Curious Louis: the mystery of the vanishing numbered streets | St. Louis Public Radio

Curious Louis: the mystery of the vanishing numbered streets

Nov 20, 2016

Back in October, St. Louis Public Radio put a little non-political, unscientific poll in the field — which Curious Louis question should we answer next?

Stephanie Pasch, a Shaw resident, posed the winning question: I live near 39th Street. What happened to 24th through 38th? And where do 59th, 81st and 82nd come from?

"We kind of pulled up to the neighborhood and thought, '39th Street, where did that come from?'" said Pasch, who moved into Shaw about two years ago. "It occurred to me that there was no 38th, or 40th, while there are all these numbered streets downtown."

There's also 59th Street, she pointed out, and farther north, in University City, 81st and 82nd streets.

The theory

"My guess," Pasch said, "is that the other streets were numbered at some point, but somewhere along the way different municipalities took over the names of the streets."

The facts — as best we know them

It's actually the reverse, according to Adele Heagney, the local history librarian with the St. Louis Public Library. Much like today, early developers bought up farmland outside the boundaries of the city, and built subdivisions.

"And whoever bought it could name the streets whatever they wanted," Heagney said. 

When the city annexed those subdivisions, the random streets names understandably led to chaos. So in 1865, elected officials attempted to impose some order.

This photo collage shows the 1865 ordinance that attempted to impose a street grid on the city of St. Louis
Credit Adele Heagney | St. Louis Public Library. Collage by St. Louis Public Radio

"The streets are numbered, each block is 100 going from the river westward, and then north and south from Market," Heagney said.

The 1865 legislation passed 10 years after the city limits expanded to just west of Grand, which would be 34th Street. But for some reason, numbers as street names basically stop at 25th Street, even though the underlying numbering system remains intact.

So, why the random numbered streets?

In the case of 39th Street near Stephanie Pasch’s house, it was to avoid controversy. That’s according to Cara Jensen, a historical researcher who lives in the Shaw neighborhood. In the early 1900s, she said, city lawmakers were trying to come up with a new name for what was then Vandeventer.

According to Jensen’s research, one group petitioned to name the street after Myrtle Andreas Goyer, a socialite and artist who had been born in Shaw.

"And there were other sort of mucky-mucks that wanted to name it after some government official, someone high and mighty. And there was so much controversy that City Hall just decided, OK, we’re just going to name it 39th," she said.

No one could get upset at a generic name. And it basically fits into the grid – in that, it’s about 39 blocks, or four miles, west of the Mississippi.

The histories of the other random number streets don’t appear to be that exciting. The ones in the Dutchtown neighborhood — 37th, 38th and 39th — were likely part of the same early subdivision and renamed to fit into the modern grid. Even less is known about 59th Street, near the Hill, other than it was called Woods Street until 1915.

And what about 81st and 82nd streets in University City? Reference librarian Kathleen Gallagher said 81st appears to have been consistently named as such since it was built in the early 1930s. Its neighbor, 82nd, was originally known as Walton Street until 1933. The street actually continues as Walton when it crosses the railroad tracks into Overland.

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As he was putting together the graphic, our data journalist Brent Jones noticed a few other tiny pieces of the numbered street grid. As it turns out, there are also 66th, 67th, 68th, 69th, 70th, 74th, 78th and 79th streets in the St. Louis region. They all fit approximately where you would expect if the grid from the city had expanded beyond its current limits. 

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

This project is part of our collaborative reporting project Curious Louis. What do you wonder about St. Louis or its people that you would like St. Louis Public Radio to investigate? Ask your question in the form below. (If the form doesn't load, find it here.)

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