Belleville streets named for presidents lead to confusion

News-DemocratJuly 11, 2013 

After 26 years of living in Belleville, often driving down little streets and alleys just to see where they go, I thought I was familiar with most of the streets -- at least all the streets named for presidents.

But the other day on an assignment, I had to go to Taft Street. Or Taft Drive, or Taft Avenue, depending upon which source you check. I had never heard of it.

It is one of the president streets, the ones that run east and west and cross South Illinois Street south of Main Street.

Starting with Washington, of course, the streets proceed through Lincoln, Monroe, and on south to Taft, which is south of Illinois 15. Most of Taft doesn't seem to be inside the city.

I knew that back in the early part of the 20th Century, the city had changed a lot of street names. When you see old articles that refer to Spring Street, Race Street and Richland Street, you have to translate to modern times. Race Street now is Third Street and Richland Street is now Second Street. Spring Street is First Street.

Anyway, this whole thing sent me back to the old newspaper files to see when and why these changes happened.

The when is easy. It was Dec. 5, 1918, at a City Council meeting.

The why was a little less apparent. The stories in the Belleville News-Democrat and the Belleville Daily Advocate said only that it was to ease confusion.

A lot of great street names were lost, including Airy, Fink, Glass, Gold, Silver, Iron, Busch, Kern, Breese, St. Louis and Boston, among others.

In much of their places are numbered streets beginning with First Street to the west of Illinois Street and continuing through 102nd Street.

I wonder how they picked the presidents. Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft, James K. Polk and Martin Van Buren all received streets. I don't know if Harrison Street was named after either of the Harrison presidents, William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison, or after the steam engine company that used to be on the street. Maybe all three.

Of course there is Adams Street, knocking off two presidents with one stone, so to speak. I don't know if they were honoring John or John Quincy Adams. Maybe both.

I know Roosevelt Street isn't anywhere near the rest of the president streets and Texas Avenue is by Roosevelt, nowhere near the other streets named after states on the east end of town.

To help ease the confusion of the name changes in 1918, the newspapers said there would be a new map of the city with the new street names, proposed to sell for $5, which was a pretty good chunk of change back in those days.

I can only imagine the confusion the changes must have caused the post office people. But I couldn't find any stories about that.

I would have thought there also would have been something about having to change street signs. But the city apparently didn't get around to that until 1928 when it put up 2,000 new signs. The Daily Advocate wrote that the workers would erect the signs "...on the main arteries into the city and will then work towards the center of the town."

The paper also noted "Only once in the history of Belleville were street signs erected in this city and this was under the administration of Mayor Fredericks about thirty years ago."

The new signs were orange with black letters.

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 618-239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com

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