Wineka column: Where did all those street names come from?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 19, 2011

We walk, drive, live and conduct commerce on these streets every day, but where did their names come from?
Takes Innes and Main streets, for example. They are Salisbury’s oldest thoroughfares, dating back to when Rowan County was established in 1753 and Salisbury’s streets were laid out in 1755.
But for more than 100 years, Main Street was called Corbin Street. Francis Corbin and James Innes were land agents for Lord Granville in Colonial times and their names were attached to the roads creating the square for Rowan County Court — the first name for Salisbury.
There’s a chance Innes, a Whig and American patriot from Wilmington, never set foot in Salisbury, but we’ve been using Innes Street now for close to 260 years.
You’re welcome, James.
Corbin became Main Street in 1866, much to the disappointment of an editorial in the Carolina Watchman, Salisbury’s notable newspaper of the day.
“Corbin is not only a well sounding, but with us a historically interesting name,” the Watchman editor said. “With James Innes, Francis Corbin was attorney for Lord Granville in the sale of these very lands we inhabit. It is apropos that they should be united in the grand cross of the town.”
But the town council of the day stuck with the change to Main Street.
Sorry, Francis.
As much as we depend on street names and street signs today for daily navigation, early residents of Salisbury didn’t always pay a lot of attention to the names — or names changed on a whim.
Surviving city records show that in 1855 Salisbury council ordered a map of the town with the names of the streets on them.
“It was not until 1866, however, that the city council actually put this into effect by having street names printed on boards and erected at the proper places,” late historian James S. Brawley wrote in a newspaper column in 1965.
He noted elsewhere that by 1909 “names of the streets were almost forgotten and the council authorized the Automobile Club to place signs on the streets.”
Debate continues among historians as to why some streets were named as they were, or for whom.
Lee Street is a great example. The late Nancy Raynor wrote once that Lee Street was originally called Wake Street, for Colonial Gov. Tryon’s wife’s maiden name.
Wake Street changed to Lee Street, and many people through the years have assumed it refers to Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee. (See Elizabeth Cook’s column about the Civil War in Insight, 2E)
Raynor was not so sure about the street name origin because she apparently found a reference to Lee Street as early as 1832 — much too early to be a tribute to Robert E. Lee.
“It could have been named,” she wrote, “for Gen. Lee’s father, noted Revolutionary calvary leader Col. Henry ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee, who fought with Greene in this area.”
Before James Innes and Francis Corbin are left to history, some things should be said.
From the beginning, Innes Street had an identity crisis. Early on and unofficially, townspeople referred to the east side of Innes as Market Street, because of a large market building and tanyard on that side of the Square. The west side went by Water Street for awhile, because of numerous public wells and springs on that side, Nancy Raynor surmised.
Those names apparently failed to stick.
For more than a century, Salisbury residents and maps consistently misspelled Innes Street. The name often was given as “Inniss” or “Innis,” and appeared incorrectly on early street signs. Jethro Rumple, the historian, tried to set things straight in his 1881 Rowan County history book:
“Our modern town authorities have also taken the liberty of altering the spelling of James Innes’ name, and we now see every day staring down the passerby, ‘Inniss Street.’
“The signature of James Innes may now be seen in the Register’s office to hundreds of deeds, and it is invariably written ‘Innes.’”
The incorrect spelling persisted, however.
The Rowan Museum has a photograph among its exhibits of the Hartline & Co. harness and repair shop near the turn of the 20th century. The street signs on the building show it to be on the corner of “E. Inniss St.” and “N. Lee St.”
Innes Street also suffered the indignity, if you will, of having its name changed again in 1855 to Water Street. It quickly went back to Innes.
Francis Corbin, a man from Chowan County, was not exactly looked on fondly, according to Rumple’s early history.
There may have been good reason Salisburians eventually preferred Main Street, over Corbin Street.
“It is not surprising, perhaps, that the older citizens should dislike to call the street after this grasping attorney who extorted illegal and exorbitant fees from the people and who was once mobbed at Edenton for his extortion.”
That didn’t stop Brawley from calling for Salisbury to bring back the Corbin name for Main Street in a 1970 Post column.
“Is it not time to correct this error?” Brawley asked. “If the town board changed it once, it could do it again.”
His cause found no legs.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@