Austin Answered: Why did tree-named streets switch to numbered names?

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017 Local

A reader asks of our Austin Answered project: “When and why did the tree-named streets downtown change to numbered street names?”

As many Austinites eventually figure out, most of the north-south streets downtown were named for Texas rivers. Within the original 1839 grid, they followed the order of the major rivers as they generally appear on Texas maps. Additional streets were later named for smaller Texas rivers and creeks, such as Comal, Navasota and Medina.

The east-west streets on that original city plan were labeled mostly for trees. The most famous was Pecan Street, now Sixth Street, revived in the names of a festival, a café and other current attractions. Some of the later tree streets, such as Olive, Juniper and Hackberry, live on elsewhere in Austin.

Edwin Waller, charged with hacking the city out of the wilderness, actually preferred numbers for those east-west streets, as a July 11, 1839 letter to Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar proves.

Some maps from the late 19th century and early 20th century show both numbers and tree names for the same streets.

Mike Miller, manager of the Austin History Center, can tell us exactly when the numbers became enshrined: Sept. 21, 1886. The previous day, City Council passed an ordinance adopting numbers and designating Congress Avenue as the dividing line between east and west. But it also said that the old names streets would remain — so both.

A committee had met earlier that year to investigate the renaming of streets, but details of their reports were not included in the minutes. Therefore we don’t know why.

“The language was still the same in 1908,” Millers said, “but you do start seeing the tree names being dropped from use. If I had to venture a guess, it just fell out of fashion.”

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