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What's in a (road) name?

Liz Lerner
Liz Lerner

Over the years I’ve casually pursued a hobby of investigating unusual or enigmatic Cape Cod street names, especially names that turn out to signify something quite different than what they seem to suggest. In East Orleans, for instance, there is a short road named “Minister’s Prim.” The word “prim” usually connotes something, or someone prudish, proper, or demure, but a local resident told me the road was named after the mistress of an 18th century clergyman. This puzzled me until, looking up the word “prim” in the Oxford English Dictionary, I found an obsolete definition of the word going back to the 16th century when, in fact, it was used to designate a “paramour.” Thus, an indiscretion by a long-ago clergyman was memorialized by a street name.

When I moved to Brewster, I encountered several other interesting and sometimes misleading street names. The present-day Tubman Road, for example, was formerly named “Poverty Lane.” I assumed it was a derogatory term applied by other townspeople to indicate the indigence of its residents. The actual origin is apparently quite different. In the 19th century the condition of the road was so bad that those who lived on it petitioned the town to grade and maintain it, but without success. As a kind of back-handed protest, the residents of the road themselves began to refer to it as “Poverty Lane,” I presume with the hope of shaming the town into improving it. Whether or when the town responded to this tactic, I don’t know, but Poverty Lane today is Tubman Road, a lovely, well-maintained public way.

One of my favorite battles over road names occurred in Brewster and Dennis. The controversy was over the spelling of one of the many street signs carrying traditional Indian names. The name of this road is Setucket. At the Brewster end of the road the street sign is spelled “Setucket” – S-E-T-U-C-K-E-T, but at the Dennis end it is spelled, “Satucket” – S-A-T-U-C-K-E-T. For some reason, the different spellings sparked a somewhat heated quarrel carried out in letters to the local newspaper, each side arguing that its candidate was "the correct Indian spelling" of the name. Think about that: “the correct Indian spelling.” The debate was never settled and even today the road signs at either end carry different spellings.

When I moved to Wellfleet, I continued to encounter odd street names. For instance, the street sign for the dirt road that runs across the Herring River near my house designates it as “High Toss Bridge Road.” For several years I was unable to discover the origin of this road name until one day, at a local barber shop, I heard an elderly resident give an explanation. He said that, before a culvert was placed under the road where it crossed the river, there was a wooden bridge with a steep rise to it. “If you took that high bridge at too great a speed,” he said, “you were liable to get ‘tossed’ into the river” Hence, High Toss Bridge Road. Now I can’t vouch for the historical authenticity of this version, but, as my old drama professor used to say, “It makes a good story, therefore it’s true.”

Finally, there is the story of “Whiskey Road,” a local name for the back road, now named “Old County Road,” that runs between Wellfleet and Truro Centers. I had assumed that the road’s local name reflected the lively practice of rum-running and bootlegging that was said to have taken place along its length during Prohibition, but not so. Apparently after the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, Wellfleet voted to remain a “dry” town, and the closest place one could buy liquor was in Truro - hence the name “Whiskey Road.”

Now, if only someone could tell me the origin of Barnstable’s “Old Hot Bottom Road…”

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.