Minneapolis Streets and Their Lost Names
Now you’ve hit it, and I hope will keep at it. When the Council passes an ordinance let it be rigidly enforced, and if it proves not to be a success it will be the sooner repealed. The ordinance changing the names of streets looks to me like a speculation - if it hasn’t that merit what merit has it got? New maps must be issued, and everybody must buy one to find out where [they] live - that is if [they] live long enough. The ordinance was engineered through both the old Councils by the engineer who is now getting up the map “showing all the changes,” etc. No one questions the fact that a change was desirable and in some respects absolutely necessary, but the change desirable was a change for the better that wasn’t the kind that was made.
However, let it be enforced, and to that end let proper signs be placed at the corners of all the streets and avenues to enable people to know where they are.
- Pushit, Minneapolis Daily Tribune, April 23, 1872
One of the earliest intact maps of Minneapolis and St. Anthony was compiled, drawn & published in 1856 by two local civic engineers. This map depicts a birds-eye-view of the beginnings of Minneapolis & St. Anthony along the Mississippi River, with Nicollet Island at its center.
Cutting through the center of the map is the Mississippi River, however there are some significant differences between the 1856 map and today’s landscape of the river. Firstly, St. Anthony Falls today looks much different than that of 166 years ago. In 1856, St. Anthony Falls was a natural waterfall nearly 750 feet downstream from its current location, unhampered by the Army Corps of Engineers.
More strikingly is the existence of several more islands than present today in the Mississippi. There was Boom Island, now a peninsular park in Northeast Minneapolis; Hennepin Island, which is now a peninsula home to the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory and the Hennepin Island Hydroelectric Plant; Cataract Island, which hosted a shingle factory on its land until the island collapsed into the Mississippi in 1860; Upton Island, where the United States’ first hydroelectric plant was located until the island was demolished to build the upper lock & dam; and Spirit Island - which was sacred land to the Dakotan people - later used as a limestone quarry, and was finally ceded to the government, who altered the island into the entrance of the upper lock & dam system.
A quick glance at this map will also raise a peculiar observation: nearly all of the street names today are different from those of a century-and-a-half ago!
Where there are now thousands of miles of paved roads in Minneapolis, most of the roads on this 1856 map were no more than untidy, muddied pathways or otherwise had yet to be built. Prior to 1856, the west bank of the Mississippi River didn’t even have street names, let alone streets except for Hennepin Avenue, which was an old territorial trail once used by the Mdewakanton Dakota. There were only a few homes on this side of the river, and occupants found it easier to follow their pastures’ livestock paths to get around. This 1856 map was a symbol of promise that the communities surrounding the Mississippi would eventually grow and expand into these further reaches from the city center. The optimistic vision of the map creators paid off; over the next several years, these muddied pathways turned into trails, which turned into dirt streets and developed blocks, and finally as paved roads and avenues as the city grew in population and size.
In 1855, Colonel John H. Stevens, who was the first Euro-American inhabitant of Minneapolis, worked with a surveyor by the name of George Christmas to begin the project of platting a grid system in Minneapolis. Stevens knew that Minneapolis was a prime location along the river for a village. With the right infrastructure, Stevens predicted that settlers would flock to the burgeoning frontier village. Stevens and Christmas worked together to lay out the present avenues at right angles to the river in the downtown section of Minneapolis, where they still stand to this day. The two first christened Hennepin and Nicollet avenue as Hennepin already existed, and the latter paralleled Hennepin. Next, the two laid cross streets, beginning with First Street through Thirteenth Street.
When this first platting project was completed, Stevens went about naming the first few streets. Hennepin and Nicollet were naturally kept, as the street names were colloquially known to the few inhabitants of the area. Next, Stevens chose to ordain the busiest cross street as Washington to honor the namesake of the first president of the United States. The rest of the cross streets were designated in numerical fashion for convenience’s sake while the streets parallel to Nicollet adorned the names of his wife Helen, local settlers, other localities, and states.
The early naming convention of our streets were arbitrarily named after cities, states, founding members of the community, presidents, tree species, flowers, plants, saints, letters, animals, and other appropriate or colloquial names for the area. These naming conventions were taken advantage of in many instances by both the city of Minneapolis and St. Anthony.
By the late 1850s, the first iteration of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood to the southeast of downtown was being platted. The developers of this area liked the idea of Washington Avenue’s presidential nomenclature, and chose to title their cross streets following the presidential succession; beginning with Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, Polk, Taylor, and finally Franklin (which remains as the east-to-west Franklin Avenue that crosses south Minneapolis). These developers weren’t clever enough or otherwise didn’t care for John Quincy Adams or Millard Fillmore, and chose to omit their denominations from the presidential naming convention.
The north-to-south streets in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood followed the terminology provided by Cedar Street. Thus, Aspen, Oak, Walnut, Maple, Pine, Spruce, and Willow streets were born as north-to-south streets to the east of Cedar.
Around the same time that the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood was platted for development, the Elliot family - a prominent family that owned swaths of land adjacent to the south of downtown Minneapolis - chose to create an addition of the city on their land. The Elliot family was interested in all things horticultural, and their street names followed suit. Lilly, Lime, Larch, Lilac, and Grape streets were named as the east-to-west cross streets in the Elliot Addition. While Rye, Tulip, Thyme, Moss, and Holly were the north-to-south streets in this addition. Grape Street eventually conjoined as an extension of Franklin Avenue, whereas the rest of the horticultural street names ceded to the numerical naming convention in 1873.
The naming convention provided by Stevens and Christmas ended at Thirteenth Street. Confusingly, most of the streets that ran at right angles from the river made a jog in direction to a tidier north-to-south direction. When the streets reached this jog, they had different names than their counterparts to the north of Thirteenth Street. Nicollet was known as Main Street to the south of Thirteenth, Minnetonka Street turned into Prospect Avenue, Helen Street became Hazel (then Stevens), Oregon became Pike, then came Elk, Buffalo, Burnett, and Cherry streets. When the city council chose to rename the streets in 1873, Hazel Street adopted the new name of Stevens Avenue in honor of John H. Stevens. Thus, for a short period of time, Stevens and his wife, Helen, shared a street name together.
While Minneapolis was still working on building out its street grid, The city of St. Anthony on the east bank of the river was well on in its years of development. St. Anthony shared several similar naming conventions with Minneapolis’ streets, however many of the first settlers of St. Anthony (now northeast Minneapolis) were Irish and Catholic. Naturally, they named many of their streets in honor of several saints. St. Mary's, St. Genevieve, St. Martin, St. Peter, St. Anthony, St. Paul, and a collection of other equally revered names ordained the streets of St. Anthony as a saintly remembrance.
Central Avenue SE in present-day northeast Minneapolis was known as Mill Street in the early years of St. Anthony. Paralleling Central Avenue were Pine, Cedar, Spruce, Spring, Maple, Walnut, and a slew of other street names suggestive of nature.
In the old St. Anthony City addition, which has now been eclipsed by the University of Minnesota’s east bank, several of the original street names remain. Although a majority of these street paths have been altered, Pleasant, Church, Union, Harvard, Walnut, Oak, Ontario, and Eerie still exist as remnants of the old naming conventions in this part of the city.
In fact, Oak Street used to be the most popular street name, with at least half a dozen instances! Of the six Oak Streets that once dotted the landscape of Minneapolis and St. Anthony, this is the only one that remains unchanged. In these early years, the street names truly pushed citizens’ knowledge of locality and pushed the power of memory to the limit.
Because Minneapolis was once two separate cities, Minneapolis on the west bank of the Mississippi, and St. Anthony on the east bank until 1872, many street names were duplicated on either side of the river. Identical street names could be found in almost every section of these cities as the early platters of these cities had a fondness for duplicating names for their streets. In consequence, the streets throughout both cities were a maze of short stretches of roads, jogs in the streets as different plats oriented themselves either with the river or cardinal directions, and a total lack of consistency or harmony in the platting of city blocks.
Many of these former street designations in both Minneapolis and St. Anthony were discarded on August 12, 1873 to make the city more easily navigable. After several meticulous months of planning, the city council elected to change the names of scores of streets to a numerical street naming system which provided a more convenient method for both navigation and numbering addresses.
As expected, this change in street names was a huge jolt on many citizens’ lives, and for a short while the public was in opposition to the renaming of their streets. The public felt it was a disservice to rename the streets of early founders for more prosaic numerals. In an 1873 letter to the editor that premiered in the Minneapolis Daily Tribune, a citizen with the pseudonym, Pushit, complained, “I don’t know where I live now.”
Pushit further commiserated, “a friend of mine knows where he lives. He formerly lived on Grape Street, but now he lives on Ninth Street West, and the street next to him is 21st Street West.” It’s presumed that this friend lived in the vicinity of what is now the Ventura Village neighborhood in south Minneapolis. The Grape Street that this friend lived on became Franklin Avenue, which was also known alternatively as 20th Street. Confusingly, eight blocks to the south of Franklin was Lake Street, which was also colloquially known as 30th Street. The east-to-west streets between Franklin and Lake adopted a similar numerical naming system.
However, other than a few stretches in Ventura Village, the omission of 21st or 23rd Streets in south Minneapolis is very noticeable. These two street numbers were ultimately dropped because there was only eight blocks of space separating Franklin and Lake, but the city council chose to ordain Franklin as 20th Street, and Lake as 30th Street. Thus, sacrifices had to be made to squeeze ten blocks into an area that could only accommodate eight blocks. At the poor expense of 21st and 23rd, these streets were mostly excluded from the street grid.
Ultimately, the numeric naming system prevailed. Citizens eventually came around to the tidy and easily navigable numeric streets and avenues, and after a few years none would have gone back to the old system. As new additions were added to the city, new street names corresponded with the general numeric scheme used throughout the city. Except for a few areas in North Minneapolis, avenues became the north-to-south running streets, and streets were designated for those running east-to-west. The directional designations of our streets were assigned in relation to Hennepin Avenue, Central Avenue, and the Mississippi. The western side of Minneapolis received alphabetically denoted avenues, and northeast Minneapolis held onto its presidential naming convention.
As time progressed, many became none the wiser of the old street names in Minneapolis. Most are entirely unaware that when heading downtown to their offices, they may park their car on a ramp off of what once was Cataract Street, and use the skyway system to head to their office on the former Minnetonka Street. To me, First Avenue Nightclub sounds a lot more slick than the Utah Avenue Nightclub, and the Open Streets festival on Broadway sounds more natural than Open Streets Christmas. We undoubtedly lost several great street names in 1873 when their conventions were changed. However, most of the lost names were very generic; and worse - these generic names were reused several times over throughout the city.
One thing is for certain, the orderly street names in Minneapolis are a heck of a lot easier to navigate than the mayhem that is St. Paul’s streets!
Rainville Jr., Michael. “The Forgotten Islands Beneath the Falls” Mill City Times, March 3, 2021. http://millcitytimes.com/news/the-forgotten-islands-beneath-the-falls.html
“Minneapolis Streets and Their Former Names.” The Minneapolis Tribune, July 24, 1898. P. 10.
“Pioneer Street Names Here Lost Through Paving” The Minneapolis Star, August 22, 1925. P. 3.
Pushit. “Street Nomenclature” Minneapolis Daily Tribune, April 23 , 1872
“What the Street Names Mean.” The Minneapolis Journal, November 4, 1899. P. 8.
Sturdevant, Andy. “1873: In one Fell Swoop, Legions of Minneapolis’ Streets Get New Names - or Numbers” MinnPost, January 20, 2016. https://www.minnpost.com/stroll/2016/01/1873-one-fell-swoop-legions-minneapolis-streets-get-new-names-or-numbers/
Barton, George. “Map of Minneapolis, Minnesota.” 1858. Hennepin County Library, James K. Hosmer Special Collections Library, collection.mndigital.org/catalog/mpls:10666 Accessed 29 Aug. 2022.
Chapman & Curtis. “Map of the CIty of St. Anthony; Map of Minneapolis” Ferd. Mayer & Co. Lithographers. 1856. https://digitalcollections.hclib.org/digital/collection/p17208coll17/id/154/rec/2
Kammerdeiner, John H. "Northrup Auditorium" Hennepin County Digital Library, 1930. https://digitalcollections.hclib.org/digital/collection/Kammer/id/175