But who shall resurrect the names of Maj. Joseph Marbury, Col. Edward Hand, Col. John Irwin, Gen. Anthony Wayne, John Hancock and others that have been taken from the streets of our forefathers? When and how shall we remember in street names George and John Gibson, George Croghan, Daniel Broadhead, John Armstrong, Christine [sic] Frederick Post, John Campbell, Lachlan McIntosh and other worthy men who figure eloquently in our colonial history? We have remembered Conrad Weiser in a manner.

Task a Huge One.

In the recent renaming of our streets, caused by the annexation of the North Side, duplicates arose by the hundreds and there were even four streets of the same name. It is admitted that this renaming was a stupendous task. The committee in charge seems never to have heard of the maxim of an old time school teacher to-wit:

"In the absence of any rule, common sense is the best rule to go by." The dropping of the name Robinson from that street on the North Side cannot by any pretext be considered an exercise of even ordinary common sense. The street passed by the site of the first cabin built on the North Side of the Allegheny by James Robinson. In that cabin Gen. William Robinson, first mayor of Allegheny, was born. The street was dedicated a highway and named such among the first streets of the village known for years as Alleghenytown. Moreover it was formed from the ancestral acres of William Robinson.

The committee changed the name to Reliance. If we are to go by police records in recent years nothing could be more unreliable. Within 10 years this street has had three names, Councils having recently ordained the street General Robinson.

There is a very nice street in Oakland running to the Minersville district that retains the name Robinson commemorating nothing historic, only the name of an owner of contiguous property when the district was farm land.

Grant street, Pittsburgh, and Grant avenue in Allegheny were patent duplicates, the distinction street and avenue entirely lost on the stupid, hence the change Grant avenue to Galveston, a seaport in Texas, very close history indeed, to say naught of geography.

Grant avenue was named for U. S. Grant at the outset of his great career. But, you say: "We still have Grant street in Pittsburgh." Yes, named for William [sic] Grant, a British officer who lived to sneer and deride us in Parliament 20 years after his foolhardy performances at Fort Duquesne. William Grant is synonymous with defeat; U. S. Grant with victory. Many other flagrant misnomers can be given.

Earliest Pittsburgh Map.

The earliest map of Pittsburgh is said by William G. Johnston to have been drawn by Col. William Claphan [sic] in 1761. This was three years after Fort Pitt was erected. Three streets are shown, Liberty, Market and Grant. Mr. Johnston does not attach much importance to this plan, so he places it in his "Reminiscences" so small as to be almost illegible. It seems to have been merely a plan that Caphan [sic] suggested for the laying out of a town.

However in 1774 John Campbell came along with a better plan. He shows six streets besides Water street and Chancery lane intermediate to Ferry and Market.

At Market and Water the northwest corner lot is marked "P. Neville." Gen. Neville did not come to this property until after the whisky insurrection of 1794. It is evident the names on this plan were not given by Col. Campbell Chancery lane and Market street, suggesting a court house and a market, which did not come for years afterward.

But where do Claphan and Campbell come in for remembrance? Poor Claphan! he fell a victim of savage ferocity and is forgotten. Campbell is unhonored here. In Kentucky his name has been perpetuated in Campbell county, opposite Cincinnati. Bear in mind in Campbell's plan no streets could be placed in the fort acreage.

Reverting to the name "Ellsmere"—a boy neighbor in Grade 7 A or 6½ B (immaterial) says it is a chilly place near the North Pole. The "young lady across the way" says it is a novel. To quote Mr. Dooley—"And there yez are."