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Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Naming Streets: Winnipeg's numbered streets fail.

© 2011, Christian Cassidy
May 22 1891, Manitoba Free Press

In an attempt to bring order to its rapidly expanding street system, the city of Winnipeg looked to both the U.S. and the railway-created towns of Western Canada for inspiration.

The works committee, led by Alderman John B. Mather, was tasked with creating the new numbered system. What it came up with was changing virtually all streets in the city to numbers. The exceptions
being Portage Avenue, Notre Dame Avenue and Main Street.

Notre Dame became 'Centre Street' and streets were designated 'North' and 'South' in relation to it.



Even building numbers were given a uniform pattern. For example, "Avenues running east and west are numbered under 200 east of Main Street, Main to Princess 200 to 300 and west of Princess over 300." (Source: Henderson Directory, 1894).

At their March 9, 1891 meeting, council approved the plan unanimously. It would come into effect starting March 31, 1891, though they realized there would be a transition period of many months as everything from street signs to company letterhead would need to be changed.

April 19, 1892. Winnipeg Free Press.

Right from the start, the new system was panned by many. A Manitoba Free Press editorial on January 11, 1898, said that doing away with street names were "...in utter disregard of meaning or sentiment of interest or character, and the people could not stand them."

The paper even dragged its heels in providing information about the change to the public.

The 'pocket guide' pictured at the top of this post, created by John Henderson of the Henderson Directories, did not appear in the Free Press until six weeks after the changes took effect. It was introduced to readers jokingly as a way to save them from fretting about the new system:
"In order to retard a little of the premature aging of our citizens, the Free Press extends them the the following parallel list of old and new names". (Source: May 22, 1891, Manitoba Free Press).


1892 classified ad

The change was ignored by the public. At an 1893 council meeting, two years after the change was announced, a postman told members that of the 216 letters he had to deliver that day only four used street numbers. 

Looking through newspaper ads of the day, aside from city notices and the odd classified, it appears that no businesses advertised using street numbers.

The city finally gave in and on October 31, 1893 street names were returned.


One leftover from the numbering system that can still be seen today is the Central Street / Notre Dame Avenue divide. At the time, most thoroughfares had multiple names, in some cases every few blocks. The city stitched together many of these, opting for one common street name north of Notre Dame and one south of Notre Dame. Examples we still see today include Donald and Princess; Carlton and Ellen; Langside and Lydia; Balmoral and Isabel.

In the mid-1940s, Alderman J. Stepnuk tried to resuscitate interest in numbered streets to replace "the present muddled system of names". He brought up the matter at various points over the year, but it was never seriously considered by his colleagues.


For more on Winnipeg street name changes.

7 comments:

The View from Seven said...

I once worked with a woman who was interested in all things literary. She had moved here from Red Deer, Alta., which uses the numbered-street system, and told me that one of the things she liked about Winnipeg was the fact that we gave our streets proper names, with a story behind each name.

Another person who appreciated our street naming system was a young and homesick British expat, whose choice had been to move here with his parents or make his own way in the expensive U.K.

"I always like going past Cambridge Street," he told me. "It reminds me of home."

Interesting how these little details make a not-so-little difference in people's lives!

Anonymous said...

Numbered streets are great for navigating; you almost never get lost w/ the numbered grid. BUT, it totally lacks in character & flavour. Street names make it a little more unique.

Anonymous said...

I've always found it strange that in the midst of all the named streets of Winnipeg, there's still a Fifth Avenue in Norwood/Glenwood. Any idea on the history behind this name? I thought for sure if I looked at an old map all the streets around it would have been numbered as well, but that doesn't seem to be the case (judging by the 1919 map anyway).

Andrew Cunningham said...

Fifth Avenue was indeed one of a series that was renamed around the First World War sometime. My guess is that the "Fifth Avenue" name was kept because of the connection with the prestigious street in New York, but who knows (well, Mr. W. E. Dumplings probably does but that doesn't count).

There were other numbered series as well, including the avenues (or maybe it was the streets) in Norwood Flats. None of them lasted long.

Christian Cassidy said...

I couldn't find a story behind it, either. The first newspaper reference I can find to '5th avenue' in the RM of St. Vital is in 1913.

Anonymous said...

The REAL reason that Winnipeg doesn't have numbered streets is so you are forced to memorize the names of freemasons to find your way around Winnipeg.

Being that Winnipeg is the epitome of a Masonic Creepshow (check out the Manitoba Legislative Building; the place is dripping with occult symbolism), you can thank the freemasons for naming almost all of Winnipeg's streets after their brother masons.

Why would they do something like name all the streets after their fellow masons, instead of logically using numbered streets to ease navigation around town?

Because you can't simply count, say, three streets West from Main Street, which should logically be named 3rd street, you have to remember that it's called "Smith" street, which is named after a mason.

Throw a dart at a map of Winnipeg and there is a 99% chance you will hit a freemason's name.

Nice work. Lucifer-worshiping goofs. GTFO

Matthew said...

If *I* was as paranoid as Anonymous...I'd be anonymous too.