Monday, March 31, 2014

What's In A Name?

1771 map of "Norrington"  
Okay, Norristown's officially 202 years old today and I have one last history lesson for you. When we think of a historic community, we usually picture old houses and public buildings, you know, like Williamsburg. The only thing no one considers to be historic are streets, yet some of Norristown's by-ways are far older than our oldest house.

The map above dates to 1771, when this area was called Norrington. The "cleared fields" in the lower half of the map is basically where our downtown is today. It's a bit hard to read, but the road running left to right says "Road to Philadelphia, called Egypt Road." That's where Main Street is today. It was called Egypt Street into the 19th century--I have no idea why, maybe there was a tavern by that name along its route. Egypt Road still exists in West Norriton.

The road running top to bottom through the cleared fields is labeled "Road to the Mill" but in other references is called Swede Road, which, of course, became Swede Street. it was called that because after you followed it to the river and crossed to the other side, you were in Swedesburg. What is Main and Swede today is the oldest crossroads in town. A major crossroads near a river will almost always result in a village which is exactly what happened.

On the right side of the map, you can also see that Egypt Rd. crosses another north-south road that leads to the river. The markings on the river show that this was a fording place. We still call that road Ford Street.

William Moore Smith plan, 1784 
In a little more than a decade, when Montgomery County was formed in 1784 and the Town of Norris laid out, two more streets were named in our downtown: Airy and Dekalb. Airy got its name because it runs along the hill above the river, exposed to the wind.

Dekalb was named after General Baron Johann DeKalb. DeKalb arrived from Germany in 1777 to serve as an officer in the Continental Army. He was in command of the southern troops when he died from his wounds at the Battle of Camden, South Carolina in 1780. Now, he's an almost forgotten part of American history, but a large part of this area's population were of German ancestry then, so DeKalb got the honor of having one of our first streets named after him, before Washington or Lafayette. The alleys in the 1784 plan eventually became Penn, Green, Cherry and Lafayette Streets.

You notice, though, in this 1853 map, that Lafayette and Washington Streets still aren't named, though most of the other streets in central Norristown have the names we now use.

The streets in the West End were named mainly for the families who owned land near them. For instance, the Chain and Corson families had farms there for more than a century. One exception is Buttonwood Street, named for the trees that were planted all over town in a landscaping trend at the turn of the 20th century. Buttonwood is a synonym for sycamore.

In the last 50 years, we've let developers name streets in Norristown, and frankly, I think they've done a lousy job. The streets of one development have first names for streets: Gary, Caroline, Natalie, Norma, etc. Another is named after the apartment building on it. The building could go under new management and change names, and then what relevance would the street name have?

So I'd like to propose, if any developers make new roads in Norristown, that council suggest street names that have meaning to our community. We have significant historical figures that never had streets named after them: Andrew Porter, Winfield Scott Hancock (although he DID get a school, at least), Thaddeus Lowe, Mary Stinson. We have more modern former residents who ought to be recognized somehow: Charles Blockson, for instance. And, of course, we ought to name something after Hank "Cisco" Ciaccio.

So here's my question to you: if you could name a street in Norristown, what name would you choose and why?

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