A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

October 1999



First Street Will Now be Known as Main Street
How Auburn Changed Its Street Names

By Dr. Tina Brewster-Wray

On June 21, 1920 the Auburn City Council passed an ordinance that affected every resident and business in the city - they decided to rename all the streets, and renumber all the buildings. The new system, using letters and numbers, is still in use today. Up to this point, streets had been named after pioneers (Brannan, King), trees (Alder, Pine, Cedar), their location (River, Railroad, Milwaukee) or even first names (John, Charlotte, Harriet and Elmer). The history of how and why this major change occurred provides insights into Auburn in the second decade of the 20th century.



Retired Postmaster, James F. Payne, 1924


The initial impetus for changing the street names came from the post office. In early February, 1920, Auburn Postmaster James F. Payne was notified that free city mail delivery service had been authorized for Auburn, to begin on July 1. This was exciting news, as it meant that the residents would be getting mail delivered to their homes and businesses, rather than having to go to the post office to pick it up. However, there was an important condition that had to be met before service could begin - the post office had to compile a city directory listing every address and building number in the city. This task turned out to have unexpected repercussions.


Map of City of Auburn 1921
(old street names are in parentheses)


Between 1910 and 1920, the population of Auburn had more than tripled, growing from 957 to 3163. The increase was fueled by the Northern Pacific Railroad, which had selected the town as its western freight terminus. As a result of this rapid growth, the landscape of Auburn changed almost overnight, with new streets being added and others extended into what had been dairy farms and berry fields. In addition, with the construction of the diversion dam, the White River no longer flowed through town, allowing urbanization in areas that were previously inaccessible. Not surprisingly, the original house numbering system had proved inadequate to cope with these unpredicted changes.

On March 1, 1920, City Engineer W.C. Whitnall appeared before the city council to explain the problems with the current house numbering system, and present a new plan for systematic numbering throughout the city. The problems were inconsistency (on some streets the house numbers were multiples of fifteen feet, on others multiples of thirty feet) and that owing to the opening and potential of extending some of the streets, the present system was only applicable to a very limited portion of the city. His new plan was adopted, but only after "considerable discussion and argument."

Apparently Whitnall continued to work on this problem, as two weeks later he appeared before the city council to argue that they should not only change the house numbering system, but change the street names as well. The meeting was reported in the Auburn Globe Republican as follows:
A system of street numbering radically different from the one now in use in Auburn, but said to be the most efficient and simplest method ever evolved, was introduced to the city council at its meeting Monday night by City Engineer W.C. Whitnall, who urged its adoption. ...

The plan is simply to divide the city in four sections, or quadrants, with a street running north and south, and one running east and west, as dividing arteries. ... The thoroughfares running in one direction would be called avenues and those in the other direction would be termed streets. Beginning at the intersection, the first street in the quadrant north and east would be called First street northeast; that north and west, First street northwest, and so on. Thus the matter of locating a certain street would be a simple one to a person who merely knew the point of intersection and was familiar with the system.

The method is becoming well known throughout the country as the most efficient way of taking care of the street numbering problem in growing cities, declares Mr. Whitnall. It has been extremely successful in Washington D.C., where it has been in use for years. Coming closer to home, the neighboring city of Puyallup adopted the plan several years ago and it is equally popular and effective there. The engineer is desirous of seeing the adoption of this plan immediately, as he believes it will be a great help in the matter of house numbering, which must be taken up immediately, since Auburn is to have free delivery of mail beginning July 1. If the plan is used here it will mean the abandonment of present street names and numbers, except in a few cases where irregularities occur. Whether the benefits to be derived are worth the effort will be ascertained by the street committee, and action will probably be taken at the next meeting.
Impressed with the need for speed in making this decision, at its April 5th meeting the council decided to adopt this new system of street numbering. The city attorney was instructed to draw up an ordinance for immediate action, which they expected would be passed on April 19th. What happened, however, suggests they had misjudged the depth of the public reaction to these changes.

"New Street and House Numbering Plan Meets With Much Opposition" announced the front page article in the next edition of the Auburn Globe-Republican. The article continued: Much adverse criticism is being voiced against the plan now under consideration by the council for renaming and renumbering the streets of the city ... Chief objections are that the proposed system is too complicated, and that the use of numerals to designate both streets and avenues, coupled with the proposed quadrant affixes, N.E., N.W., S.E. and S.W., will tend to endless confusion and annoyance.

This view is shared by J.E. Fitzgerald, a postoffice inspector who was an Auburn visitor ... looking into the preparation for the establishment of City delivery here on July 1. "...from a standpoint of postoffice efficiency the department has found that prefixes and suffixes to the names of postoffices and streets causes confusion and delay in delivering the mail. ... With your proposed new system a writer in a hurry may address a letter to 421 Second street, it may be meant for one of four addresses with the designating suffixes omitted."

For the next four weeks the city council took no action on the subject. Unfortunately, the newspaper also remained silent on the topic - although we can be certain the city's residents did not. While some people probably opposed any changes, there were also different ideas as to what system would work the best. While W.C. Whitnall's original plan called for all the streets and avenues to have numerical designations, others believed this would be hopelessly confusing. According to the Leslie family, Hugh Leslie (then a member of the Auburn Volunteer Fire Department, and the eldest son of the editor of the Globe-Republican) lobbied for a version of this system in which the streets running north and south would bear the names of letters, while those running east and west would be numbered. Following each street name would be affixed its quadrant designation, NE, NW, etc. Hugh Leslie's argument in favor of this system was that it would improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the fire department. He strongly believed that this system for naming streets would reduce confusion for the firefighters, as the address would automatically indicate where the street was.

Persuaded that the advantages of changing the street names was worth the effort, the Auburn Globe-Republican announced on June 18, "Auburn Streets Are Renamed by Council." The system adopted was that which had been supported by Hugh Leslie, and is the one that Auburn still uses today. After explaining the new system, the paper offered these editorial comments: While the new system will appear more or less confusing to begin with, it is, in fact, very simple when once the plan is fixed in the mind. The present rate of Auburn's growth, together with an utter lack of system in street naming and house numbering made it imperative to adopt a plan that will not be interfered with by the city's future growth, no matter how great it may be.

The sensible thing to do, of course, is to quit grumbling and fault finding, familiarize ourselves with the new system and help to make it generally understood as soon as possible.

Temporary cardboard placards with the new house numbers were placed throughout the city, and on June 21, 1920, Ordinance No. 384, renaming the streets, was introduced, passed and approved. On June 25th, the entire text of the ordinance was published in the paper, outlining in detail the new street names.

Despite the time constraints, the post office was able to complete the city directory - which listed all the new addresses, and inaugurated free mail delivery only five days later then originally scheduled. The Auburn Globe-Republican proudly proclaimed: Tuesday, July 6th was an epochal day in this rapidly growing city's history. On that date gray-uniformed mail carriers made their initial trips through Auburn's streets and the long-anticipated free delivery system went into effect. Though working under many difficulties the postoffice department is meeting with good success in getting the mail to its destination, according to Postmaster J, F. Payne, under whose direction the new service is being operated.

For the present but two carriers will be required to handle the mail. F.G. Allen has been assigned to Route No. 1, which includes all the city west of Division street, and the section bounded by North Division, West Main and North E street; while Route No. 2, which will be handled by Walter L. Burton, takes in the remaining territory, Truitt's and Terminal Park additions. The schedule calls for one delivery day in the residence districts and two in the business part of the city.

Although it had been a long and contentious five month process, by making this major change the city of Auburn was able to show it could take steps to cope with the growing pains of its rapid expansion, and make the necessary, although unpopular, changes that would not only solve its present problems, but continue to work in a future that could only be imagined.

Dr. Tina Brewster-Wray