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Why do Wilmington and Philadelphia have so many street names in common?

Ben Steelman
StarNews

Wilmington’s original planners didn’t leave a note to explain, but it’s a fact: Wilmington and Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, share a lot of street names, including Market (for the central thoroughfare, in place of “Main Street”) and Front Street (instead of “First Street”).

Other names in common include Dock, Queen, Castle, Church, Walnut, Chestnut and Mulberry. (Grace Street was known as “Mulberry Street” until 1895, when it was renamed for Grace Methodist Church.)

Princess, however, seems to be exclusively Wilmington’s.

The two downtowns, moreover, have remarkably similar layouts, with all numbered streets (Front, Second, Third, etc.) in one direction, and named streets in another. Streets in both are also designated “North” or “South” for being north or south of Market.

(The difference, of course, is that Philadelphia sits on the west bank of the Delaware River, while Wilmington sits on the east bank of the Cape Fear.)

The basic pattern was in place as early as 1737, according to Alan D. Watson, a history professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. That was the year  Matthew Higginbotham drew up a map of “Newton (formerly New Liverpool).”

The new town didn’t become Wilmington until it was chartered in 1740.

Folks noted the similarities early. In his book, “Wilmington, North Carolina, to 1861,” Watson quotes a 1757 visitor to the Port City who wrote “the Regularity of the Streets … (is) Equal to that of Philadelphia.”

Louis T. Moore, the local historian and longtime executive with the local Chamber of Commerce, noticed the similarities as long ago as the 1930s. He also found, though, that Wilmington also shares a lot of street names (including Red Cross) with Liverpool, England – and remember, the new settlement was actually called “New Liverpool” for a while in the 1730s.

In a 1933 letter to Moore, Wilmington [Map this] native Henry B. McKoy – who’d researched the issue – said Philadelphia rather than Liverpool was probably the model for Wilmington.

His arguments:

1. Liverpool, which dates from the Middle Ages, has narrow, winding, irregular streets, without a clear pattern. Philadelphia and Wilmington both have those rational, squared-off plans, with the street names proceeding in a regular pattern.

2. At the time Wilmington was founded, Philadelphia was the second largest city in colonial American with 13,000 residents (compared with 13,000 for Boston, 11,000 for New York and fewer than 7,000 for Charleston, S.C.) A considerable amount of trade ran between Wilmington and Philadelphia, so it’s only natural the larger town would influence the new settlement.

Eighty years later, we’ve yet to come up with a better theory. You can find a copy of McKoy’s letter to Moore in the Bill Reaves files at the New Hanover County Public Library.

McKoy, by the way, spent much of his life out of state as a building contractor, but he remained close to Wilmington. His 1957 book “Wilmington, N.C.: Do You Remember When?” is a treasure trove of social history, including one of the last first-person accounts of Jonkonnu or “coonering,” the annual holiday carnival celebrated by local African Americans.

RELATED LINKS:

How did streets such as Queen, Castle, Church, Nun, Ann, Orange and Dock get their names?

When was Wilmington founded?

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Robert

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4 Responses to “ Why do Wilmington and Philadelphia have so many street names in common?”

  1. On June 22, 2013 at 7:52 am Mary Ainsley wrote:

    Correction:

    The numbered streets in Wilmington run N-S.

    But, a great little article.

  2. On June 22, 2013 at 10:39 am Roger Boneham wrote:

    Wilmington shares many of the same street names with New Bedford, Massachusetts. They both have street names starting from the water front such as, Water St., Front St., and the numbered streets First though Eighth St. leading up from the water. The river in Wilmington’s case and the ocean in New Bedford’s.

    The similarity is probably due to the fact that both were settled by English people at approximately the same time. And the street names make sense when beginning a new development.

  3. On June 24, 2013 at 5:32 pm Si Cantwell wrote:

    You’re right about that. Numbered streets run north-south in both Philly and Wilmington. I’ll edit the answer to reflect that, and thanks!