How 30 Chicago Streets Got Their Names

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Chicago may be laid out in a grid, but its streets are far from boring. The tales behind how these avenues, roads, boulevards, parkways, and drives all got their names help contribute to the story of the city itself. There are hundreds upon hundreds of streets vectoring through the Windy City, and we've selected 30 whose etymologies were begging to be explored.

1. Addison Street

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Named for British physician Dr. Thomas Addison, who, according to Chicago Magazine, "was a shy, brilliant British physician whose devotion to studying the adrenal glands was rewarded when his name was attached to a hormonal deficiency, Addison’s disease." Addison committed suicide in 1860, and his connection to Chicago is unknown.

2. Ashland Avenue

This avenue used to be called Reuben Street, and the name "Ashland" comes from the Kentucky home of Henry Clay, a moniker seemingly bestowed by a Chicago developer who was a transplant form Kentucky. That developer was either Samuel J. Walker or Henry Hamilton Honore—no one can pinpoint for sure, but both men were Kentucky transplants to Chicago who developed real estate.

There is a rumor that "Ashland" comes from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire, but that is bunk. It was already renamed Ashland Avenue and ran through a thriving area by the time the fire struck in 1871.

3. Armitage Avenue

Armitage may have been named for Thomas Armitage, founder of the American Bible Union, or for a mysterious A. Armitage, a Chicago mason who may have been the father of Alderman Edward R. Armitage. Little is known about A. Armitage, other than the fact that he was listed as a mason in Chicago in 1849.

One story postulates that the avenue was named for artist John Armitage after he painted a famous painting of the Chicago Fire, but sources point to the name Armitage Avenue as early as 1868, thus disproving this theory.

4. Belmont Avenue

This gets its name from the Battle of Belmont, an 1861 encounter that marked Ulysses S. Grant’s first time in command during a Civil War battle.

5. Cermak Road

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Cermak Road is named in honor of Anton Cermak, the Czech-American mayor of Chicago in the early 1930s. He essentially created the Democratic party machine in the city, and was assassinated less than two years into his first mayoral term. Cermak died either as part of a failed assassination attempt on president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, or as the result of a mafia hit.

He was shot in 1933 while speaking with Roosevelt (who was president-elect at the time) in Miami, Florida. While being rushed away from the scene, the dying Cermak was said to have told Roosevelt, "I am glad it was me instead of you."

Still, many historians maintain Giuseppe Zangara, the Italian immigrant who shot Cermak, was hired by Chicago Outfit kingpin Frank Nitti. The assassination of Cermak was an alleged revenge plot made after the mayor had sent police bodyguards to murder Nitti (who was shot three times but survived).

6. Clark Street

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This major thoroughfare is named for George Rogers Clark, a Revolutionary War general who led the Illinois Campaign and notched victories over multiple British strongholds throughout the area.

The street was named after the general in 1833. Before that, it was known as Green Bay Road because it went north all the way to Green Bay, Wisconsin.

7. Clinton Street

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Clinton Street honors DeWitt Clinton, the nineteenth-century mayor of New York who was responsible for the Erie Canal, a project that hugely aided the commercial growth of Chicago.

8. Clybourn Avenue

The avenue takes its name from early Chicago settler Archibald Clybourn. He built the first slaughterhouse in Chicago; slaughterhouses in the Windy City became a dominant industry and would later earn infamy when Upton Sinclair set his novel The Jungle in one, sparking a movement in favor of increased oversight for food processing.

Clybourn also served as Chicago's first constable. He was appointed this position in 1825.

9. Damen Avenue

Damen Avenue honors Catholic priest Father Arnold Damen, who was born in Holland in 1815. After studying in St. Louis, he moved to Chicago in 1857 and founded Holy Family Church and St. Ignatius High School. He died in 1890, and in 1927, what was then called Robey Street was renamed for him.

10. Dearborn Street

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dearborn shares the name of nearby Fort Dearborn (demolished in 1857), both so called to honor Revolutionary War hero General Henry Dearborn.

11. Diversey Avenue/Parkway

Wikimedia Commons //CC BY-SA 3.0

This took its name from Michael Diversey, a prominent German-born Chicago businessman in the nineteenth century. He owned the prosperous Diversey and Lill Brewery Company, which was the largest American brewery outside New York until it burned down in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The business never returned.

Diversey also helped with the creation St. Michael Catholic Church, which sits on land he donated to the diocese in 1852. Unlike his brewery, the church still stands to this day.

12. Division Street

Division Street likely has its name because it bisects Goose Island, which lies within the convergences of the north branch of the Chicago River and a man-made channel.

13. Elston Avenue

Named after Daniel Elston, a businessman who lived in Chicago in the early 1800s. He made and sold soap, candles, and bricks. He also served as an alderman when the city was only made up of six wards.

14. Fullerton Avenue

Fullerton is named for Alexander N. Fullerton, a lawyer who moved to Chicago from Vermont in 1833. According to the Tribune, he was one of the first three lawyers in the city.

15. Grand Avenue

Grand Avenue—formerly called Whiskey Point Road—allegedly takes its name from a quote by Chicago’s first town president, Colonel Thomas Jefferson Vance Owen, who is said to have called the city “a grand place to live.”

16. Halsted Street

Halsted is named for brothers Caleb O. and William M. Halsted, two Philadelphia-born New York residents who invested in Chicago real estate in the 1830s through William Ogden, who would go on to become the first mayor of Chicago when it became incorporated as a city in 1837. Ogden was so grateful to the brothers, he named a street after them.

Besides their investments, the Halsted brothers' Chicago connection is tenuous, at best. The two had only visited the city once in their lives.

17. Irving Park Road

Getty Images

The neighborhood which this street travels through was named in 1869 for author Washington Irving, whose The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle had earned him great fame. The road was in turn named after the neighborhood.

18. Larrabee Street

This street takes its name from railroad executive William M. Larabee, who managed multiple rail companies in the Chicago area from the 1840s to the 1860s.

19. LaSalle Street

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

LaSalle Street honors French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who was perhaps the first European to visit the area that would become Chicago. It is said that he may have beaten other famed explorers Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette to the punch.

20. Kedzie Avenue

Named for John Hume Kedzie, a prominent Chicago real estate developer who served in the state legislature and helped found the Illinois Republican Party.

Kedzie died in 1903 and was buried in Rosehill Cemetery, which sits about nine blocks east of the street that would soon be named for him.

21. Kinzie Street

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Kinzie takes its name from one of Chicago’s earliest white settlers, John Kinzie. When the city's very first boundaries were set in 1830, the three main streets to serve as borders were named after men who were deemed to be of great importance: Washington, Jefferson, and Kinzie.

Important or not, Kinzie was also one of the city's very first murderers. NBC Chicago has the story:

"We don’t remember Kinzie’s victim, Jean La Lime, although his bones have been preserved by the Chicago Historical Society...La Lime, a native of Quebec, moved to Chicago in 1792. Acting as an agent for a fellow Canadian named William Burnett, he purchased the farm of the village’s first settler, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. Kinzie moved here from Detroit in 1804 and bought the land from Burnett, his partner in the fur trade...On Feb. 17, 1812, La Lime and Kinzie got into an altercation that resulted in Kinzie stabbing La Lime to death... After getting away with it, Kinzie lived another 16 years in Chicago, even serving as justice of the peace.”

22. Pulaski Road

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Named for Casimir S. Pulaski, a Polish-American military commander who was highly trusted by George Washington and has been dubbed the "Father of the American Cavalry." In 1933, Mayor Edward Kelly changed the name of Crawford Avenue to honor Pulaski in an effort to recognize the city's huge Polish population (and to get their votes).

Pulaski is a major figure across Chicago, and Pulaski Day is celebrated in the city on the first Monday of March.

23. Racine Avenue

This street takes its name from the Root River, which was navigated by French explorers in 1699 to get to Lake Michigan. "Racine" is the French word for "root."

24. Randolph Street

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Randolph was named by James Thompson, one of Chicago's first city planners, in 1830. A resident of Randolph County, Illinois, Thompson may have named the street after his home county, itself honoring Virginia governor Edmund Randolph. Many sources, however, cite politician John Randolph as the Chicago street’s namesake, still giving Thompson credit for the choice. Perhaps, then, there are dual namesakes, or Thompson was confused about the namesake of his home county, or he simply intended to honor John Randolph, but his home county confused the matter, thus confusing those of us considering the matter today.

25. Rush Street

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This downtown drag takes its name from Dr. Benjamin Rush, a physician from Philadelphia who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and is often considered the Father of American Psychiatry.

26. Sedgwick Street

Sedgwick is named for Robert Sedgwick, a real estate developer responsible for developing the land on which this street sits.

27. Sheridan Road

Getty Images

This north Chicago road is named after Philip Henry Sheridan, who gained prestige as a Union general in the Civil War. Sheridan lived for about ten years in Chicago, and his work during and after the Great Fire was celebrated as heroic.

First, Sheridan used dynamite to demolish buildings in the blaze's path after it had turned into an all-out firestorm. This starved the fire of fuel and eventually helped slow it down. After the disaster, Sheridan organized army troops to keep order in the city and protect it from looters.

28. Wabash Avenue

Wabash takes its name from the Wabash River (located in Indiana and Ohio), that term being an English version of the Algonquin name for the waterway, meaning "White Shining River" in reference to its limestone riverbed. Traders and farmers from the Wabash River Valley brought their wares to market in Chicago, and the street that ran through the area they occupied took on the name of their home.

29. Wacker Drive

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

This double-decker roadway along the Chicago River is named for Charles Wacker, who, as chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission, was responsible for helping construct this engineering feat that was called for by famed city planner Daniel Burnham. Wacker was also the chairman of the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

30. Wells Street

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This street honors Captain William Wells, a soldier who tried to evacuate troops during the Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812. He was stabbed to death by a Potawatomi chief during the attack.