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.

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

  1. Family lore is that Byron Street, located on the flat of Beacon Hill between River and Brimmer Streets, is named for one of my Byron relatives, but I don’t know who. Does anyone know the history of the name of Byron Street or where I might find it? I’d love to solve the mystery.

    • Pam: None of my reference books mention Byron Street. It’s kind of an anomaly as most of the Hill’s streets, even extending down into the Flat, are named for trees. I have a couple of other places to look, though. Do you know who your Byron relatives were at the beginning of the 19th century? That’s when the Flat was filled and laid out. One of them might have been involved with the project.

  2. I was born on Casanova street in Back Bay not at a hospital but can not find it. Is there such a name of this street in the 50’s

    • Donna: I have never heard of a Casanova Street in Boston, much less the Back Bay. That was a planned neighborhood with every street carefully named: A to H on the streets running north and south; Boylston, Commonwealth, Marlborough and Beacon on the east-west street. Back Street along the esplanade. Does it say this on your birth certificate or is it family anecdote?

  3. Hi Mr. Kaplan, I live in Newmarket,NH. In the mid 2000’s I won an award for the restoration of a private family graveyard here in town, from the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance. The patriarch in this graveyard is Wentworth Cheswell (sometimes spelled Cheswill). In 2008 George Mason University declared Wentworth to be the first African American elected to a public office in the history of the United States. My genealogical research showed that his father was named Hopestill Cheswell. It has recently come to my attention, that there is a street in Dorchester named Hopestill Street. On one end is Aspinwall Road on the other end is Southern Ave. Since the name Hopestill is a name I have never heard before (and most others have not either), I’m curious if there is a connection to Hopestill Cheswell. We don’t have birth or death dates for Hopestill but his son Wentworth was born in 1746 and died in 1817. That would put Hopestill’s birth somewhere around 1720 give or take a few years. BTW, when you have a chance check out Wentworth Cheswell on Wikipedia, he was an amazing man!

    • Richard: I checked my reference books but they only deal with the Shawmut Peninsula; they don’t go as far as Dorchester. Your best bet for finding more information on Hopestill Street is with the Dorchester Library or the Boston Athenaeum. The reference librarian in Dorchester would probably be a big help. I believe Hopestill was a name in use during the seventeenth century but I have no information to back that up.

      Congratulations on your award. You’re doing an excellent job of making history come alive.

      BTW: It’s Ms. Kaplan. No biggie.

  4. I am wondering about the history behind Friend St. I know my 9th great grandfather John Friend was living in Boston in 1640. He was a carpenter and moved between Connecticut and Salem, MA. He was also the master carpenter on the first building of Harvard College, which he donated his labor to. He died near Salem in 1656, the family moved to Wenham around that time, then to Gloucester in the late 1700s. There is a Friend Court in Wenham and Friend St in Gloucester named after us. My best guess is the Friend St in Boston was named after my family, but I could be wrong.

    • You ask a very interesting question, Matt. I checked my reference books and found that the most trustworthy of them mentioned Friend Street only in passing, as it connected to other streets.

      “Of the streets leading from Hanover Street on the west side, to the pond there were, beside Union Street, Friend and Portland Streets. Friend Street is represented on Bonner’s map of 1722, but without a name. In 1732 it was called Friend Street. On the east side it was a passageway between the land of William Stoughton and Josiah Cobham in 1699; in 1708, called “Minot’s Court”; in 1798 Scott’s Court”; in 1854 Friend Street was extended to the Dock over part of Minot’s Court.” The pond referred to is the Mill Pond and the Dock is Scottow’s Dock. At that point, it would have been a very short street, as the Mill Pond was only two blocks away.

      Both Friend and Portland Streets were extended into the Bulfinch Triangle all the way to the causeway when the Mill Pond was filled beginning in 1807. Bulfinch laid out the streets but they were named by the Board of Selectmen. In this case, they probably just used what was already there.

      That’s all I could find. There’s no information in my library on the origin of the name but I would guess your family background provides the answer. 1640 would have been the right time frame.

      I hope this provides you with some background, if not the answer you were seeking. Thanks for writing.

  5. I am looking for a Boston map that shows the location of Dart Road. I know that road existed in 1951, but I can’t find any evidence of it today. Any help or suggestions would be appreciated.

    • Al: My reference books don’t show a Dart Road and neither does a Google search. Your best source is the Leventhal Map Center at the BPL’s central library in Copley Square. Good luck.

  6. What about the streets in the Orient Heights section of East Boston named after poets (Homer, Horace, Byron, Wordsworth, Cowper) and the streets in East Boston Central Sq. area named after European cities (Bremen, Havre, London etc.)?

    • William: If you mean “court” as in a street name, it goes back to what is now Kingston Street. “Kingston Street was a lane, according to the Book of Possessions, later ‘a lane running up from the seaside to the common field.’ In 1708, Short Street. In 1800, when opened to Summer Street through the land of Thomas Russell, it was called Plymouth Street, and in 1810 ‘Kingston Street.'” If you mean “court” as in court house, I have no information on that. Thanks for reading.

  7. Might someone know how I can find the origin to the naming of Salman Street in West Roxbury? Thank you in advance for any guidance you may share!

    • Jordan: My research books cover mostly the old city of Boston and do not extend out into the towns that were later incorporated into the city. Your best source of information for a question like this is the library in West Roxbury. I’m sure they have books on its history and the librarians will be delighted to help find the answer. Thanks for reading.

  8. Hi – I’d love to know if anyone knows the history behind the naming of Archibald Street and Duncan Street. Neither exists anymore but they definitely did in the early 1920s. They were next to each other, just west of the tracks between Ruggles and Roxbury Crossing. They were bordered by Ruggles St in the north, Parker St in the west and Prentiss St in the south. I would like to rule any associations with some family members.

    • Matilda: I looked through my reference books but could not find any information about these two street. Roxbury might not have been part of Boston when they were created. Roxbury was not incorporated into Boston until 1868. Try a library in Roxbury and ask the reference librarian to help. Good luck.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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!

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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!

  16. 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?

  17. 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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