You know why the city is called Chicago (a Native American word for the stinky onions along the river), and that the streets in the Loop are named after US presidents (albeit in somewhat perplexing order). But how did other Chicago streets get their names?
Chicago’s first street plan was created in 1830 by James Thompson at the behest of the Illinois and Michigan Canal Commissioners, when the city had a population below 300. Thompson created streets and lots from Kinzie to Washington and Jefferson to Dearborn. When offered real estate in the fledgling town as payment, Thompson refused and took a mare instead.
As the city grew and gobbled up surrounding townships throughout the 19th century, the address system became an obtuse muddle, with multiple streets sharing the same name or various thoroughfares continually changing names. To rectify this, in 1901 a building superintendent named Edward P. Brennan suggested that a uniform numbering system be adopted in which State and Madison were 0 and each 800 address numbers would demarcate a mile (although this is not quite true on the South Side). Odd and even numbers would be on opposite sides of the street, and each address on a block would refer to a 20-foot segment.
After this plan was adopted by the city in 1908, Brennan then proposed that streets should keep the same name even if interrupted by, say, the river. The city also set about getting rid of duplicate street names. While Brennan’s suggestion that Street, Avenue, and Road each designate a different directional path (east-west, north-south, and diagonal) was never adopted, it is primarily to him that Chicago owes its address system.
So where do the names of some prominent Chicago streets come from? Thanks to the book Streetwise Chicago by Don Hayner and Tom McNamee, we have some answers – and they reveal a lot of the city’s development history.
Touhy – The Irish immigrant Patrick L. Touhy helped found Rogers Park after his wife, Catherine Rogers, inherited 800 acres north of the city in 1869 and he began to subdivide it into lots. He also sold land to men with names you might recognize: Lunt, Greenleaf, Morse. Touhy was a prominent citizen: when Mayor Carter Harrison was assassinated in 1893, Touhy was by his side.
Devon – In the 1880s, real estate developer John L. Cochran bought land to the north of the city and founded the community of Edgewater. Cochran encouraged a range of socioeconomic classes to move in, with mansions on the lake and multifamily housing west of Evanston Avenue (now Broadway). A native of Philadelphia, Cochran named six streets after stops along a commuter rail line leaving that city: Devon, Rosemont, Ardmore, Bryn Mawr, Berwyn, and Wayne.
Peterson – Per Samuel Peterson was a Swedish immigrant who came to Chicago in 1854. His nursery west of Rosehill Cemetery – which he helped found – grew more than half of the trees planted on public streets in the decades following the Chicago Fire. He also planted all the trees for the 1893 World’s Fair.
Foster – John H. Foster came to Chicago sometime around 1835 to manage the real estate of his army officer brother after the brother was killed while disciplining a drunken soldier. Foster served on both the Chicago and Illinois State Boards of Education. He himself died when he was thrown from a carriage on Division Street.
Lawrence – Lazarus Silverman was walking through his new subdivision on the north side of the city with his friend Bradford A. Lawrence when Silverman decided on a whim to name the street they were on after his companion.
Montrose – There are some streets named after unexpected people not associated with Chicago: Montrose (after James G. Montrose, a 17th century Scottish military leader known as "the Great Montrose”); Irving Park (after Washington Irving, the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow); Addison (an influential British doctor, Thomas Addison); Halsted (two Philadelphia banker brothers who only visited the city once but financed much of the real estate speculation of the city’s first mayor, William Butler Ogden); and Cicero (the Roman orator).
Belmont – Speaking of unrelated to Chicago, this name comes from the November, 1861 Battle of Belmont in northern Missouri. An unimportant battle, its only distinction is that it was the first combat test in the Civil War for Ulysses S. Grant. Ashland is also named after a non-Chicago place: Henry Clay’s ash tree-dotted Kentucky estate.
Diversey – Michael Diversey bought an interest in Chicago’s first brewery from the first mayor, William Butler Ogden, in 1841. The business was successful enough to ship beer down the Mississippi River and to Wisconsin. Less important than his work with beer, Diversey also served as an alderman and donated land for several religious institutions.
Hubbard – Gurdon S. Hubbard was an early business leader who came to the area from Montreal as an indentured servant with John Jacob Astor’s fur company in 1818. He later ran his own trading business – he was known for dressing like a Native American – became rich, and became one of the city’s biggest meatpackers as well as the owner of its largest warehouse.
Wacker – Charles H. Wacker was another brewer integral in the development of Chicago. He was chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission, implementing Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan and advocating for lakefront parks. He also served as director of the 1893 World’s Fair, and suggested relocating South Water Street to build a two-level road along the river: Wacker Drive.
Damen – Father Arnold Damen was a Jesuit priest who founded Holy Family Church at Roosevelt and Racine in 1857. Out of town when the Chicago Fire started, Damen prayed that his church be spared. In return for its amazing survival, a light is kept burning in the church. Damen also founded St. Ignatius High School and College (the latter was renamed Loyola University in 1909 and began moving to Rogers Park in 1912.)
Kedzie – John H. Kedzie came to Chicago in 1847 as an attorney but soon began buying real estate. With partners bearing familiar names (Greenleaf, Leland, Wilson), he developed the Ravenswood suburb. A staunch abolitionist, he helped organize the Illinois Republican Party. And he developed much of Evanston, where he helped found the Public Library and built three successive homes (the first two burned down).
Pulaski – Once called Crawford (it still is in the northern suburbs) after an early Scottish settler, the name was changed to honor the Polish hero of the Revolutionary War and father of the American cavalry Casimir Pulaski. When Mayor Ed Kelly tried to rename it in 1933 to reward his Polish supporters, business owners along the street fought back hard. Only after the Illinois Supreme Court weighed in (for the second time) was the change officially accepted, in 1952.
Clark – George Rogers Clark was a general in the Revolutionary War who captured territories in the Northwest Territory from the British, who eventually ceded the entire Territory to the United States (including what is now Illinois).
Elston – Daniel Elston was a London merchant who came to Chicago but lost most of his goods when a ship crashed by Newfoundland. He bought land way out in the northwestern boondocks, in what is now Niles, and was known for living past the frontier in the wilderness. He became an alderman in 1837 and also founded a bank.
Archer – Colonel William Beatty Archer was an early abolitionist, a rarity at the time for his Bridgeport Irish community, although they eventually supported the Union. He nominated Abraham Lincoln for vice president in 1856. And he was a civil engineer who supervised construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, providing work for many of his Irish immigrant neighbors.