One Sunday in October 1863, a few members of a religious sect called the Spiritual Philosophers headed for a site near Chicago and Western avenues, then the outskirts of town, to check out a prophecy that there was oil on the west side. They brought with them a medium named Abraham James, who walked around for a while, marked three spots with heaps of stones, and finally fell down, apparently in a trance, next to a large tree. When the Philosophers drilled there, instead of oil they struck water. The sect hurriedly claimed that water had been prophesied as well, and began to drill one of the first of the artesian wells that would supplement the heavily polluted Chicago water supply. Today, Artesian Avenue runs over that site.
Two and a half years ago, Sun-Times reporter Don Hayner didn’t know this story, but he did have a feeling that the stories behind Chicago street names would make a great Sunday feature. Having grown up in Chicago, he’d always been curious about just what certain streets were named after.
So Hayner took his idea to fellow reporter Tom McNamee, also a native Chicagoan and also curious about his city’s history. They wrote the Sunday story. Then, for a year, they coauthored weekly columns on the topic. After that, someone from Loyola University Press called. And last month the press released their book, Streetwise Chicago: A History of Chicago Street Names, an alphabetical compendium containing 1,145 entries–one for every street in the city.
The two reporters found, for instance, that Magnolia Avenue was not named after the flower but after a tugboat piloted by a heroic captain who saved lives in the 1871 fire. They learned that banker Howard Ure had Howard Street named after him when he was only ten. They became “street geeks,” as Hayner puts it.
Early on Hayner found an index-card file of street names at City Hall’s Bureau of Maps and Plas. The file had been compiled by Howard Brodman, superintendent of the bureau from 1933 to 1958. Using several sources–and a little guesswork–Brodman had come up with a brief explanation for each name.
The file became their blueprint for the book. Still, only about 90 percent of the city’s streets were in the file, McNamee says, and the explanations were often full of mistakes or lacked detail. But most of the time Brodman was close to the mark. Armed with a copy of the city’s official street guide (which gives street names and coordinates) and the old reporter’s adage, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” they checked every street in the file and all the ones that weren’t there. They made frequent visits to the Chicago Historical Society, the Newberry Library, the Sun-Times library, and smaller libraries and historical societies around the city.
Sometimes they went straight to the street in question. On a day close to deadline, Hayner says, “Tom took his two little kids out in that gagging heat in July to Vintage Street, in Bridgeport, and started asking people on the street if they knew where it got its name.” McNamee found out: it came from a neighborhood wine distributor.
Hayner and McNamee devoted all their spare time to resaarch–nights, weekends, vacation time. Still there were a handful of names they couldn’t pin down. The most troublesome was Agatite Avenue. The file listed “agatite” as a pea tree, but experts assured them there was no such tree. Nor was it a type of rock (the word “agate” slightly altered), a substance found in teeth (“apatite”), or anybody’s name. They had to say the source of the street’s name was unknown.
Along the way they picked favorites. Among them were Bowmanville Avenue, named for a developer who sold land he didn’t own and then skipped town, forcing the buyers to pay for their property twice; Hunt Avenue, after a cop whose arm was shot off during the 1855 Beer Riots; and Anson Place, after a baseball player who wanted his epitaph to read, “Here lies a man that batted .300.”
Eventually Hayner and McNamee began seeing patterns to the names–and they learned that not every name has an interesting story behind it. Most were named after landowners or developers or their relatives, McNamee says. “Whenever there’s a really colorful story about how a street was named, and [another] story that says it was named after the developer, you can bet it was the developer.”
Often a street was named for where it was headed, like Milwaukee, Vincennes, and Green Bay avenues. Hayner and McNamee contend that Racine Avenue was named after the town in Wisconsin, not after the French writer as Brodman had guessed. “Chicago seldom named streets after poets,” says McNamee.
They learned that while the powers-that-be wouldn’t name a street after a politician they considered mediocre (John Adams was rejected at first, John Tyler altogether), they were easily bowled over by celebrities–Italian aviator Italo Balbo, for example, who brought his flying armada to the city’s Century of Progress Exposition in 1933. “Those little events were considered pretty important to people downtown,” Hayner says.
The hardest part of researching each name, Hayner and McNamee say, was stopping. “This was like doing little biographies, and you could get carried away,” Hayner says. “It was very hard to stop yourself from going overboard on one guy.” The more arcane the name, the more phone calls it took, says Hayner, the more interesting it got: “Those little journeys became intoxicating.”
But they kept their deadline in mind and tried to use the length of descriptions in their Sun-Times columns as a model. “What we wanted to do was give everybody a one- or two-sentence explanation,” McNamee says, “Our goal was to tell at least something about every street.”
Since the book has been out, several people have called Hayner and McNamee to give them new stories and to confirm explanations they’d already settled on. If Loyola Press is willing, the two say they’ll probably publish an updated guide within the next few years. “If we didn’t care about money,” McNamee says, “we could make this our life’s hobby.”
But even if someone were to make this a lifetime project, there would probably still be street-name mysteries to unravel. “We were as accurate as we could be, but there is no final, ultimate authority on street names,” McNamee says. As Hayner puts it, “This is history, and history has a lot of trapdoors. We don’t know everything–but we know more than a lot of people.”
Streetwise Chicago: A History of Chicago Street Names is available at bookstores and through Loyola University Press. The hardcover version is $22.50; paperback, $14.95. Hayner and McNamee will sign copies of their book today, December 9, from noon to 1:30 at the City of Chicago Store, 174 W. Randolph. Details at 280-5740.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.