Neil Street or Eleventh Street?
Updated: Dec 24, 2021
Street Renaming Plan Throws the Streets of Champaign into Chaos!
On August 12, 1913, a simple nine to two vote by the Champaign City Council plunged the streets of Champaign into literal chaos! That night, Sixth Ward Alderman Edwin Filson introduced an ordinance entitled "Naming the Streets and Providing for the Numbering of all Blocks in the City of Champaign." The resulting vote renamed and renumber nearly every home and business in the City. Throughout the fall and winter of 1913, the city was thrust into chaos with residents and business owners fighting the Mayor and City Council to restore sanity on the streets.
To set the stage, we look to the mindset of city leaders across American in 1911. As cities grew in size, many struggled to manage their growth. The City Beautiful movement was born on the heels of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exhibition. The progressive movement was unleashing a series of reforms that focused on women's suffrage, prohibition and temperance, improved working conditions, and exposing political corruption. It's here in this reform era that cities began to enact sweeping reforms that built the foundation of the modern city.
Locally, our twin cities were thriving and growing ever closer to one another. What started as two towns more than three miles apart just sixty years earlier had, by 1911, expanded to touch one another with the University of Illinois in the middle. Where the two towns met, conflicts began to emerge. One such issue was the addressing and naming of streets, and it was this issue that drove a wedge in the community, elected a populist mayor, and ultimately led to his quick downfall.
A Plan to Erect Street Signs
Today, we can not imagine a city without street signs. However, at the turn of the 20th century, most cities did not have street signs. Many "old-timers" such as George Harwood stated, "To us old people who have lived here forty years and are just beginning to know where the streets are." While maps existed, the lack of street names on posted signs meant you had to rely on your memory to navigate the community. Shortly before this story begins, the Champaign Merchants Association, the forerunner to the Champaign Chamber of Commerce, announced a plan to install street signs on every intersection of town.
A Request from the Postmasters
On November 8, 1911, the Champaign Daily News reported that a request had been sent to both Champaign and Urbana City Councils by Champaign Postmaster Ozias Riley and Urbana Postmaster W.W. Lindley. The request asked that each City consider renumbering its streets to cut down on current confusion. They reported that more than 300 letters were misaddressed on the previous Tuesday, resulting in a significant delivery delay and extra work for postal employees. They gave two samples of how letters were arriving at their office: "John Doe, University of Illinois, West Green Street, Champaign Ill." and "John Doe, care of the University of Illinois, East University Avenue, Urbana Ill."
Committee Established to Investigate
Champaign Mayor William Coughlin established a special committee to work with the Postmaster
to draft a plan for consideration. He appointed Alderman Edwin Filson to chair the committee. By November 1912, a plan seemed to be coming together that would propose both cities renumber their streets running east and west from Wright Street. At the November 20, 1912, City Council meeting, it was moved by Alderman Filson that Mayor Boggs of Urbana be requested to cooperate with the Champaign Council and meet the coming Friday.
That meeting was held the following Friday. In attendance were Champaign Aldermen Filson, Nelson and Eagleton, Urbana Aldermen Scroggins, Jones, and Bennett, and Champaign Chamber of Commerce members Messers, Parker, Thorpe, and Lyons. Out of the meeting came the following recommendations (Champaign Daily Gazette November 23, 1912):
Wright Street to be renamed "Campus Place."
Fremont Street to be renamed "Center Street."
Park Avenue to be rechristened "Gere Avenue."
All Champaign streets to be renumbered west from Urbana City limits.
From Sixth to First Streets, Champaign, to be reversed and named from the east instead of the west; that is Sixth Street to be renamed First Street, and First to be known as Sixth.
Additionally, it was made clear that there would no longer be "East" or "West" streets in either town and the street name changes were to avoid similar-sounding names (Fremont sounded like Tremont and Park sounded like Clark). In an ominous bit of foreshadowing, the only objection was raised by Urbana Alderman, who voiced concern the changes could cause considerable confusion (Champaign Daily News November 23, 1912). From the point forward, the City of Urbana would sit on the sideline and watch the events that unfolded across Wright Street.
It appears that somewhere over the next five days, the plan grew in scope to include the renaming of all North/South running streets across the entire community.
When Alderman Filson spoke to the Daily Gazette on November 29, he stated that all streets would be renamed starting with First Street and ascending as you travel west. In addition, he said, "Neil Street would become Eleventh Street and so on out west to Staley, if necessary He also states the short streets in Downtown, First South Street, South Second Street, Second South Street, and South Third Street would also be renamed."
Community Input Sought
On January 14, 1913, the committee opened up the discussion for community input in a public forum held that night in the Champaign City Council Chambers. It is noteworthy that the Daily Gazette announced the meeting "is open to both men and women, and it is hoped to ring out as many of the gentler sex as possible, there being many who have expressed an interest in the renaming of some of the thoroughfares." The meeting was expected to be well attended, including James Armstrong of the Western Union Telegraph Company, President Amsbary of the Chamber of Commerce, H.J. Pepper from the Illinois Traction Company, and H.F. Chester of the Chester Transfer Company.
The meeting was, in fact, well attended. The Daily Gazette reported that most of those in attendance voted against changing all street names. "In the beginning, the meeting last night was characterized by one citizen as a tame affair and later by another citizen as a tempest in a teapot." "After getting thoroughly launched, there was enough talk to fill a good-sized book and before the meeting adjourned motions and amendments were flying thick and fast." The newspaper report continued "Sentiment played a part in the proceedings, a number of the aged men in the audience bitterly opposing the changing of the name of a street on which they had lived for forty and fifty years. Against this Sentiment, the businessman argued that the business interest of the City should be served. The change would be made to help merchants who had trouble over delivering their goods and the post office authorities who had difficulty in delivering mail."
Enter a New Player
The public meeting on January 14 was unique for another reason. It was chaired by local attorney Oliver Beard (O.B.) Dobbins. At the meeting, the paper noted that many speakers referred to Mr. Dobbins as "Mr. Speaker," and Alderman Filson referred to him as "Mayor Dobbins." Odd enough that he was not Mayor but that Mayor Coughlin was in the audience, and Alderman Filson was an active City Council member! Mr. Dobbins chimed in that "I'll not be called the speaker or mayor: I'm the chairman of this meeting."
Oliver Beard Dobbins and the Citizen's Law Enforcement Party
O.B. Dobbins was born in Sumner County, Tennessee, in 1870. He had six siblings, one of who was Donald C. Dobbins, another notable local attorney, member of the Illinois General Assembly, and in the 1930s elected to Congress. O.B. had previously run for States Attorney as a Democrat a decade earlier.
On January 31, 1913, at the Beardsley Hotel, it was reported by the Daily Gazette that eighty people gathered for dinner to nominate a slate of candidates for the spring municipal elections under the new Citizen's Law Enforcement party (also referred to as the Citizen's Party or the Anti-Saloon League). Captain J.R. Trevett stated that four parties were represented that night, including Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, and Citizens. The Citizen's Law Enforcement Party's primary charge was that the day's issues could be dealt with by simple enforcement of the current laws on the books. It seems prohibition was the primary target of their ire and just six months earlier, on July 6, 1913, the City faced the death of its first police officer Thomas Dodsworth while serving notice to a bootlegger north of Downtown. Also of note was the University's role in this upcoming election. Prof. H.J. Barton was in attendance and said, "The University was tremendously interested in the spring elections and wanted men in office who would stand for better government." B.C. Beach rose and stated, "there would be put in office a man who had a good knowledge of the laws and would enforce them. I know of no man better fitted than O.B. Dobbins."
Dobbins rose from the group to accept the nomination on the condition that 300 people would pledge to support his candidacy and that $1,000 would be raised toward the effort. While Dobbins was a lifelong Democrat, he stated, "I have always been a democrat but that politics should step aside and that a man should be elected who would stand for the people."
1913 Spring Elections
The April 15, 1913 spring municipal elections were reported to be the "hottest" election in City history. Republican Dr. E.A. Kratz, Democrat incumbent Mayor Coughlin, and Citizens candidate Dobbins competed for the top prize. The election day saw frenzied activity with automobiles racing around town plastered with campaign signs supporting the Republican, Democrat, and Citizen tickets. It was reported that cars broke speed limits to bring people to the polls. In the Fourth Ward (the area around the University), anyone looking like a student was challenged (students were not eligible to vote in municipal elections). The day before the election, the Republican Party issued a notice stating, "It is credibly reported to Republican Headquarters that a large number of illegal voters have been brought to Champaign for the purpose of voting in tomorrow's election." They issued a reward of $50 for information leading to the arrest of such individuals.
Dobbins Wins in Landslide
When the final votes were tallied, it was O.B. Dobbins in a landslide victory. The votes were:
Dobbins, Citizens - 1,684
Coughlin, Democrat - 1,085
Kratz, Republican - 608
Mayor Coughlin stated after the results were final, "Well, I got beat yesterday, and while I am a little disappointed, I am not grieved. I did expect to win and believe that had the people of Champaign considered my administration from a real business standpoint, they would have been with me again. There was a side issue brought into the campaign that attracted many votes from me, and again there was a larger student vote in the Second ward than I thought would have polled." "To my successor, I offer congratulations, and I hope he will have a successful administration."
Attention Returns to Street Renaming
Following the spring elections, the new City Council once again took up the issue of the street renaming issue.
At the August 12, 1913, Council Meeting, the City Council voted 9-2 to adopt the street renaming ordinance. The ordinance contained the complete set of changes proposed by Alderman Filson and, upon adoption, renamed nearly every street in town overnight.
Two members of the Council were absent from the meeting, and as the article in the Daily Gazette shows, it passed "without a great deal of discussion."
Immediately following the vote on August 12, the ordinance was approved on the 14th, and published on the 16th. The map below shows the new street names and the full text of the ordinance. It should be noted that the map was published by the Champaign County Abstract Company, of which Alderman Edwin Filson was Manager.
A Short-Lived Victory
The initial reaction from many such as the Chamber of Commerce, was positive. Some saw the change as a necessary step in the evolution of the community and one that would ease the current confusion of businesses, the post office, and other industries. However, within days of enactment of the ordinance, sentiments quickly seemed to change. Some residences and businesses changed their house address, but some refused, creating chaos. One account in the County News on August 27 told of a piece of urgent mail that was to be delivered to 32 North Walnut Street. It was addressed Walnut Court, which was unknown to the post office authorities. The mail was sent to Urbana, and thirty-six long hours later was delivered to the old address on Walnut Street in Champaign. Another story comes from a store clerk that was ordered only to accept new addresses, but when customers refused, they lost business. The shifting Sentiment was that the change was "far too radical and far too sweeping."
A Defiant Council
At the August 23 City Council meeting, Alderman Brownell placed the first of many petitions on the subject before the Council. He forwarded a motion that was amended by Alderman Eagleton to substitute that the ordinance committee be instructed to bring in an ordinance repealing this ordinance attached by the petitioners. The Daily Gazette described the vote as "The advocates of the substitute voted loud, but the deep, stern voice of the opposition was almost a roar, sounding the death knell of the movement." Nevertheless, the minority made clear that many more petitions were circulating through the community.
Opponents Head to Court
On October 27, a group of property owners took the City of Champaign to Circuit Court seeking an injunction against the enforcement of the renaming ordinance. Master-in-Chancery C.W. Richards granted a temporary injunction until Judge Solon Philbrick returned from his appellate duties in Springfield. The petition set forth that the "ordinance is uncertain, ambiguous, indefinite, wholly insufficient, unintelligible, oppressive and unreasonable."
On November 1, the Writ of Injunction was delivered to the City Council staying enforcement of the new addresses. The same day it was reported that many across town were beginning to change their numbers once again. It was also mentioned that the Urbana-Champaign Street Railway company continued using the old names because no one knew the new scheme. In addition, the Central Union Telephone Company had just issued new directories using the new names that would now be useless, and post office employees were spending one to two additional hours each morning sorting through the mail.
Dobbins and City Remains Defiant on Issue
By January 1914, it was clear that opinions of the Mayor and Council were soured, even by those that supported the reformer in the last election. This article dated January 3, 1914, in the Champaign Daily News demonstrates the Mayor's resolve to not give up on the issue. It is also clear that the Daily News was the Council and Mayor's chief adversary.
Citywide Election Called to Settle the Issue
In late January, Judge Philbrick upheld the injunction against the City rendering the new ordinance invalid. However, it was decided that the people would have the last say on the issue, and the addressing question was to be put to a citywide vote. The question appeared on municipal ballots on April 21, 1914.
When the polls closed at 5:00 PM, Champaign overwhelmingly said no to the renaming proposal. The final vote was 3,052 against and 1,477 in favor. Only the Second Ward voted for the change. It is of note that even with the controversy, the "Law Enforcement" ticket retained two Council seats.
Even with the issue firmly behind the City, Mayor Dobbins continued to press the issue but records of this continued battle trail off in the newspapers. What is clear is that even supporters on Council turned away from the Mayor.
Dobbins chose not to run for re-election in 1915, and on April 20, 1915, Council Member E.S. Swigart was unopposed in his election for Mayor and Republicans were unopposed in nearly every office. The papers described the election as quiet.
While many of the old streets remain precisely as the founders had named them, there are a few minor changes that have eased confusion. In what may be viewed as a token win for Mayor Dobbins, the Council voted in November 1914 to rename three small east/west angled streets Downtown. First South Street was renamed Chester Street after the Chester Transfer House located at 63 Chester Street. Second South Street was renamed Logan Street, and Third South Street was renamed Marshall Street.
Note from the Author: I would like to thank Jeffery Kinkley from the Champaign Urbana History Group on Facebook for uncovering the amazing map and ordinance that led me down this rabbit hole. I want to say a big thanks as well to the entire community on the CU History Facebook Page for their dedication and passion in uncovering amazing stories like this one!