George St, Chapel St, Orange St, Humphrey St, Hillhouse Ave

Memory Lanes

What’s in a name? Let’s take it to the streets.

Carved out of the land in 1638, George Street was New Haven’s very first road, but it wasn’t called George back then. Its first known label, Brick Street, was more pragmatic and industrious. So was its second: Leather Lane. Then, in 1784, after New Haven officially incorporated as a city in newly independent America, the local government went on a titling tear, dubbing the street George after General George Washington.

You could be excused for thinking Chapel Street, also named in 1784, was a tribute to one or more of the New Haven Green’s graceful churches. In fact, it was named after a place of worship that would be demolished in 1822: the Yale College Chapel, which stood near the present-day corner of College and Chapel Streets. Then, Chapel Street was much shorter than it is today; later, when New Haven annexed lands to the west and east (in 1844 and 1871, respectively), its extensions into those areas became known as West Chapel and East Chapel. Later still, the directional descriptives were dropped, unifying this central thoroughfare and making it the longest in the city.

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One of Chapel’s most important present-day cross-streets, Orange Street, was known in colonial times as Mill Lane, for a straightforward reason: it led to a mill. The story behind its present name is a lot more winding. Back in 1687, James II, king of England, moved to revoke the Colony of Connecticut’s royal charter; he wanted to consolidate several colonies into a single entity called the Dominion of New England. The king sent an agent to retrieve the existing charter but, fearful that some of Connecticut’s cherished freedoms would be lost, colonists are said to have hidden the document in a great white tree, dubbed the Charter Oak. Then, in 1689, Dutch-born William III, a.k.a. William of Orange, ascended to the British throne. This new king acknowledged the legitimacy of Connecticut’s favored charter, earning appreciation, respect and, eventually, an oblique tribute in the form of a well-trafficked New Haven street.

In lower East Rock, Orange intersects with Humphrey Street, which—along with its eastbound successor, Lombard—offers a pretty straight shot into the upper portion of Fair Haven. The road was named after David Humphreys (losing the “s” somewhere along the way), a Revolutionary War hero who seems to have fallen out of popular memory despite an exceptional resumé. Not only was he a Yale graduate, aide-de-camp to George Washington, general in the Continental Army, leader of the post-war Connecticut state militia and, in 1791, constitutional America’s very first foreign diplomat, he also had a local village, Humphreysville, named after him. That name was lost in 1850, when the village became what is now downtown Seymour, but at least New Haven’s city grid still remembers him.

It also remembers Samuel Blatchley, the namesake of Fair Haven’s Blatchley Avenue. His company, S.L. Blatchley & Sons, built and sold a 19th-century version of affordable housing, featuring small cottage-style layouts and payment plans the city’s many laborers could afford. The business helped sustain New Haven’s tremendous population growth and industrial achievements in the latter half of the 19th century.

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Back in the center of town, in the most picturesque section of Yale’s picturesque campus, there are two intersecting streets that conspire to perform an etymological bait-and-switch. Hillhouse Avenue—the two-block road that Charles Dickens is purported to have called “the most beautiful” in America—does not seem to refer specifically to James Hillhouse, the towering figure of New Haven history who, among many other things, is responsible for its enduring Elm City nickname. The road was named by his son, James Abraham Hillhouse, a poet who had been gifted the surrounding land by his father as a wedding present, and seems more likely intended to honor the entire family lineage, rather than any individual within it.

Sachem Street, on the other hand, which crosses Hillhouse Avenue’s northern terminus, definitely refers to James Hillhouse the father, though you’d never guess it on your own. “Sachem”—a northeastern Native American word for “chief,” or “great chief”—was his nickname. Whether the sobriquet was self-given or bestowed by others, Hillhouse wholeheartedly embraced it. His colleagues in Congress, where he served first as a representative and later as a senator, commonly used it—perhaps because, as legend has it, Hillhouse kept a hatchet that he would brandish during contentious disagreements on Capitol Hill.

Now that’s street credibility.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. A major source of information for this essay is The Streets of New Haven: The Origin of Their Names (second edition, 1998) by Doris B. Townshend.

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