When deciphered, signs and compressed identities make you feel you belong. The call letters in WCSH-TV stand for Congress Square Hotel, the broadcast site where Portland’s downtown NBC affiliate first hit the airwaves in 1953. I remember thinking, Oh, now I get it!
Just a few days ago, I began to suspect the street where I grew up in Portland–Albion Street–was really named for Albion Parris Chapman, for whom Chapman School was dedicated. (In 1984, Chapman School became Breakwater School.) Because the Albion Street of my childhood connected to Brighton Avenue, I’d always believed the ‘Albion’ was an obscure reference to the lost England of William Blake. It’s never too early or too late for an ‘aha!’ moment. A nest of Anglophiles.
If you’re driving near the University of Southern Maine campus, you’ll see, successively, streets named William, Pitt, and Fessenden. William Pitt Fessenden (1806-1869) was a U.S. senator from Maine as well as Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury. As your tires whisper across these streets, you’ve evoked his name.
Now for the mystery of David Road and Mayer Road off Brighton Avenue, and Pya Road in Back Cove. In the 1950s, developers Mitchell and Nathan Cope, of the firm MiNat, developed these suburbs and named these roads for children of the next generation. If you followed real-estate development in Portland in the 1980s, you know who David Cope is.
It was a memorable project when the glass negative photographs from the Portland Press Herald collection were re-scanned by Maine Historical Society. Another fascinating exploration was conducted decades ago by Norm and Althea Green with their The Origins Of The Street Names Of The City Of Portland, Maine. A copy exists for urban detectives to peruse in the Portland Room of Portland Public Library. Eight hundred and fifty streets are deciphered in this resource. Here are two examples that tickled the Portland Press Herald in a 2015 story: “Abbe Lane in North Deering. ‘For popular radio and TV singer, and wife of, the band leader Xavier Cugat and personal friend of the developer.’” Of course, that was B.C. (before Charo). Then there’s “Holwell Street. ‘Edward Deering Noyes of Portland named this street after his great-great grandfather, British Major John Z. Holwell, the hero of The Black Hole of Calcutta.’”
Updating a project like this could give wandering Portland high-schoolers real street cred. It’s fun to discover how each street got its name, so we’ll know where we’ve been as well as where we’re going.