Arbor Day 2020 Special

Arbor Day 2020 Special:  Arlington’s Streets Named for Trees

Note:  This is a revised version of an article from Richard A. Duffy’s series in the Arlington Advocate, “History of Arlington Street Names.”   It was first published to coincide with Arbor Day in 2010.

Today is Arbor Day in the U.S.—a fitting time to learn about Arlington streets named for trees.  There is more to the story of these name-origins than is commonly assumed.

Modern developers are often derided for removing trees to build houses, then naming the streets of their new subdivisions after what they chopped down.  Such is not the case in Arlington, because the landscape of the town—like most of eastern Massachusetts—essentially was deforested by the early 1800s.   Wood was consumed for construction and fuel, and cleared land was prized for crop fields and pastures.  Mature trees were few and far between compared to today—often admired as a home’s finest ornament. Some were significant landmarks, such as the “gateway” elms that flanked Massachusetts Avenue near the Cambridge line, immortalized on the town seal.

The “gateway elms” that stood near the Massachusetts Avenue entrance from Cambridge, circa 1880.  Henderson and Teel streets are to the right.  This pair of American Elms are immortalized in the official seal of the Town of Arlington.

A particular tree name might be chosen for specimens that stood nearby, resulting in Chestnut Street (likely for the Horse Chestnut tree), Hemlock Street, and Pine Street, Avenue, and Court.  The maples planted in front of George Y. Wellington’s property likely inspired an alternative to Maple Street’s short-lived original name of Church Street. 

In Arlington Heights, the 1872 subdivision laid-out on hilly farmlands south of Massachusetts Avenue, some street-naming suggested hopes for trees to come. The Arlington Heights Improvement Association eventually would be established with the civic mission to encourage the planting of shade trees.  Cedar and Linden streets exist with their original names.  But a thematic trio of consecutive streets, Maple Avenue and Chestnut and Spruce streets, vanished from directories after 1910, in anticipation of actual road construction. The name Spruce gave way to reconfiguring already-existing George Street.  Maple Avenue and Chestnut Street added more redundant names to what already existed in Arlington, so they became Waverly and Renfrew streets, respectively.

In the same vein, Walnut Avenue, near the Mystic Lakes, became Emerson Road, preventing confusion with Walnut Street.  As offshoots of Walnut Street, exempted from being changed were Walnut Court and Walnut Terrace.

A view looking down Maple Street from Pleasant Street, circa 1900.  The distinctive shape of the maple tree crowns can be noticed in the middle ground (Robbins Library Collection)

Laurel Street was contemplated for an East Arlington subdivision in 1896, but remaining un-built, the name was assigned to a road off Brattle Street.  Laurel Street’s developer, dairyman Levi M. Dolloff, wanted the name Elmore Street, but it already was in use.  Elmore is an English place name and a surname, one origin of which has been suggested to be a combination of elm, plus “-ofer,” meaning river bank or ridge, which spelling evolved into “-ore.”   

Magnolia Street is a rare example of a tree name in East Arlington, although indirectly so; it is named for the village of Magnolia in Gloucester, Mass., itself named for the flowering tree.  On the opposite end of town, Cypress Street was a pragmatic 1930 replacement for Buckman Street, a “sound-alike” for now-vanished Bucknam Place. 

The Victorian fashion for conjoined place names featuring trees has endured over time:  Linwood (for the Linden tree), Ashland, Oakland, Oakledge, and Elmhurst (-hurst meaning hill), and separate-word versions: Oak Hill, Oak Knoll, and Pine Ridge.  

Streets named for trees are among the most common in the U.S., according to a 1993 Census Bureau report.  Oak and Elm rank in the top 15, yet Arlington has neither name.  But both were chosen when streets were first officially named by the town in 1846.  That year, the Road to Winter Hill was named Elm Street, because it was lined with mature elms planted in 1793.  “Elm” did not take root, the road resuming directional identity by 1857 as Charlestown Street, finally becoming Broadway in 1878, which unified the name of the thoroughfare with Somerville.  Oak Street, another 1846 naming, was changed to Hutchinson Road in 1900.  As Edward S. Fessenden explained at Town Meeting “the road was built in Colonial times by a man named Hutchinson, who was paid five pounds for constructing it, and one pound annually to maintain it.”  The warrant article passed to adopt the historically inspired name. Thus was felled “Arlington’s Oak.”