Boston Street Names: Who? What? Where?

Last week I ran a Facebook survey to ask readers what series about Boston they would like to read next. The overwhelming response was for one about how Boston streets got their names. To kick that series off, here’s some background information.

Boston streets have a bad reputation: people joke that the city just paved over the cow paths. I hear it all the time when I give a Boston By Foot tour. This apocryphal story gives the cows a bad rap, however, because they were not really allowed to wander wherever they wanted to go. The reality is a little more complex.

The Shawmut Peninsula

Boston, made land, shoreline 1630

Boston–1630 and Today

The old Shawmut Peninsula was shaped like a ragged three-leaf clover and had a very irregular shoreline. Plus, it held multiple hills.

There was the Tri-mount of Beacon Hill, Pemberton Hill and Mount Vernon, plus Fort Hill and Copp’s Hill. The large Mill Pond added another obstacle and the Charles River tides would have made mudflats accessible only at low tide.

People had to get from one place to another in the course of their daily activities and they usually took the shortest route, given the topography between Point A and Point B. These frequent destinations were the ones that supported their lives and livelihoods: the spring, the mill, the pasture, the church, the Town House, the market, and the burial ground, for example.

You would probably not have walked up steep Beacon Hill if you didn’t have to because going around would have been easier. The coves and ponds would also have sent people on a circuitous route. In the history of Boston’s streets, geography was destiny.

Streets often had names associated with places and activities. In a March post, for example, I talked about the Great Spring that gave Spring Lane its name.

Made Land and Alphabet Streets

Boston Streets: Back Bay (lower left) and South End (upper right) Street Grids

As Boston grew by making land, it sometimes added whole neighborhoods. In that case, the streets tended to be straighter and more regular. They were named according to a plan. These include:

  • The South End: The cross-streets in this section of made land have the names of Massachusetts towns in order of their distance from Boston, although that can be erratic. .Thus we have Milford Street on the east and Northampton Street on the west.
  • The Back Bay: Arthur D. Gilman laid out the streets in this 570 acres of made land in a grid pattern and named them after English lords in alphabetical order: Arlington, Berkley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield, Gloucester, and Hereford. The alphabet continues in the West Bay on the other side of Massachusetts Avenue. This spit of land was then Gravelly Point and the western end of the Back Bay. Continuing west, we find Ipswitch, Jersey, Kenmore, Lansdowne and Miner but they do not fit into a north-south grid.
  • Fort Point Channel District: The streets among the warehouses and factories in this commercial area were named for officers of the Boston Wharf Company, which built out the district, and its prominent tenants: Binford Street, Farnsworth Street, Melcher Street, Midway Street. Pittsburgh Street (Renamed Thomson Place when Thomson Reuters bought the building.), Sleeper Street, Stillings Street, and Necco Court. It will be interesting to see whether the newest company to build along Fort Point Channel — General Electric — will change any street names.

Railroad Streets and Small Streets

  • North Station and Train Tracks – 1930s

    Botolph Street: A third alphabetical grid runs off St. Botolph Street, which parallels Huntington Avenue, although this is not made land.

Starting on the west end of the street closest to Northeastern University we find Albemarle, Blackstone, Cumberland, Durham, Follen, Garrison, Harcourt, and Irvington streets with the South End’s West Newton Street in place of the “E.”

  • The Railroad Streets: The streets around North Station favor places. Given North Station’s function as a train station and commuter hub, we shouldn’t be surprised that the streets have the names of either the railroad lines (Boston & Albany = Albany Street) and their destinations: Lowell, Billerica, Nashua, Merrimac, Portland, Haverhill, Beverly and Medford.

You see, the cows really had nothing to do with it.

Boston Streets and Boston’s Patriots

That still leaves us with streets named for people who were once famous or powerful but who are now long dead and sometimes forgotten. You would think that, given Boston’s role in the creation of our country, we would have a neighborhood of streets named for the Founding Fathers. Not so.

John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Sons of Liberty

John Hancock and Samuel Adams

You’ll find Revere Street and Hancock Street on Beacon Hill, Adams Street in Charlestown near Old Ironsides, and Franklin Street and Otis Street downtown. So we do have streets named for Boston’s Patriots, even if they’re not together in a neighborhood.

In future posts I’ll profile one or two streets with interesting or historically significant names. There are so many to choose from, I’m not sure where to start. Feel free to submit any names that have puzzled or intrigued you.

Meeting the City Fathers

Along the way we’ll meet some of those notable city fathers and some Native Americans, too, I’m sure. I’ll do the research but we’ll all learn a lot.

If you like this series, don’t forget to Share and Like and Retweet so more people can read up on Boston streets, whether they visit once or travel them daily.

27 thoughts on “Boston Street Names: Who? What? Where?

  1. Thank you for this work! Can anything be said about the naming of Oliver Street in Boston? I’d be grateful for any intel! — with best wishes and thanks!!

    • I’ll take a look and see if there’s enough information for a blog post, Nick. In the meantime, you can catch up with my other posts about Boston on that page in my blog. And check our Friday’s post, which will be on Salutation Street.

  2. Aline,
    This is terrific work and very useful. I have a question about the origin of “HORADAN WAY” in Roslindale. Who specifically it was named for and why. Anything you can do to help or if you can steer me in the right direction I would be grateful.

    Scott HORADAN

    • Scott: A quick spin through my reference books didn’t turn up anything. And Google was no help except to say that Horadan Way is in Roxbury. I think your best best is to go to the Roslindale Library and Historical Society for help. If they turn up anything on the street’s history, you can use FindAGrave to locate the resting place of an ancestor as well as to look up more information. Good luck. I would love to know what you find.

      • Hello!
        I am a 9th generation Bostonian. My great,great, great, great grandmother lived on a long gone street named Smith Place off of Joy Street. Not to be confused with Smith Court. It was apparently obliterated when a school was built on the location. Wondering if there is anything in the files on that particular location. By the way, she was the daughter of man who served at Bunker Hill. Many Thanks.

        • Charles: Thank you for your inquiry. I have gone through my most reliable books on Boston streets but have not discovered any reference to Smith Street. I don’t have complete city records in my library and the libraries are all closed to the public now. I found a good history of Joy Street, of course, and of Smith Court, but no information at all on Smith Street. There is a school at the corner of Joy Street and Smith Court–the Abiel Smith School. If another school was built on Joy Street, there is no record of it. Is it possible that your family has confused Smith Street and Smith Court? Family stories have a way of changing details over the years. I know mine did. I suggest heading to the BPL when it opens and checking with the Athenaeum to see if you can find more. Good luck.

  3. Who is Stuart Street named for? My ever-so-great great grandfather (a Stuart) was an officer in George Washington’s Army and died in Boston during the American Revolutionary War. I have wondered if there might be a connection

    • I’m not sure, Kay. I did some research but came up with nothing. There could well be a connection, depending on when Stuart Street was created. I couldn’t find that, either, though.

  4. Does anyone know how I could find out who Thomson Place (in Boston’s Seaport District) was named after? My great grandfather (John Thomson) owned a shoe manufacturing plant in Boston (not sure of exact location) in the early 20th century – I doubt there is any connection, but who knows? Thank you for any insight you might be able to provide.

    • Thomas: Thomson Place was originally named Pittsburgh Street but was renamed when Thomson Reuters purchased the building. So this one is named for a company, not a person. You might try Dirty Old Boston and Historic Boston for clues on where your great grandfather’s shoe factory was located. Good luck!

  5. It has been said Kneeland Street (formerly Kneeland Lane’s (?)) was named after an ancestor of my family. Do you have any information on the naming of this street?

    • Kneeland Street was named for Solomon Kneeland, a “leather-dresser” (I don’t know if this means tanner or something else) who first bought land here in 1731-1732. It was originally a creek that was gradually filled up. If Solomon Kneeland was your ancestor, then you have a street named for him.

  6. In East Boston’s Eagle Hill district we have Revolutionary War Battles: Bennington, Saratoga, Princeton, Lexington, Trenton, Monmouth. The side Streets of Eagle Hill include Revolutionary Generals: Marion, Brooks, Putnam, Prescott, Shelby. And yet another section of Eagle Hill got birds of prey: East and West Eagle, Falcon, Condor.

  7. Question – who was Father Francis J Gilday? There’s a short stretch of street named after him in the South End off E Newton (by Franklin Square). Thanks!

  8. Love your blog! On old maps I’ve seen “Gallup’s Alley” in the North End, near Hanover & Cross Streets. Do you know if it was built over, or is it Mechanic Street now? My mom and I spent an afternoon trying to find it when we visited Boston for the Bicentennial. We’re related to the Gallups.

    • Sandra: Here’s the scoop. You have to look for Gallop’s Alley with an O instead of Gallup’s with a U. Spelling was pretty fluid back then. Gallop’s Alley (1708) existed in the North End of Boston and ran from Dr. Clarke’s corner northwest to Middle Street, which became Fish Street, which became North Street. It was renamed Board Alley in 1834 and appears to be no longer extant. In short, it could be found between Hanover and North Streets between Richmond and Mechanic. Mechanic Street is now a short, blind alley (between Mother Ann’s and Mare Seafood) that leads off Hanover and truncates at the exit of the Callahan Tunnel. Board Alley was said to run from 237 Hanover to 158 North. Does that help?

  9. Great blog, interesting post. I would just add that it is Arthur D. Gilman (not T.) and the cross-streets are named after English lords, many of whom were earls, plus the occasional baron, duke, and viscount.

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