The History Behind Seattle's Street Names

Founded in 1851, Seattle is full of history. From burning down, to being rebuilt, the hilly nature of Seattle is from more than just the landscape. Built ontop of the old buildings after a tragic fire, the origin of Seattle's street names are quite different from the few that remain in comparison today.

If given the chance to name a street, what would you choose?

If you got to name a dozen, two dozen, what creativity would surface? They say that there is nothing new to be named, and perhaps that is why street names are so repetitive. But for some, like Seattle founder Arthur Denny, there is sentiment behind his chosen charges. While some are apparent, there are a dozen or so streets that even his granddaughters do not know one-hundred percent where the idea came from. Perhaps the true meaning will always lie with Arthur Denny, but it sure is fun to try and guess. 

A Homage to the Pioneers

Early settlers in Seattle contributed to the inspiration of major street names, many choosing to name the streets surrounding their plats after their family names--such as Denny Way, Mercer Street, Boren, Yesler and Maynard--but also from where they came, such as Chicago, Oneida, and Aurora. Some were named after the settlers children, such as Cleopatra, Olive, Virginia, and Lenora, others for their usage such as Mill Street. There was no regulation and each settler that came chose whatever name they wanted until 1895, ranging from the names of authors, vegetation, historic events, and most commonly family.

The Names Changed

Prior to 1895, the land owners could choose the name of the streets surrounding their land, which made for a very confusing city as expansion became prevalent and post offices were erected. In 1895, a couple years after the Great Fire that consummed 116 acres in the heart of the business district, the city voted to give structure and organization, abolishing the street names that changed with every section to now have a single name to run the entire length of the road. This is what made streets such as Cherry, Madison, Union, Pike, and Pine become so lengthy, stretching sometimes all the way to Lake Washington. This task was given to Seattle's city engineer R.H. Thomson, who was given the resposibility to untangle over 300 street names. He further organized the city by making all roads going north/south "avenues," and east/west roads to be "streets."

You may wonder, how it is that of all the different road names, why some like Aloha and Cleopatra managed to superseed all the others. While some were obviously renamed due to repetitiveness, perhaps it was simply because they were so unique. Others, like Yesler Way, formerly Mill Street, marked the path for the Yesler family mill that went to the waterfront that is now Pioneer Square.

Fun Facts

1. The city of Seattle was named in honor of the leader of the Duwamush tribe, Sealth.

2. After the Great Fire, the city of Seattle regraded roads, rising them an average of 12 and in some places 30 vertical feet. Parts of the former buildings can be toured in Pioneer Square as part of "Seattle's Underground."

3. Jackson, Jefferson, Madison, and Washington Street were named after the former US presidents.

4. University Street was the original location for the University of Washington. It has since been moved to Campus Parkway. In its place now is Fairmont Olympic Hotel.

5. Many districts in Seattle (such as Fremont, Ballard, ect) were formally the names of smaller nearby towns that had been absorbed into Seattle's city limits as the years went by.

Question of the Day

A person's address can be something of pride, especially if the street is famous, historic, or well coveted. In some instances, however, you have to wonder how some road names came to be. When looking for a place to call home, has a street name ever detered you from buying? 

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