What’s in a Street Name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By Any Other Name would smell as sweet.” This is what Juliet says to Romeo in Act II of Shakespeare’s tragedy. She is telling him that a name means nothing; his name, his family name is not significant. The only thing that matters is their love. As beautiful as that is, it is quite the opposite for today’s blog. Names do matter.

Two to three hundred years ago when our towns and cities of America were first being incorporated the people of the community (let’s face it, the men of the community) began naming the streets. The primary road running through the town is usually Main, Market or Center Street… or something like that. Have you noticed?

Orwigsburg, my quaint little hometown, is a good example. Market Street runs through the center and has a “square” that features a small veterans memorial under Old Glory, a town clock and some lovely landscaping. Years ago you couldn’t just drive to a supercenter store to buy everything you needed. You walked or took a trolley into “town” and visited the confectionary, a haberdasher, a dressmaker, the dry goods store, the corner grocery store, etc. Because there were so many markets on the street it became known as, you guess it, Market Street.

Seem familiar? Everybody probably knows a town like this. Pottsville has two, Market and Center Streets. Kutztown and Weatherly have Main Street. Some communities have Front Street and others have changed it up a bit like Jim Thorpe which has Broadway.

Names of streets give us a glimpse of the past…

  • When you see a sign for Grist Mill Road chances are there used to be a grist mill somewhere along that road. Perhaps it’s been taken down, or perhaps it’s been renovated into a house.
  • Station Road, here in Orwigsburg, only has a handful of houses. Not that remarkable, right? However, years ago, before that road even existed it was home to the train station.
  • Canal Street can be seen in lots of towns like Leesport, Landingville and Port Carbon. Many sections of these old canals like the Schuylkill Navigation have been filled in and remade to fit modern times, but it’s a pretty good bet that Canal Street ran along the location of the canal.
  • Leisz’s Bridge Road, which covers both Bern and Muhlenberg Townships in Berks County, has intrigued me ever since I starting working on it. (Miller-Keystone Blood Center sits on it at the western end. Please come and donate!) Taking the road east it changes names once it reaches the Schuylkill River. It starts up again on the opposite side on the waterway. Why is that? Travel back in time a hundred and fifty some odd years and there used to be a covered bridge at this spot. All the land in the surrounding area was owned by the Leisz family (sometimes spelled with a “c” in there). The area was considered a “water center” supplying mills for the community. Built to connect the two townships, it collected tolls from travelers. Below, you can see the tollhouse in the photo, sitting to the left of the bridge. The Great Flood of 1850 destroyed the bridge. It was rebuilt a year later, and in subsequent years was constantly being repaired. In 1952 a fire of unknown origin ravaged the structure beyond saving and the bridge was gone forever.

So, the next time you’re driving around take notice to the street names, especially in our rural neighborhoods. There’s probably a very good reason they named it what they did. Then, that’s where the fun begins… trying to figure it out!

Some famous streets from around the world: Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Abbey Road in London, Champs-Élysées in Paris, the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland, Hollywood Boulevard in California, Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, Lombard Street in San Francisco, Chandni Chowk in New Delhi, India, and Broadway in New York City.


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