How often we drive along giving no thought to the road we travel. And more often than that we give no thought to how the road got its name. In my case, I’m often forced to learn why or how a road got its name. Generally it makes for interesting reading. Over the years I’ve profiled several highways for magazines. Some of these profiles have worked their way into books. All the roads you’ll note have numeric names: Highway 378, Highway 17 the coastal byway, and Highway 76 a road that crosses South Carolina from the Peach State to the Tarheel State.
Profile a road and you had better learn how it got its name. I don’t particularly like numerals as road names although the iconic Route 66 is hard to beat. I prefer roads with names that have character and color, names like Hollywood & Vine, Bourbon Street, and Blue Ridge Parkway. Not only do good stories underlie such appellations, they teach us something about ourselves.
The ways and reasons we name roads surely say a lot about us. And as you’ll see we don’t always give our choices careful consideration. Would you like to live on a road with a humiliating name? Wouldn’t you prefer to live along a byway that has a connection to culture and history, something that’s a point of pride?
My road-contemplating journeys through Georgialina, that blended land of Georgia and South Carolina, consist of two types: magazine “road trip” assignments and book pieces. Now and then I’ll stumble across a great road name and intersection as a matter of work and pleasure reading. Years ago I worked on an assignment for the Aiken Chamber of Commerce. Over there you’ll find an unforgettable intersection: Whiskey Road and Easy Street. It’s said to be one of the country’s most photographed road signs.
Down in Albany, Georgia, Lonesome and Hardup Roads make quite an interesting intersection. And over in Story, Arkansas, (I am not making this up as Davy Barry says) you’ll find Farfrompoopen Ridge … the only road that leads to Constipation Ridge. How would you like to live there!
For certain literature serves up more refined and memorable road names. Close by we have Tobacco Road. Erskine Caldwell set his 1932 novel, Tobacco Road, in the country several miles outside Augusta. Set during the worst years of the Great Depression Tobacco Road centers on a hardscrabble family of white tenant farmers, the Lesters. Like other small Southern cotton farmers the Lesters got caught in the crosshairs of major change. Industrialization robbed them of a livelihood and migrating to the city was all they had left. Otherwise they were stuck on Tobacco Road but it had an arresting name at least.
Unknowable roads from literature prove memorable too. James Dickey’s description of a road in Deliverance evokes memories of the days when many roads were concrete sections separated by tar. Come the sizzling southern summer such roads turned into a tarry, sticky mess with mirages aplenty shimmering like puddles. I remember those roads well. I’d sit in the back seat of Dad’s Plymouth feeling the rhythm of the concrete sections beneath the wheels. A pleasant rocking would lull me to sleep but if sleep didn’t come it was fun watching the old road’s centerline wiggle, meander, and snake along. And then there were those mesmerizing mirages. Dickey traveled such a road.
“At an intersection we turned off onto a blacktop state road, and from that onto a badly cracked and weedy concrete highway of the old days—the thirties as nearly as I could tell—with the old splattered tar centerline wavering onward. From that we turned onto another concrete road that sagged and slewed and holed-out and bumped ahead, not worth maintaining at all.”
That road by the way, based on maps, some sleuthing, and with what I know from Dickey, must have been up near the Cleveland, Clermont vicinity. Those old roads are about gone now; replaced by asphalt, which contains crude oil, a curse in many ways today as we all know.
Concrete, asphalt, or dirt the fact is we have colorful road names down here. They run the gamut from the good to the bad and the ugly. Some names prove memorable; some ascend to literary fame, and some are memorable because of other roads they cross. Some are utterly forgettable. During the Clinton presidency a sign at a crossroads over this way got a lot of attention. Clinton was in one direction; Prosperity in another. It made for a chuckle or two.
And how about fruit trees for naming inspiration. It seems we just can’t get enough of some names. How many towns in Georgia have a Peachtree Street? Lincolnton, Georgia, does. And in Atlanta the joke goes that half the streets in Atlanta are named Peachtree. “Peachtree” alone refers to Atlanta’s main street but something like 71 streets in Atlanta have a variant of Peachtree in their name … Peachtree Avenue, Peachtree Valley Road, and so forth.
In the United States, we name most streets after numbers, landscapes, trees (in my community all streets are named for trees or groups of trees … Southgrove, Northpine, Southoak and so forth). We give streets the surname of an important individual too but that is subject to change. Nothing like an assassination to generate a flurry of street renaming.
We name roads too because of family land connections. Down in the Double Branches community of Lincoln County—my homeland—Poland Road caught my daughter Beth’s attention when she was in college at Virginia Tech. I took her photo standing in front of the green-and-white sign. I’m sure she had fun with that photo.
Some names prove unforgettable because of the sheer poetry of their name. Edisto Island’s Botany Bay Road falls into that class and if you go to my website (www.tompoland.net) you’ll see a gorgeous photo of Botany Bay Road, a classic scene from the South.
Of course roads names can stir up controversy. A few years back a debate took wings in Terrell County down Dawson, Georgia, way over the name of a road, Chain Gang Road. The local NAACP chapter president felt the name had racial undertones. Really? I’ve seen many a white fellow on chain gangs picking up trash. The last I read the commission down there voted 3-2 against renaming the street. The expense to residents was one reason given for keeping the name the same. Think of all the changes that would have required. You’d have to get a new driver’s license, new bank checks, new insurance documents, new address sign, and on and on.
The name could be worse I assure you. Up in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, you’ll find Sewer Plant Road. Now how would you like to live on that quaint avenue? Try selling your home if you live on Sewer Plant Road. “Jack, I like your house but I think the asking price stinks.”
Of course, certain people covet exotic or glamorous road names for the old god the greenback dollar. Some folks believe naming a street a fancy name such as Othello Way adds 10 percent to a home’s value. Naming streets in pricey exclusive neighborhoods isn’t done lightly. It brings up an interesting experience I had. Several years ago I worked on a big project with a major realtor. The point man in the project was a whiz so we were told. Anything he touched turned to gold. Up in North Carolina he had developed an ultra-expensive development, one of those ballyhooed gated communities. Well, what to name this newest suburban site of palatial homes?
When it came time to name the development and its streets he decided to give it a French feeling. That would be great marketing he reasoned. He looked at a map of Bordeaux, France. Soon he had his streets all bearing majestic names, the names of wines. Imagine the elegance of telling people your new, chic address.
“Bob I hear you bought a new four-story home, a veritable mansion.”
“Why yes I did, John. Make an appointment to see me and the missus at 14 Château Haut-Brion and we’ll try out some Brie and Beaujolais.”
Of course humanity is adept at nicknaming a road based on common sense. Georgia State Road Route 47 runs right by my home in Lincoln County. Though it cosigns with U.S. Route 221 at Pollard’s Corner in Columbia County, we refer to it as the Augusta Highway because that’s where it leads. I’d like to think the people in Richmond County refer to the cosigned Routes 221 and 47 as the Lincolnton Highway because that’s where it leads for them. Alas at some point it becomes Washington Road.
I’ve always loved the fundamental name for “road” itself in France and Italy. The French use rue and the Italians use via. How well I remember my confusion on Via Flavia in Rome one summer when I could not find my hotel.
Over here we use road, street, avenue, boulevard, and so on to identify routes. It’s the local twist or reason that causes some roads to possess embarrassing names or controversial names such as Chain Gang Road. Well I can assure the good folks over in Terrell County things can get worse.
To wit, a few names of streets from outside the South. Up in Traverse City, Michigan, you’ll find Psycho Path Lane. Over in England in South Yorkshire there was a Butt Hole Road, eventually renamed Archers Way by the harassed and humiliated households along its route. Up in Heather Highlands, Pennsylvania, there’s a Divorce Court.
Some roads’ names are obvious … White Rock Road comes to mind but many are not. In Lincolnton in the 1960s people often referred to Sunrise Drive as Mortgage Avenue because of all the new brick homes going up. Tell an outsider to head over to Mortgage Avenue and he’d be lost.
These days when my travels bring me across a road with an unusual name I make a mental note to check it out. Such was the case with Sewer Plant Road. Ought to be a good story there I thought. Maybe I’ll write a column on how and why roads get their name. Well let’s consider that column done and as for the unfortunate folks up in Fuquay-Varina, why not get the local politicos to rename the road Fresh Water Lane if it doesn’t raise a stink or prove too draining. It might just prove a bit easier for folks up that way to sell their home and for sure will look better on their checks, drivers license, and other vital documents. Or as the realtor-developer did they could name it after a wine, a cheap one in this case. Maybe Mad Dog Drive will do or if a bit of class is required they can try Boone’s Farm Boulevard. That, I’d say, ought to make them happy. Anything beats Sewer Plant Road.