What's In A Name? How One Street Came To Have Five Of Them

Sep 25, 2018

When Ben Avon resident Deb Sadowski walks around her neighborhood she begins on Center Avenue, but after a few miles following the same sidewalk, the street signs change.

“It goes from Center to Church to Division,” Sadowski said, “and then to California, Lincoln, California.”

This stretch of about eight miles of roadway, northeast of downtown Pittsburgh, is contiguous--meaning it’s connected the entire time. It begins in Pittsburgh’s California-Kirkbride neighborhood near an intersection with Brighton Road. It weaves through Marshall-Shadeland and Brighton Heights, sticking close to the rail lines along the Ohio River before saying goodbye to the city and its name.

Good Question! listener Deb Sadowski stands near the intersection of California and Ohio avenues in Avalon, Pa.
Credit Joseph Stuligross

At the border with the suburb Bellevue, California becomes Lincoln Avenue. A few miles later at the borough’s edge with Avalon, the name reverts back to California. The change happens again in Ben Avon, as California briefly becomes Division Street and then Church Avenue. It ends in Emsworth as Center Avenue.

This street name situation isn’t uncommon in the Pittsburgh region. Sadowski pointed to the East End, where Washington Boulevard becomes Fifth Avenue after an intersection with Frankstown Avenue. In the southern neighborhoods, Boggs Avenue turns into Bailey Avenue and then into Beltzhoover Avenue.

It’s rare for a street name to change within a community. Consistency is important, but with so many small, adjacent boroughs and boundaries, transportation growth and historical homages have made these monikers different block-by-block.

Church Avenue and Division Street

In many cases, like with Church Avenue in Ben Avon, names have to do with what the roadway leads to or away from, according to Avonworth Historical Society President Dick Herchenroether.

Community Presbyterian Church in Ben Avon, Pa. was the main reason why Church Avenue was named as such. The roadway led to this church site.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

“It’s name is Church Avenue because the destination is Community Presbyterian Church,” Herchenroether said. Near the intersection with Perrysville Avenue, the original Presbyterian Church was built in 1911, according to their website.

Before 1906, Church Avenue ended at Dickson Avenue. Ben Avon had primarily been a farming community, served by commuter rail transit along the Ohio River. To connect Ben Avon, Emsworth and the rest of the northern boroughs and then-Allegheny City, developers built a bridge that extended Church Avenue to Division Street.

Church Avenue was extended to meet Division Street when the trolley lines were put in and a bridge was built over Ravine and Ridge streets.

“There was a lot of debate about which route would be the best way to go,” Herchenroether said. “The final decision was to follow Division Street between Ben Avon and Avalon, make a 90 degree turn and join up with Church Avenue.”

The commuter train route meant more people would move to the area, growing the population steadily for the next few decades. When the streetcar system was dismantled in the 1960s, its path along Church Ave. had become so popular that it was converted into a road for automobiles.

Follow Church Avenute about a mile southeast in Ben Avon and it becomes Division Street. Herchenroether said this is an example of naming streets for what they do to the community--Division Street divides the boroughs of Ben Avon and Avalon.

Lincoln Avenue and Civil War homages

In Avalon Division reverts back to California, until it hits the Bellevue border, where it becomes Lincoln Avenue, guarded by two stone eagles. For a little more than a mile, Lincoln twists through the borough, passing its elementary school and downtown business district.

The bridge leading to Bellevue, where California Avenue turns into Lincoln Avenue, is flanked with two statue eagles.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

For years, Lincoln was called Beaver Avenue, according to Bellevue resident Michael Bookser. It was changed to honor President Abraham Lincoln. Commemorating Civil War heroes was common practice in the late 1900s.

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“This was all done in 1875 with a committee appointed to name the streets of the new Borough,” Bookser wrote to WESA. “Lincoln, Grant, Jefferson, Sheridan, Sherman, Howard, Meade, Taylor, Jackson, Munroe, Madison were a few of the streets named.”

The origins of street names are as diverse as the communities they run through. Whether a road leads to a place or nods to a significant past event, it holds a little bit of history in its name.