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What's in a street name


The map Roanoke reads like an honor roll of Virginia greatness.

The angled, intersecting lines of streets, avenues and boulevards bear the names of famous men who contributed mightily to the growth of the commonwealth and the city of Roanoke. Men such as George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. James Madison. Buster Carico.

You don't have to be a governor or a president to get a street named after you in Roanoke. Sometimes, you just have to be a young Roanoke Times reporter covering a bleary-eyed city council after an all-night public hearing.

That's the path to glory Melville ''Buster'' Carico took 50 years ago. Roanoke's city fathers were trying to come up with new names for streets in a portion of recently annexed Southeast Roanoke. Many of those existing streets had similar names to others in the city, so council was forced to come up with more than 100 new names.

Most of the names were approved, but as the council meeting of Jan. 24, 1949, dragged into the 25th, councilmen discovered they were short three names. Just when it seemed that there were no more trees, states or deceased governors to name streets for, vice mayor Benton Dillard gazed at the three drowsy newspaper reporters - Barton Morris, Clarence Whittaker and Carico - sitting at the press table and was struck with a bolt of inspiration.

''Let's name 'em after those guys,'' he said.

The council approved the naming of Whittaker Avenue Northeast, Barton Street Southeast and Carico Avenue Southeast.

Carico Avenue is off Garden City Boulevard, right across from the elementary school, and runs about a block and half. No houses face the street, but the shrubs, flower gardens and tomato plants of back and side yards are visible.

''There weren't any houses on it then, and there haven't been any built on it since,'' laments Carico, 83. ''It hasn't turned into any big real estate development.''

Other streets in the city don't have cute stories like Carico Avenue, yet many have names derived from historic figures of early Roanoke. The origins of other street names, though, have been lost.

Street names have been in the news lately, since a well-intentioned proposal to rename Orange Avenue in honor of Martin Luther King deteriorated into a nasty public debate and resulted in the recommendation to call the street Orange Avenue-Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Street names are more than mere asphalt-and-green-sign nomenclature to help people find their way around. They become synonymous with personality and character, much like a person's name. The name becomes intertwined with the individual - or, say, a street - until it becomes difficult to separate the two. People get attached to a street name.

Williamson Road. To those familiar with this main drag of Roanoke, the name alone evokes visions and sounds of traffic crawling past the cluttered, sprawling shopping centers, car lots and food joints. It is an urban scene far removed from the street's pastoral origins as a newfangled, macadamized road built to channel traffic into town from the north.

The Williamson farm was near the present-day shopping center where the old Sears used to be - two landmarks gone, it seems everything these days is where something else used to be - but the Williamsons refused to let the new road go through their property, according to Helen B. Prillaman's history of Williamson Road, ''A Place Apart.'' Despite this reluctance and perhaps as a way to appease the family, local officials named the new road after the Williamsons, which, as the story goes, chafed some old-timers in the area.

Eventually, the state condemned the Williamson land.

Roanoke has a history of honoring folks who didn't want the attention. It tried to name the entire city after Frederick Kimball, the railroad president whose decision to have the Norfolk & Western and Shenandoah lines cross in a marshy outpost called Big Lick spawned the ''Magic City'' boomtown of Roanoke. He rejected that effort, but did get a street - Kimball Avenue - and a long-gone neighborhood named after him.

City leaders honored railroad official William C. Bullitt with a street, even though Bullitt was so distressed when N&W transferred him to Roanoke in 1897 that he quit the company and stayed in Philadelphia. He never got to live on Bullitt Avenue.

There were other people - mostly white, mostly male - honored for civic contributions. Jamison, Rorer, Ferdinand, Kimball are a few streets named in honor of people who helped build the town, according to Raymond Barnes' ''History of the City of Roanoke.''

Samuel W. Jamison was a prominent businessman in early Roanoke and was one of the men who persuaded the railroads to intersect here. Jamison Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares in Southeast Roanoke, honors him.

A host of streets - Ferdinand, Patterson, Ernest and Chapman - are named after members of the Rorer family, another first family of Roanoke. Ferdinand Rorer built warehouses and, like Jamison, was part of the delegation that begged for the railroads to cross here.

Early settlers and professional men are honored. Hershberger Road is named for Samuel Harshberger (or Hirshbarger) and his son, Jacob, German farmers who built a mill near the confluence of Carvins and Tinker creeks.

Kirk and Luck avenues are named for doctors - J.D. Kirk and George S. Luck.

Others are named for historic places or for geographic interests. Elm Avenue is named not necessarily for the majestic elm trees nearby, but probably because it once passed by the old Elmwood plantation that stood where the city's main library is today. Salem Avenue led to the Salem Turnpike. Shenandoah Avenue probably was named for the railroad. Franklin Road used to wind into Franklin County. Church Avenue derived its name from the early Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches lining it.

Many were named quickly during the boom years following the city's incorporation in 1882, and the origins of those names are lost. There has been debate about the origin of Campbell Avenue's name. George S. Jack and E.B. Jacobs wrote in ''The History of Roanoke County and Roanoke City'' (1912) that the street was named for Presbyterian minister W.C. Campbell, but there is evidence that it could've been named for Archibald Campbell, who ran an inn where Crystal Tower (the old Ponce de Leon Hotel) now stands, or for Gov. David Campbell (1837-40).

There could be some credence to that last theory because surveyor James Schick, the city's first engineer who laid out many of the street grids in Roanoke, was prone to name streets after Virginia governors. That's why we have Jefferson Street and Tazewell Avenue.

Clare White, the doyenne of Roanoke's history circles, believes that origins of other street names were lost because the town grew so quickly during its boom years.

''They'd build a street and just give it a name,'' said White, 86, whose ''Roanoke 1740-1982'' was published in time for the city's 1982 centennial celebration. ''We don't know a lot about some of the names and why they were picked. There are some theories, but it's all just conjecture.''

Orange Avenue is one of those streets shrouded in mystery. The Roanoke Times' Ray Reed researched the street's history for his ''What's on Your Mind?'' column and found that the name may have been derived from Orange County - of which Roanoke once was a part in the 18th century, long before the street was built.

Then there is Main Street, which runs not in Roanoke's downtown business district where you would think you'd find Main Street, but in Southwest. How did it get all the way over there? Back in the mid-1800s, what is now Second Street Southwest used to be Main Street in Big Lick. That road probably connected with the present-day Main Street, although, as Clare White would say, that is conjecture.

Perhaps the best-named street in town is one just off Memorial Avenue in Southwest Roanoke.

Many years ago, the Virginia Heights fire department decided it needed to cut a short street behind the building that would join Memorial and Denniston and thereby avoid a very sharp turn. It was a short gravel path that the city eventually paved and decided needed naming. The firemen had strong opinions about the name.

''They decided, 'We built it, it's our street,''' said Joe Kavanaugh, who lives in the only house on Our Street, a lane that runs up a hill for less than a city block and is believed to be the city's shortest street.

''I guess the biggest problem we have is parking,'' he said. ''There's not any room on the street for cars to park. But one of the advantages is that it's a safe neighborhood because we have the firemen here all the time.

''Some people don't believe me when I say that's the name, but I tell 'em it is. It's Our Street.''

There was no 'Mr. Melrose'

Marshall Avenue - Named for 19th-century Supreme Court Chief Justice James Marshall.

Day Avenue - Most likely named for Major Robert H. Day, a pioneer in Roanoke's horse-drawn streetcar days. Melrose Avenue - This is one of those - like Orange Avenue - that's tricky. Capt. Robert B. Moorman owned ''Melrose,'' a lovely house in Northwest Roanoke, and he incorporated the Melrose Land Co. in 1889. A Melrose Boulevard was built to his house that year. It's unclear where the name Melrose came from, but there is a famous abbey by that name in Scotland.

Cove Road - This is one of the oldest roads in the city and derived its name from the woods it passed through (one definition of cove from Webster's New World College Dictionary is ''a strip of land extending into the woods'').

Brandon Avenue - Mostly a mystery, although it's in the same area as other streets named for English towns such as Sherwood, Arlington, Sheffield and Canterbury.

Gilmer Avenue - Possibly named for Thomas Walker Gilmer, Virginian governor, 1840-41.

Roy L. Webber Expressway - Webber, a florist, was mayor of Roanoke from 1968-75.

Gus W. Nicks Boulevard - Named for the longtime mayor of Vinton.

McClanahan Street - Another of the first families of Roanoke were the McClanahans. Elijah McClanahan was president of the Bank of Virginia in Big Lick and later the Roanoke National Bank.

Hollins Road - The Valley Union Seminary for young women was renamed Hollins Institute (now Hollins University) in 1855 after John and Ann Hollins of Lynchburg donated nearly $5,000 to the school. The neighborhood and the old road, which once was the main northern entrance to Roanoke, take its name from the school.

Gainsboro Road - Capt. William Rowland had the idea for a new town, but it was his friend Maj. Kemp Gaines who secured the financial backing to make it a reality. Rowland called his town Gainesborough when it was developed in 1834.

Downing Street - Named for the Rev. L.L. Downing, a Presbyterian minister who was one of Roanoke's earliest black clergymen.

Burrell Avenue - Isaac David Burrell was one of Roanoke's first black physicians and pharmacists.

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