Street Names: Wacky's the Norm
If you're heading through North Dakota over the holidays, don't be surprised if your directions take you down Smashed-in Buffalo Head Road. Then again, if you're passing through the Detroit suburbs, try not to blush if you get off at Exit 69, otherwise known as Big Beaver Road. And appropriately enough, not far from the University of Michigan's school of political science, you might pass the intersection of Nixon and Bluett Roads.
From Lois Lane Drive to Chicken Shack Drive, the U.S. is lined by roadways with some wild, weird and wacky names. How did they get that way? Politics and history, mistranslations and vanity, as well as the occasional, odd sense of humor have made for much more interesting travel than were we simply a land of Main Streets and Broadways.
No doubt the oldest road names in America are those left by the Spaniards along the Florida and Gulf Coasts, the Southwest and California. The most obvious is El Camino Real - the "Royal Road," running much of the length of old Spanish California. It's certainly a lot more colorful name than the King's Highway that spanned early settlements along the East Coast.
Those early settlements paid obeisance to the Crown, with roads like King, Prince or Queen. In areas settled by the French, including Detroit, modern-day residents still struggle to pronounce street names like Beaubien, Cadieux and Navarre. (Then again, Detroiters also pronounce Freud St. as Frood, and Goethe as Goatee.)
Early American street names often reflected their purpose, such as the Boston Post Road, running from New York City to Boston. There are plenty of these functional roads: Atwater, River, Canal and Railroad, Lake Shore, Market, Main and Broadway.
The nation is dotted with Plank Roads and Turnpikes. Early enterprising pioneers would lay wooden boards, or planks, to get travelers out of the mud on primitive trails. You'd pay your penny and they're turn a wheel, raising the gate, or pike, to let you pass.
What about Deer Lick Road? It was likely a landmark for early settlers and travelers, just like Lime Kiln Lane and Smashed-in Buffalo Head Road.
What name honor?
After the Revolution, it became popular to name streets (as well as towns, counties and schools) after national heroes and leaders. We have countless Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison Streets. And the trend continues with modern leaders, hence the ubiquitous Martin Luther King boulevards.
But can anyone tell us who Fangboner Rd., near Toledo, Ohio, was meant to honor?
Baby Boomers have taken to heart that old rock-and-roll lyric, "Everybody is a star." The postage stamp-sized Pleasant Ridge, Mich., regularly auctions off the right to name a local street. So do a number of other cities across the U.S., so that's why you can find a Chicken Shack Lane leading to Elm Street. And why not honor your favorite comic book character, as one fan did with Southfield, Mich.'s Lois Lane Drive?
Early roads would weave and bob, following the local terrain. As a result of the Northwest Territory Act of 1787, lands north of the Ohio River and west of Pennsylvania were laid out in north-south and east-west grids.
So rapper Eminem hung out on Detroit's Eight Mile Road, the Motor City marking distance to a central point downtown. Other cities name their grid roads alphabetically, while in New York, Avenues run North-South and Streets run East-West.
Early New York was a maze of winding lanes. Finally, city fathers tried adopting the grid system, but it didn't always work right, so in Greenwich Village, you'll find the intersection of West 4th Street and West 4th Street.
Like the politically-charged intersection of Nixon/Bluett, intersections can create some unexpected complications of their own. New York offers us another, the anti-feminist meeting of Bangher and Leever.
The U.S. doesn't have a monopoly on odd names, of course. Some European names reflect ancient events or leaders, often in dialects no longer spoken. Politics also can play havoc. According to the online research site, Wikipedia, "Names are sometimes manipulated for political purposes; the name of Svetogorska Street, in Belgrade, was changed six times since 1872."
While there are plenty of odd and uncommon street names across the country, most communities show a surprising lack of imagination. Yet the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that even the ordinary can be a little odd.
You might think that First Street would be America's most popular road name. Think again. It follows Second and Third Streets, though Fourth Street does indeed come in fourth.
Main Street? It ranks a relatively minor seventh on the top-10 list.