Street name changes stirred tussle in early Bellingham

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 26, 2012 

Residents of the new city of Bellingham had plenty to talk about in early 1904.

Henry Ford had set a new automobile land speed record of 91 mph, a fire destroyed much of central Baltimore, and war was brewing between Russia and Japan.

But people on Bellingham Bay were consumed by an issue at home - a wholesale proposal to change the names of city streets.

A few months earlier, in October 1903, voters in the town of Whatcom (where Old Town is now located) and the town of Fairhaven (you know where that is) agreed to consolidate as one city named Bellingham. That was good in the long-term, but there was a short-term problem - dueling street names. There was one set of numbered streets in Whatcom and another set in Fairhaven, along with the inevitable mixing and matching of names whenever you squeeze two towns into one.

To clarify matters, a city committee proposed a long list of street name changes, which prompted petitions, debate, complaints and several poetical denunciations.

"It was quite a little uproar," said Neelie Nelson, a Bellingham historian. "The first three months of 1904, street names were quite the item."

Nelson stumbled upon the brouhaha while researching the origin of the name of Julia Avenue, in south Bellingham. Nelson is helping to research and organize a Whatcom Museum exhibit about John Joseph "J.J." Donovan, a prominent businessman during the early boom times on Bellingham Bay.

Nelson had heard that Julia Avenue was named for Donovan's mother, although his sister and grandmother also were named Julia. While digging for details, Nelson came upon newspaper accounts of the great street name debate of 1904.

Some Bellingham northsiders said they felt like red-headed stepchildren because their numbered streets would be changed while the southsiders' would survive.

And many people were outraged that streets named for historical figures were slated for change. For example, Harris Avenue, named for Fairhaven founder "Dirty Dan" Harris, would become Quincy Avenue.

That prospect inspired local reporter Frank Teck to publish a poem called "For Harris and History." In reads, in part:

"Don't crowd Dan Harris off the map;

for the sake of your A, B, C;

It's a kind of reformation that doesn't appeal to me.

....

Don't crowd Dan Harris off the map

- he's crowded off the earth,

But he really planned that storied street

(and gave the town its birth)"

People also were befuddled by the bizarre idea of naming some downtown and Old Town alleys Nobble, Robble, Tobble, Vobble, Wobble and Zobble. Another critic, going by the name "Pilchuck La Push," submitted a poem about that idea:

"Let's hope it's only 'Vobble'

Or this naming will make 'Trobble'

For our brains will surely 'Wobble'

If all these names we 'Cobble'

Surrounded by a 'Mobble.'"

Sensing trouble, City Council members agreed to drop the alley names and to preserve the names of well-known streets and avenues on the south side, including Harris, Taylor, Cowgill, Donovan and Larrabee.

The council kept the southside numbered streets, and changed the northside ones to a series of names in alphabetical order, from Astor Street through Nicklin Street.

All told, the council changed the names of just over 100 streets.

Julia Avenue, by the way, remained Julia Avenue.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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