Port City Street Cred
The history behind some of Mobile’s biggest thoroughfares.
Government Street has been a major east-west route since the late 18th century. Up until the early 20th century, it was unpaved sand, which was surprisingly smooth and quiet for the many carriages and wagons of the day.
Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library/ USA Archives.
Mobile’s colorful history can be read in its street names. But these beloved and distinctive monikers, some going back three centuries, often lead to confusion. Out-of-towners and tourists look puzzled and ask where “Dolphin Street” is; guests at the Admiral Semmes Hotel stumble over the pronunciation of Joachim Street – though a few might get the original Spanish right, no one ever correctly hits the quirky local version of “Joe-ack-um”; and Moffett Road has been spelled so many different ways (even on maps) as to defy standardization. How did these streets, as well as others, especially in the older Downtown, come by their unusual and exotic names?
When the French relocated Mobile from upriver to its present location in 1711, they laid out only a handful of streets – unpaved mud and sand lanes, really – by the new fort. Royal Street was closest to the river, running north-south along a low bluff (still discernible by a slight fall-off toward theriver at various intersections along Royal from the Exploreum to the Battle House). Conti Street, named for a prominent French noble family, was the most important east-west thoroughfare. Dauphin Street, which soon eclipsed Conti in importance, was in honor of the Dauphin Louis, eldest son and heir apparent of King Louis XIV, who died in April of 1711, shortly after Mobile was moved. St. Louis Street, which could represent any number of French historical figures, was cut through swampy land and was virtually the northern limit of the small colonial outpost.
Though many people assume that Downtown’s broad and impressive Government Street had to have been an American creation – Americans have always been known for loving wide roads – in actuality, it dates from the Spanish era. Named for the Government House, north of the fort, it didn’t go much west of Conception Street then, but it was gradually extended over subsequent decades. According to Peter Joseph Hamilton, author of the magisterial 1897 book “Colonial Mobile,” the name first appeared in a 1788 application by one Elizabeth Forneret for a piece of property “situated on Government Street opposite the house and lot of Antony Narbonne.”
The Spanish laid out several other downtown streets, with expected Latin names like Joachim, and Cathloic favorites– St. Emanuel, St. Francis, St. Michael and St. Joseph. They also retitled several of the old French streets–parts of Dauphin were redubbed St. John, Galvez and Conception, while Conti was redesignated St. Peter Street in 1803. None of these changes stuck.
With American hegemony, the colonial bounds of the little settlement were expanded in all directions. Fort Condé was demolished, and its brick and timber were used as fill to create Water Street, east of Royal. Shortly after, the river’s margin was pushed even further eastward with the development of Commerce and Front streets, vitally important during the 19th century, but since nearly obliterated by waterfront developments, such as the state docks and convention center. South of Government came Church Street and, to the west, Jackson, Franklin, Claiborne and Wilkinson (now Washington) streets. These latter were all named for key figures of the early American period – Andrew Jackson, Benjamin Franklin, W.C.C. Claiborne (governor of the Mississippi Territory and then Louisiana) and James Wilkinson (the American general who accepted the Spanish surrender of Mobile in 1813).
As Spring Hill’s high ground became a desirable place to settle and escape the ravages of yellow fever, Old Shell Road developed as the most direct route. Originally named Isabella Street, it didn’t go much beyond what is today Fearnway. By the mid-19th century it was pushed on up the hill, and wealthy residents paid for it to be covered with oyster shells. Renamed, logically enough, the Shell Road, a small tollgate was erected roughly midway to help defray the expense of maintaining the thoroughfare. When another shell road was run down the bay front, near what is now Brookley Field, the first Shell Road was renamed Old Shell Road, and there the matter settled. The road was popular for excursions and promenades, as illustrated by a whimsical 1866 issue of Harper’s Weekly.
Moffett Road was named after an early 19th-century Wilmer family that operated a ferry across the Escatawpa River, reached by the Moffett Ferry Road. During the 1830s, one Eli Moffett was regularly paid for road improvements in the area. His family was tough and resilient. In fact, his wife, Matilda, was knocked down and their house burned during a robbery by the Copeland Gang. Mrs. Moffett was left for dead but fortunately survived. Today the family name lives on, as anyone who happens to drive the incredibly busy route between Spring Hill Avenue and the Mississippi line can attest.John Sledge is the author of “The Pillared City.” In the fall, the University of South Carolina Press will publish a collection of his Press-Register columns entitled "Southern Bound."