Streets of Seattle

Seattle street names, from Adams to Yukon

Category: Sources

Labyrinth of Names

When a developer first subdivided a piece of property, he laid out the blocks, lots, and streets and dedicated the streets for public use, filing a plat, or map, of an “addition.” The person who platted each addition had the privilege of naming the streets within that addition. Additions are relatively small, so a single street will pass through many of them. As a result, by the 1890s Seattle street names were a mess. As an 1891 report to the Chamber of Commerce explained:

Some names have been repeated from three to five times, and in the Pontius and other additions to the city, streets are designated by numbers in utter disregard of the fact that streets in the oldest part of the city have been designated by similar numbers for more than thirty years. Another evil which should be remedied is the possession by a single street of several different names at several different points. For instance, in the Renton addition and the additions immediately adjoining of the streets running north and south, Rose street within a few blocks becomes Black street and Chestnut street is changed to Cedar street. Of the north and south streets, Bancroft changes within a short distance to Talbot street, Hayes to Adams, Gould to Mastick and Choat street within a few blocks becomes Blakeley street, and again within a few blocks changes back to Choat street. These are all straight streets and are cited from among many instances of unnecessary and inexcusable multiplication of names of streets running through different additions. In the southern part of the city, where the streets running north and south are numbered, similar evils exist without any apparent excuse, except that some one platted an addition to the city with direct reference to the number of lots to be gotten out of land and no reference whatever to streets and alleys. As a result, at one point Twenty-second street becomes Twenty-fourth street for a couple of blocks and then once more becomes Twenty-second street. Twenty-sixth street changes its name in a like manner and Twenty-first, Twenty-third and Twenty-fifth streets are duplicated within two blocks of each other. As the city is built up this condition of affairs will lead to greater confusion each year. These evils result wholly from culpable carelessness or utter disregard for the rights of the public by those platting land and the equally culpable carelessness of the authorities who accept and approve such plats.

Read the full report, printed in the December 16, 1891 Seattle Press-Times, here. This “labyrinth of names” is clearly visible on the 1890 Anderson map of Seattle. The streets were rationalized and many of them renamed in 1895.


Pig-tail days

Sophie Frye Bass was the granddaughter of Arthur Denny and the author of two charming little books on Seattle history, Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle and When Seattle Was a Village. Both books consist primarily of her memories of growing up in pioneer Seattle. The one that concerns us here is Pig-Tail Days, published in 1937, which gives her account of the origins of the downtown street names and a few others.

Pig-Tail Days is an important source for street names; Bass, born in Seattle in 1867, grew up as the streets were being laid out and knew many of the people who did the naming. As a Seattle Times reviewer put it:

When one closes this thrilling little volume there will be no forgotten streets, no forgotten pioneers for the reader, as Mrs. Bass has carefully written of some of these forgotten streets, she has refreshed the memory concerning pioneers and their heroic deeds, their achievements (often unheralded and unsung) in the upbuilding of Seattle.