Why Evanston isn’t called the City of Orrington

Elizabeth Gibson

The photo in Thursday’s print edition accompanying an article about street names in Evanston should have credited the photographer, Alyssa Urish.

The Daily regrets the error.

Most cities founded by Methodists like Evanston have an Asbury Street, named for the United States’ first Methodist Bishop, Francis Asbury. Waa-Mu Way is somewhat less common.

From roads named after religious figures to the proposed Waa-Mu Way suggested by Ald. Cheryl Wollin (1st), the etymology of street names in Evanston traces the city’s history.

Wollin proposed to name the portion of Emerson Street outside Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Waa-Mu Way last week as a tribute to the 75th anniversary of Northwestern’s Waa-Mu Show.

In the past 10 years the Citizen’s Advisory Committee on Public Place Names has approved the renaming of seven pieces of road in honor of various people, according to the Evanston Department of Parks/Forestry and Recreation. If Evanston City Council votes to rename the strip of road, it would be one of the few non-human honorees.

“The feeling was that Waa-Mu Show was more recognizable to Evanston residents than the name of the founder,” Wollin said. “The founder is important too, but this will mean more to more people.”

Evanston has about 100 street names that honor someone or something, and almost all of them take their titles from people.

“There’s a long tradition of naming Evanston roads after people, particularly early pioneers and Northwestern settlers,” said Leslie Goddard, the Evanston Historical Society’s curator of education.

Orrington Avenue’s namesake, Orrington Lunt, scouted out the location for Northwestern and helped found the school.

“In a lot of ways he’s the father of Evanston,” Goddard said. “They wanted to name the city after him, but he said no. If not for that we would now be living in the city of Orrington.”

But for Henry Sanborn Noyes’ name, a street sign and an El station have been the only homage. One of NU’s original faculty members, Noyes moved to the school to escape administrative work. Instead, he found himself dealing with finances, instructing classes in subjects he never meant to teach and serving as acting president of the university, Goddard said.

“Poor, poor Henry Noyes,” she said. “This poor guy just wore himself out, and when he died everyone was like ‘Surely there will be a building named after him.’ And, of course, to this day there isn’t. At least he got a street.”

Edward Mulford, the first settler of Evanston, gave his surname to a street and Oakton Avenue’s title comes from the name of his estate.

Other historical tidbits solve mysteries such as why Lincoln Elementary School, 910 Forest Ave., in nowhere near Lincoln Street and why Central Street is not in the center of Evanston.

In both cases, the incorporation of new land to Evanston resulted in the two streets with the same names. The longer streets kept their names, following the naming guidelines of the National Emergency Number Association.

Evanston also has a few roads named after natural landmarks. Ridge Avenue is the oldest street in Evanston. Before it became a street, it was an Indian trail, a military route and a stagecoach line. The ridge that provides the avenue with its name is the result of land relocated as a prehistoric glacier approached and receded.

But a person doesn’t need to be an ancient geological feature or a founding father of Evanston to find his or her name painted on a street sign.

When Ann Jennett, founder of the Youth Job Center of Evanston, Inc., 1114 Church St., retired in 2001, aldermen named the piece of Church Street in front of the Center in her honor.

Startled friends approached her after noticing the street’s name for the first time, Jennett said. The road stands as a symbol for the successful people whom the center helped to get jobs and for all those who contribute to it, she said.

“It’s a pat on the back,” Jennett said. “And there’s no doubt it makes you feel like a celebrity.”

Reach Elizabeth Gibson at [email protected]