Author sets out to discover what's in a street name

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For all the quirky, laughable street names that grace Columbia's boxy blue street signs, the addresses could have been worse -- much worse.

Columbians could be living on truly bizarre streets such as Liquid Prelude, Wagon Tongue Way or Purple Haze Road.

Instead, more than 95,000 Columbians make their homes on far more mystically named roadways such as Enchanted Solitude Place, Gay Topaz and Spotted Horse Lane.

Missy Burke, who is writing the first book on Columbia's street names, said it is unclear why Rouse Co. officials ditched some names -- why they opted for Solitude instead of Prelude -- when they were designing the planned community in the 1960s.

"It could well have been they were just too weird," she said.

Burke added that there is no clear indication why many of Columbia's 1,000-plus street names are derived from poems, literature or other works of art.

All that is known is that developer James W. Rouse wanted Anglo-Saxon names that did not sound similar to existing streets in the Baltimore area -- no Main, Elm or numbered streets allowed -- and company representatives brainstormed ideas from there.

"There doesn't seem to be this Aha!," Burke said. "There was this idea that was around and they tried it and said, 'This is the one that's going to work.'"

And so street naming became the responsibility primarily of four Rouse Co. employees -- Evelyn DeGast, Kay Sarfaty, Lesa Borg and Nancy Miller -- who throughout the years pored over poems and other literary works for inspiration.

Burke said the process for determining the street names seemed somewhat haphazard. Some of the Rouse Co. employees appeared to use authors who had written enough work to cover a neighborhood. Some just chose authors and artists they liked, she said.

The final list of street names had to be approved by the Rouse Co.'s marketing director and the U.S. Postal Service, Burke said.

Feeding curiosity

Burke was introduced to Columbia's weird street names years ago when her children were going to Longfellow Elementary School on Hesperus Drive. Neither she nor her children had any idea what the street name meant.

So she went to the Columbia Archives and solved the mystery: The name comes from the poem "The Wreck of the Hesperus" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Burke began working on her book last summer, and the Columbia Archives is scheduled to publish it by the end of the year. It will contain the origin of all the street names in Columbia, where many of the neighborhoods are dedicated to one author or artist with the street names following suit.

In Kings Contrivance's Dickinson neighborhood, street names such as Eden Brook Drive and Lilac Sea come from works of Emily Dickinson -- the first woman to have a Columbia neighborhood named after her. The village's community center Amherst House takes its name from Dickinson's birthplace, Amherst, Mass.

Streets such as Ferryboat Circle and Kiteline Court in Hickory Ridge's Clemens Crossing neighborhood come from works of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.

Oliver Wendell Holmes was the source for streets in Dorsey's Search, where people live on Broken Lute Way and Dancing Sunbeam Court, taken from lines in his poems.

Miller, who retired as a Rouse Co. developers representative in 1999, helped compile names for River Hill, where the Pheasant Ridge and Pointer's Run neighborhoods' street names are taken from Walt Whitman and James Whitcomb Riley.

Literary research

To come up with some of the names, she had to comb through a Whitman work that she said she would have never read otherwise.

"I just got his Leaves of Grass and just started reading and picking names that I thought would be appropriate," she said.

The results were names such as Barley Corn Row, Laurel Leaves Lane and Nodding Night Court.

To determine the origins, Burke said she first consulted the Columbia Archives card catalog and computer database that lists the source of Columbia's street names, but the records aren't complete.

She said the catalog sometimes didn't list the poem name, author or quote from the literary work where the name originated.

She then verified all the information that she gleaned from the archives, reading the poems and books that the names derived from. To fill in the gaps, Burke said she also used online resources and read dozens of poems to try to find the two or three words that inspired a street name.

"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," she said.

In her research, Burke has uncovered some oddities that could have been mistakes. Though the Rouse Co. aimed to have streets that didn't sound alike, there's still Lilac Lane in Dorsey's Search and Lilac Bush Lane in River Hill as well as Blade Green Lane and Greenblade Garth, both in Long Reach. Blade Green Lane in the Phelps Luck neighborhood came from the Robinson Jeffers' poem "Natural Music," which has the lines:

Winter has given them gold for silver

To stain their water and bladed green for brown to line their banks.

"That's one of the best Jeffers' quotes you're going to get," Burke said. "It doesn't have death and destruction in it."

While Burke said Jeffers has a "very rich language," she points out that he also wrote about murder and incest.

"I don't think I've read about annihilation more in my life," she said.

Burke refers to the street Blue Pool in Long Reach's Locust Park neighborhood from Jeffers' poem "The Eye" as an example: "To me, Blue Pool sounds like just a lovely image.

The quote, however, is:

The blue pool in the old garden, more than five thousand years has drunk sacrifice

Of ships and blood..."

Then there's Lambskin Lane, also in Locust Park, from Jeffers' poem "Decaying Lambskins." The street name comes from the section:

And the odor: what is that odor? Decaying lambskins.

Jeffers has claimed more Columbia streets -- more than 100 -- than any other writer.

Burke's book will focus not only on the street name origins, but also on what life is like living at an odd address.

Barbara Kellner, manager of the Columbia Archives, said it's important to get that human element in the book.

"I do know somebody who has a collection of swans because they live on Swan Point [Way]," Kellner said. "... Does the person living on Treefrog [Place] collect tree frogs, or has somebody gotten really interested in the poet their street name has come from?"

Shirley Daniels, who lives on Sleeping Dog Lane in Oakland Mills, said she usually gets laughter when she tells non-Columbia residents her street address.

"They say, 'Oh, do you let them lie?'" she said.

The street's name is taken from the Andrew Wyeth painting Master Bedroom, which shows a dog curled up on its owner's bed.

Daniels said she was a fan of Wyeth before moving to her home in 1970 and was delighted to find out her street was named in honor of one of his works.

"I think it's pretty neat," she said, "living on a street named for a painting."

After all of Burke's work researching Columbia's street names, she doesn't have a story of her own to share about living on a strange street.

For 12 years, she has lived on Beech Creek Drive in an outparcel of Columbia, so she hasn't looked into the origin of her street name. "But I will, I promise," she said.

"I do wish that I had a story on my street name -- it makes you feel a little more interesting," she said. "But that's life."

Literary street names

The origin of Columbia's street names:

Dorsey's Search: The village's street names are taken from the poems of Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Harper's Choice: The Longfellow neighborhood was named after poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and all street names are taken from his works. The Swansfield neighborhood is named for James McNeill Whistler's painting The Swan, and the streets also are named for his artwork. J.R.R. Tolkien's work inspired the name for the Hobbit's Glen neighborhood and its streets.

Hickory Ridge: Hawthorn neighborhood streets are named for Amy Lowell's poems. Clemens Crossing's street names come from the works of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Poet William Carlos Williams was the source for street names in Clary's Forest.

Kings Contrivance: The Folk Songs of North America, complied by Alan Lomax, was the inspiration for street names in Macgill's Common. Huntington's street names originated from Carl Sandburg's works. Emily Dickinson's poems were the source for street names in Dickinson.

Long Reach: All of the village's streets take their names from Robinson Jeffers' poems. The neighborhood Jeffers Hills is named for the poet.

Oakland Mills: Carl Sandburg, Andrew Wyeth, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald were the sources for street names in the village.

Owen Brown: Dasher Green's streets are named from the works of John Greenleaf Whittier. Vachel Lindsay's writings were the source for street names in Hopewell. Paul Laurence Dunbar's poetry inspired street names in Elkhorn.

River Hill: The streets in the Pheasant Ridge and Pointer's Run neighborhoods are named for the works of James Whitcomb Riley and Walt Whitman.

Town Center: The poems of Robert Frost and William Cullen Bryant inspired names for streets in the village.

Wilde Lake: The Bryant Woods neighborhood is named for poet William Cullen Bryant, and most streets in the village are named for his works. William Faulkner was the inspiration for the naming of Faulkner Ridge and most of its streets. Robert Frost's poems were the source of the name for the neighborhood Running Brook, as well as its streets.

- Columbia Association

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