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When the streets had no names

08/19/2014 7:44 AM by

ABOVE: Plan of the city of Richmond drawn from actual survey and regional plans / Bates, Micajah. [1835] (DETAIL)

There is one glaring omission on the very early maps of Richmond: no street names. Going back to the 1736 map known as the Byrd Plan, there are no streets names listed on Richmond maps as late as 1798.

Early Richmonders likely described their houses or mentioned well known landmarks to visitors. That is exactly what was done by agents writing up fire insurance policies at this time. A policy purchased by Richard Adams, one of the main landowners in Church Hill, in 1796, describes Adams’ home as being on the “mane street leading to Rockets on the south.” Another 1796 policy simply lists present-day East Broad Street as the “main street running west past the Swan Tavern.”

By 1780, a few of the north-south streets had been numbered, but that was all. As Richmond grew, and especially after it became the capital in 1780, this was no longer practical. That year, the Directors of Public Buildings (which included Thomas Jefferson) met and passed resolutions naming some Richmond streets and alleys, mainly ones near the river and in the Rocketts area.

The numbered streets, which had previously had present-day 25th Street as First Street, and increased in number going westward, were flipped, and 25th Street became 25th Street. It wasn’t until 1808 that resolutions were passed naming the east-west streets, starting with A Street and ending with L Street. A Street was Arch Street; B was Byrd Street; C Street was Canal Street; D Street was Cary Street; E Street was Main Street; F Street was Franklin Street; G Street was Giles Street, which was changed to Grace; H Street was Broad Street; I Street was Marshall Street; K Street was Clay Street; and L Street was Leigh. Letters were added as the city grew.

By 1839, people were complaining about the street names being confusing, especially as Richmonders evidently used different names for the same streets. Broad Street was called “Main Street in Shockoe Hill” but E Street was also already being called “Main Street.” In 1844, the Directors finally gave the streets the names that most of them still have today.

Streets added north of Leigh Street, however, still retain their lettered names, although the city briefly tried alternate names, east of 25th Street only. On a map drawn by F. Geese in 1876, M Street was Mason Street; N Street was Nelson Street; O Street was Otis Street; P Street was Pendleton Street ; and Q Street was Quince Street. By 1890, however, another map of Richmond has those streets back to their lettered names.

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