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Historic street names in Madison

Madison has 180+ years of history. In this guide, we’re diving into how the city got its street names.

609 Wilson street sign

A Wilson Street view of the Capitol. | Photo by Paul Reznikoff

Table of Contents

The city of Madison was incorporated in 1836 thanks to James Doty — more on him later. Now that 180+ years have passed, the city and its street names are chock-full of vibrant history.

It’s safe to say that over the years, the city has been touched by countless historical figures and happenings — many of which have shaped the names of Madison’s buildings, parks, and streets. In this guide, we’re delving into the history of Madison’s streets.

Capitol Neighborhoods

The Capitol Neighborhood Inc. surrounds — you guessed it — the state Capitol. It’s a conglomeration of the Bassett, Mifflin West, First Settlement, Mansion Hill, and James Madison Park districts.

Wilson Street — A nod to James Wilson, a Pennsylvanian delegate known for his aristocratic leanings and conservative views. The rich politician held concerns about the potential for mob rule, even more so after his mansion was targeted by a mob in 1779.

Mifflin Street — Thomas Mifflin served as an aide to George Washington and eventually became Quartermaster General of the Continental Army. Mifflin was also a Pennsylvania Quaker, which is ironic seeing as his name is now forever tied to one of the most debaucherous street parties in Madison.

King Street — Named for Rufus King of Massachusetts, a lawyer who helped draft the Northwest Ordinance. This legislation laid the foundation for the eventual establishment of Wisconsin 50 years later.

Vilas/Greenbush

Both of those adjacent neighborhoods border Vilas Park, one of Madison’s oldest and most versatile parks. This area offers a quiet reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Regent and Monroe streets, which flank the neighborhoods to the west and north.

"Spirit of Greenbush" sculpture by Antonio Testolin

“Spirit of Greenbush” by Antonio Testolin | Photo by 608today

Vilas Avenue — The Vilas family, originally from Vermont, had a significant impact on Madison. William Freeman Vilas, the son of Levi Vilas, contributed to the community in various ways, including substantial donations for the establishment of Henry Vilas Park (named after his son) and the University of Wisconsin’s Communication Building.

Emerald Street — Emerald and Erin streets run parallel to each other off of South Park Street in the Greenbush neighborhood. Both are a nod to Ireland — Emerald refers to the Emerald Isle, and Erin is a Gaelic word for Ireland.

Norris Court — Named in honor of the Norris Court Apartments, which were constructed around 1928 and are still standing today.

Marquette

One of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the Marquette area is known for its well-preserved 19th century architectural styles as well as being coined as one the most “hippie” neighborhoods in Madison.

Washington Avenue — East Washington Avenue serves as the northeastern border of the Marquette neighborhood and was named after George Washington — ring a bell?

Williamson Street — Named in honor of Hugh Williamson, a North Carolinian who held credentials as a licensed Presbyterian preacher and served as a mathematics professor. Today, Marquette residents take pride in #KeepingWillyWeird — we think Hugh Williamson would love the Bubblemobile.

How do these relate to Wisconsin?

Something that many of these roadways have in common is that they were named after signers of the Constitution. This is thanks to James Doty, the territorial governor of Wisconsin in the early 1840s.

Doty had an infatuation with all things Constitution, and that infatuation reflected in his city and street-naming process when developing Madison.

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