Where the Streets Had Old Names

Many readers are aware that most streets in Georgetown used to have names different from their current ones. In fact, GM has long wished the city would erect some mementoes to the old names on the streetposts themselves. But one thing GM has only recently began to wonder is this: where did those names come from?

A bit of history first.

Georgetown was established as a new town in 1751 in the colony of Maryland. Upon being established, the first streets and building lots were laid out. This is the first map of Georgetown (actually, it appears to be a 19th century recreation of the original map):

There were only a handful of street names:

  • What is now M St., west of Wisconsin Ave., was called Falls St.
  • M St., east of Wisconsin Ave., was called Bridge St.
  • Wisconsin Ave., north of M St., was called High St.
  • Wisconsin Ave., south of M St., was called Water St.
  • Confusingly, Water St. was called West Landing and Keys
  • Roughly where K St. is now was called Wapping
  • 33rd St., south of M St., was called Duck Lane
  • 33rd St., north of M St., was called West Lane
  • 31st St., south of M St., was called Fishing Lane
  • 31st St., north of M St., was called East Lane (each of these “lanes” were probably closer to alleys than streets)

After a series of land additions through the second half of the 18th century, the streets of Georgetown took the form that they largely still have:

This 1814 map shows a complete street grid for the neighborhood, and contains the street names that would stick around until the street renaming in  1879. (The names were changed to help incorporate Georgetown with the rest of the District of Columbia, although, to be honest, geography continued to make that incorporation pretty attenuated.)

Some of the streets didn’t quite line up with the Washington street naming convention, and so the old names remained. That’s why we still have Dumbarton, Olive and Prospect, for example. But most were changed.

This is a story that GM has been familiar with for quite some time. But it was only recently that he began to wonder, “but wait, why were the old streets named the way they were?”

Some appear, at least at first, to be fairly self-evident. Bridge St. was literally the street that led to a bridge over Rock Creek. And Market St. led to the Georgetown Market (which was near the current Georgetown market building, i.e. the former Dean and Deluca).

But wait a second. Was there really a bridge at the end of Bridge St.? Why would there be a bridge over Rock Creek in 1751? There was no city on the other side of it. Maybe there was a bridge, but we can’t assume the names derived from the obvious explanations. Consider, for example, this mention from the Ordinance of the Corporation of Georgetown dated to 1808:

The 1814 map above clearly shows a bridge over Rock Creek at the end of Bridge St. But that map was drawn more than sixty years after the street was first named. Maybe the street name was merely aspirational?

And what about Market Street (now 33rd St.)? It always struck GM as odd that 33rd St. is the street that was once named Market St., seeing as it intersects M St. half a block west of where the market is. Granted the current market building was built in 1865, but it was built on the site of the previous Georgetown Market building, which dated to 1795. Why was the Market Street name given to the street that became 33rd and not to the street that was named Potomac Street, which leads literally to the front door of the market?

GM was willing to chalk it up to close-enough-for-government-work, but then he found this map:

It’s the cadastral map for Beatty’s and Hawkin’s Addition to Georgetown. This addition was the addition to Georgetown that covers most of current day west Georgetown. And if you look closely, it appears to indicate that there was a market house on Market St. between 2nd and 3rd Streets (current O and P Streets).

Perhaps no market house ever actually was built there. But this map at least indicates that there as a plan for one. But more to the point: this map is from 1755, and it indicates that the street already was named Market St., but, as mentioned above, the first Georgetown municipal market wasn’t built until 1795. This would seem to indicate that the Market St. name had nothing to do with the market on Falls St./M St.

All this is to say that the obvious explanations might not be the right ones. And plenty of of the old street names didn’t even have obvious explanations. But GM will give it his best shot. So, keep reading and GM will report back as he peels back the layers.

Number one on his list is perhaps the street that got him wondering about this whole question in the first place: Thomas Jefferson St. This street used to be called just Jefferson St. And GM has always harbored some doubts that it was named originally after Thomas Jefferson. He might not get to the bottom of it, but he’ll give it a shot.

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