The Lonsdale Riddle: What's With All Those Streets Named After Northern States?

Dear, Z. Heraclitus Knox, 5th Earl of the Firth of Forth:

I have a question about the street names in the Lonsdale community. Why are they named after different states? Somebody told me that it was because of the Civil War, but the streets have names of Northern states. My family used to live on Delaware and that’s definitely up North. I think Lonsdale wasn’t around at the time of the Civil War as a community because the houses are old, but not that old. I was wondering if you know anything about it. Also, the big question is, why do we have some streets that change names once you go past an intersection? I hate this. I learned to drive out of state and for the most part if you drove down a road it stayed the same name for miles and miles. Yep, and what is a pike, besides a fish, too?


Bryant West

Dear. Mr. West:

We do have a one-question maximum, but since your questions are related, and have fairly simple answers, even though some are “I don’t know.”

Street names are a murky subject. The developers or city officials who choose street names aren’t obliged to explain the process of nomenclature in the public record at the time, and rarely volunteer to do so. Downtown’s Mulvaney Street was a mystery for decades, perhaps so perplexing that the city finally just got rid of it, and renamed the place Hall of Fame Drive. Given the turmoil of the last year or so, that name may also puzzle Knoxvillians of the future.

We’re always free to guess.

The Civil War was obviously on the minds of the developers of Lonsdale, because several of the cross streets are named for Civil War generals.

Developers are not known for their imagination, and the only rule is that it be a name not already be in use elsewhere in town. So States and Civil War Generals, like a couple of Jeopardy! categories, might have just seemed the quickest solution.

You’re correct about the ages of Lonsdale’s houses, which are old, but not Civil-War old. Lonsdale developed in 1890, the year of Knoxville’s huge Blue-Gray Reunion, most of which took place at the ruins of Fort Sanders. That may have been a specific inspiration for this development.

Some other cities have major streets named after seemingly random states. Washington, D.C., and Oak Ridge, Tenn., both come to mind. Knoxville’s state streets just happen to be less conspicuous, tucked away in a neighborhood. By the way, even before Lonsdale, there were a few state streets on the northeast corner of downtown, just east of the Old City: three—Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky Streets—still survive. The fact that some Southern street names had already been used may account for the abundance of Northern states on Lonsdale’s grid.

To be fair, there are some Southern states represented in Lonsdale, too: Alabama, Texas, and Tennessee. But a predominance of Northern state names wouldn’t necessarily imply there was no Civil War connection. As you may know, Knoxville was divided in its loyalties during the war, and both before and after the war the city was always home to a pretty healthy contingent of northerners. It’s safe to say that in rapidly growing Knoxville of the 1890s, the city was home to residents from every state honored in Lonsdale.

Most of the streets in Lonsdale were indeed named for states that sent troops into battle, but Dakota Street throws that theory off a bit; during that war, Dakota was a vague and sparsely settled territory populated mostly by Sioux who were not much interested in the white man’s carnage.

If Lonsdale leans north in state names, it also does in generals. Bragg was a Confederate, and Stonewall may be an homage to Stonewall Jackson, but the rebs are outnumbered by their neighbors. Sherman, McClellan, Burnside, Hooker, and Schofield, all Lonsdale streets, were Union generals.

About street names changing block to block, that’s simply the residue of piecemeal development. Often two streets develop independently and happen to eventually meet. Nobody on either street wants the expense and bother of changing their address to suit the other street, so they just keep their names.

Sometimes street names do change in favor of a unified name. East Jackson Avenue, for example, used to be Hardee Street. So there appears to be a trend in favor of nomenclatorial unification, albeit a glacially slow one. Just give it a couple more centuries, and you may find Knoxville more to your liking.

If Knoxville’s frustrating in that regard, you should try London. There, lots of streets are only one block long.

Pike is short for “turnpike,” which was a device that assisted collectors of tolls on longer roads when they were new. Here, pikes tend to be longer streets that began as big private projects. In the 18th and 19th centuries, tax revenues were limited, so travelers just paid for roads as they used them. It seems the fairest of systems, each traveler paying his own way without troubling the taxpayer. Shouldn’t modern-day conservatives favor more toll roads?

Yr. Obt. Svt.,

Brig. Gen. Z. Heraclitus Knox, U.S.A., C.S.A., G.D.I.

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