Numbers Count. A Civil Engineering Mystery

A Note to My Readers:  One of the most interesting resources that I haunt are old city and county directories.  And of course maps!  When I have the opportunity to visit the site of an ancestor’s home or place of business, I am one happy genealogist.  January and February are perfect for this type of research.  I am snowed in.  It is cold.  And I am off to faraway places and times.

Directory of Auburn 1888 David and George Penird Green St cropDoing a bit of Auburn, NY research today identifying where my great great grandfather, David Penird lived in 1888 with his son, George W. Penird on 11 and 13 Green St. while the family business of Coy and Penird was being established.

By 1879 Auburn, New York had become so densely populated that the number of wards was increased from seven to ten. At the recommendation of Special Agent Smith in 1880 the letter carrier system was inaugurated and the Common Council ordered the streets to be renumbered.

Renumbering had been going on for awhile before 1879 and continued on an ad hoc basis for decades afterward.  Must have given the post office fits as the incremental street renumbering went on into the 20th century.

Green Street was extended to Clark Street sometime in the 1880’s and it is that extension that is the site of 11 and 13 Green Streets.  Today I can visit the parking lot where their residence once stood.  So much for nostalgia.

If any of you are collectors…old postcards, letters, etc., you have seen the addresses of Obadiah  Downing Letter 1828yesteryear progress to more precise information.  I have seen a number of addressed envelopes and postcards and own more than one set of correspondence myself from back in the day.   Some of them are downright folksy and casual and relied solely upon the postmaster’s establishment.  Several of my ancestors were U.S. postmasters and handled the U.S. mail in their stores and inns.  The postmaster would regularly publish in local newspapers a list of letters awaiting individuals so they made a trip with purpose and not promise of mail.  However, a good amount of time a stroll down a country road to the postmaster’s office was an idle recreation to chat with friends and neighbors and to check out the latest post on the wall.  A call for homesteaders or a notice for a fugitive. A stagecoach schedule.  Or as in the case of Mr. Lincoln’s call of 1861-  a call to enlistment.


And then curiosity kicked in and I had wondered about renumbering.  Imagine one day your address is 123 Main Street and tomorrow the number is 427.  How did THAT happen and why THAT number?  In pursuit of historical trivia, I went on the hunt to learn more about Auburn’s history and information on renumbering its streets.  It was a mighty different place one year to the next from its post revolutionary war settlement to its hey day in the mid and late 19th century and even into the first decades of the 20th century.  My ancestors were part of those centuries and I was game for some history.  The kind of history that I have to dig into obscure places to find and that I have to parse and build a coherent chronicle on my own.

I came across an old national trade publication for engineering firms and contractors which was a compilation of periodical journals detailing engineering bids, contracts and work completed around the country from July to December 1916 – sewers, streets, bridges and the like. Several entries indicated the impressive activity in Auburn, New York.  When I found a second publication for 1910, it was clear that Auburn had been booming and modernizing at a fast pace.

In 1910 new sanitary sewers were installed on Osborne Ave and Belvedere Place…and Arlington Avenue was renumbered.   In fact in 1910, Auburn businessmen were trying to have ALL streets renumbered according to another journal entry.  With all of this ‘renumbering’ going on either in whole or by one street at a time, it is no wonder at times researchers have to be cautious about saying ‘X’ marks the spot.

That historian irk aside, discovering the engineering publications gave me a glimpse into the growth of the cities around the nation and the infrastructure expansion to meet the needs of growing municipalities. Auburn was definitely active in that regard during the late 1870’s and the infrastructure projects are nicely documented in detail in the journals  that recount 1910 and 1916 municipal projects and planning.

A city water filtration plant (for Owasco Lake) was proposed and voted on by the citizens of Auburn. Owasco Lake was listed as its main water supply with a scary chart of statistics for related TYPHOID deaths due to the unfiltered water.

Auburn’s average rate per 100, 000 for 10 years – 22.5 deaths. In 1909 6 Auburnians died of typhoid. Buffalo, New York had 12 deaths; Geneva, New York had just 2 deaths and Syracuse, New York had 14 typhoid deaths.

An interesting aside was that the engineering society noted what municipalities realized a profit from their waterworks plants and Auburn was one of the few cities along with much larger cities Chicago and Boston, Providence and Schenectady listed as profitable. The report credited conservatism and good business management.

Meanwhile extensive improvements were made to the local plant of the Auburn Gas Co. immediately that cost about $100,000.  The Public Service Commission, Second District, ordered Auburn & Syracuse Electric Railroad Co. to lay double track on State Street. New plans were submitted to the County Superintendent of Highways for a state Road to be built from South Street to Fleming Hill. Auburn Board of Supervisors passed a resolution for construction of the Weedsport-Cato Road at a cost of $24, 912. Two county roads were built in 1910 – the Auburn to Owasco highway and the Moravia to Niles highway totaling $10, 907.20.

Auburn Mayor O’ Neill favored a change in speed ordinances of the city permitting street cars to run 8 miles an hour in the congested district and 12 miles outside, but he is opposed to 10 miles in the congested district and 13 miles outside as advocated. Obviously the mayor had a thing about speed.  But his city was expanding and changing and he must have been hanging on to a whirlwind.

Mayor O’ Neill sent a communication to a special meeting of the Board of Alderman recommending a salary for the Aldermen, and upon motion of Alderman Moseley the matter was, by unanimous vote, referred to the Estimate and Control to establish a salary that would fairly compensate them for the services rendered.  Bureaucracy was growing along with the city.

I guess horse dung was still a big issue in the streets of Auburn in 1910 because bids went out to acquire additional hose to ‘flush the streets’.

A large project that was well documented was the construction of ‘fiber conduits’ for Municipal_Journal_and_Engineer 1910 Hoopes Subway_Page_1electrification in the works in 1910 extension of the system on Hoopes Avenue. Evidently the engineering society was all a-twitter over the Novel manhole construction and published a brief article with diagrams with all the pertinent details.

Newspapers were full of notices about infrastructure improvements…telephone, telegraph, electrification, fire hydrants, and CEMENT sidewalks.  But I was on the hunt for street renumbering data.  Not so much the what, when and where and how as the WHY?   Building better roads and sewers and water filtration, sidewalks and street lights answer the why all by themselves.  But I am determined to find some Alderman, Council Member, Mayor, civil engineer statement that tells me why an established street or an entire city would require renumbering.  The only exception I can think of is the development of an empty lot and in its hurly-burly no one thought of numbering that lot for future occupants. Or could it be that larger lots were divided for new houses and renumbering needed to include the new dwellings?  That feels too easy.  And I usually guess wrong.  I will keep looking for some answer from someone much hipper on civil engineering than I am.

Our favorite Auburn Alderman Moseley directed the City Engineer in 1913 to draw up a new map for the renumbering of Logan Street.  The City Engineer expanded the effort to Fulton Street, Westlake and Lake Avenues. In 1916 portions of Beach and Grant Avenues and Perry Street were renumbered.  In 1917 it was Clark Street’s turn.  Going further back, Paul, West and Wood Streets were ordered to be renumbered in 1885.

In 1919 City Engineer Thomas B. Bergan presented a blistering report on the city’s infrastructure condition.  Washington, State and Division Street bridges were in unsafe condition.  The sewer disposal plant was clogged and needed additional sludge beds, the macadam on city streets was failing due to inferior material.  An gas explosion in February of 1918 in the ‘subway’ on State Street had damaged manholes and pavement due to gas build up.  Much of the problem of fundraising had to do with the economic impact of World War I and the need to address the needs of Auburn, New York and its citizens.

And there it is in his report..RENUMBERING.  Front and center in his report with all the unsafe stuff!

An ordinance granting the city engineer authority to renumber the houses of the city in the block system of number was presented to the Common Council in February and defeated by one vote.

My views in reference to the house numbering in the city are well known.  The condition at present is deplorable and an ordinance should be adopted providing for the block system of number as presented by the city engineer.

Endorsed by the city administration and business groups like the Rotary Club, it seemed to be a slam dunk, but I suspect the city coffers needed to prioritize things like bridges and subways.

So what makes street numbering good…or in the words of City Engineer Bergan…deplorable?  One little clue comes from the village of Seneca Falls which in 1912 developed a plan to replace all street signs purchased with a subscription fund and with that to establish an accurate system of house numbers.  The published reason?  To give assistance in locating a building.    Okay, this is going to take more work.   It can’t be that simple.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2015.  All Rights Reserved.

3 thoughts on “Numbers Count. A Civil Engineering Mystery

  1. Fascinating stuff, here. I think it was important to locate buildings more for police and fire protection than for the postal service. The postal workers pretty much had it figured out, but public safety folks wouldn’t be going to individual addresses often enough to provide timely service. Once the blocks were more uniform they could arrive at the correct spot before a fire spread to neighboring buildings. That’s my theory anyway.

  2. Interesting story. I didn’t recognize the term fibre conduit so I looked it up and realized it was also called by the term Orangeburg pipe which I was familiar with. In my experience it was mainly used perforated for drainage. It has been replaced by plastics pipe now.

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