Published Date Written by Cliff GallantThe stacks of the Portland Room in the Portland Public Library contain "many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore" and I came upon one such recently in the course of a random perusal. There it sat on a lower shelf, "Portland Street Names," compiled by Norm and Althea Green and published in the year 1995. Seems that there are 850 streets in the City of Portland and Norm and Althea spent years conscientiously researching the history of the naming of each one.
The derivation of the names of many of the city's streets are obvious: they're the name of a tree or a flower native to the region, or they're the name of a well-known person in state or national history, and Norm and Althea didn't devote much ink to those streets. The charm of their book comes from the research they did into the names of streets that are not quite so obvious in their derivation.
The question of where the name Free Street came from, for instance, had long intrigued me. I wondered whether it was named after some august personage, or whether it had to do with "free trade", but, no, it was so named in 1788 in celebration of the winning of the Revolutionary War. People at the time took a great deal of pride in the naming of the street, actually, and for a long time Free Street was the most prestigious street in the city to live on or have your business located on.
Around the corner from Free is Pleasant Street, so named because Nathan Gould, in his history of Portland when it was but a small village, referred to having spent "many pleasant hours sliding down the hill" as a youngster growing up in the area where the street was eventually laid out.
Nearby Spring Street was laid out in 1754, going west from Love's Lane, now Center Street, "as far as the town spring," which was located next to the old fire barn that still stands today, almost to the corner of Spring and State. In 1827 Spring was continued up through what was known as "Hogtown," the name being indicative of the large number of pig farms in the West End.
There are some street names in the East End that I'd always wondered about as well, beginning with India Street. At the time of its naming in 1837 India Street was the city's most important commercial thoroughfare and was so named for the vibrant trade the city did with the West Indies. What else. Once you know, it seems obvious.
Further east, up on Munjoy Hill, Montreal and Quebec streets are commonly thought to have been named after the Canadian cities, when, in fact, they were named after railroads, out of respect for the many railroad workers who lived on Munjoy Hill. The same is true for Atlantic and Waterville Streets.
There's another Munjoy Hill street that has a story behind its name that has to do with the naming of a street down in the center of town.
Henry Street, a short street off Deering Street, was named after Henry Deering, not, as might be thought, after the poet. At the time of the naming of the street the powerful and well-placed Deering family declared that their young Henry, only eighteen years old and "the apple of the family's eye," without a doubt merited having a street named after him, being that he was respectful of his parents and a good student, I suppose. Well, if you and I might resent Henry getting a street named after him at age eighteen, consider the reaction of his poor sister Marion, who harbored such a deep resentment over the affair that the family arranged to have a street named after her years later, when she was thirty-five, thereby providing us with Marion Street, on the Washington Avenue side of Munjoy Hill. Nice to see that justice was finally done.
As for another instance of familial influence in the naming of streets, Portland has eight streets named after James Phinney Baxter's children: Alba, Percival, Clinton, Hartley, Madelein, Florence, Mabel and James, all of whom had the good sense to be born into the Baxter family.
The modern era of street naming has been somewhat less reliant on the city's history and, well, the nepotism factor, and given more to unbridled flight of fancy.
One fellow, a very successful land developer, JW Wilbur was his name, was responsible for naming dozens of Portland streets and had a grand ol' time at it. He began by naming streets after cities and towns in the eastern part of Massachusetts, where he lived when he wasn't working up in Portland. Revere, Saugus, Hingham, and many others, all represented in Portland today. After exhausting that estimable list he turned to English literature for his inspiration. In their book, Norm and Althea refer to him as "a whimsical anglophile." From him we have Huntington Avenue, named for the Earl of Huntington, the nobleman who became Robin Hood, and, of course, there's Nottingham Avenue.
Another example of JW Wilbur's whimsy is Ivaloo Street, which is off Ray Street, a street off Washington Avenue, in North Deering, Ivaloo being a comic character from Sir Walter Scott novel. Ray Street, by the way, is named for Dr. Isaac Ray, a late 19th century Portland psychiatrist who was a pioneer in the field of mental health.
All considered, Norm and Althea's book represents a yeoman's work and upon its completion they were honored by the City Council with a Proclamation by the City of Portland. In the year 2000, when Norm was 84 and Althea was 74, they added an appendum to the book which adds immeasurably to its flavor. It reads:
TO THOSE WHO MIGHT HAVE SOME CURIOSITY ABOUT THE AUTHORS
You don't need a biography of us, friends, for it would only contain the usual experiences of Success and Failure: Happiness and Depression: Frustration and Satisfaction: Challenges Attempted: Fantasies Indulged: Reality Accepted: Love, but never Hate: Hypocracy and Prejudice Avoided: Honesty a Habit: Impatience and Self Control: Contentment ruffled by Conscience: Dependability and Procrastination: and Kindness and Consideration above ALL. So you see, friends, there is no life story necessary, for we are just like you!