Exploring New Canaan's darker past
Published 6:25 pm, Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Street names are somewhat like the names of distant relatives. It is important to know the name but not necessarily its significance. Still, once you learn grandfather's third cousin's son was the runner-up for the presidential nomination more than 100 years ago, your interest is peaked.
The same can be said for roads like Cheese Spring, Lantern Ridge and Benedict in New Canaan. Everyone knows that Main Street turns into Oenoke Ridge but not many know Oenoke was the son of the Native American chief of the Ponus Tribe.
Most of this information is available courtesy of the New Canaan Historical Society Annual, volume five 1959-1966. In the annual, the historical society of the time attempted to identify the history of many of this town's street names. In fact, they took the job very seriously.
"Roads -- and road names -- are primarily interesting because of people: The people who needed and laid out the roads, the people who use the roads and lived and worked along them," the annual said. "Likewise, roads, old and new, are more than roads; they have definite associations with New Canaan's people and history."
Some of the most interesting names of streets have origins that are more arbitrary than expected. For example, Lantern Ridge Road was constructed in 1956 and named by the original developer, Charles F. Morton for "no special reason." Other streets, even with peculiar names, like Turtleback Road, Ledge Avenue and Candlestick Lane share the ambiguous, or insignificant, origin of Lantern Ridge Road.
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But for every three streets that seem unremarkable, New Canaan has a few steeped in a dark past. Bridle Path lane was named for "a bridle path maintained by the Ox Ridge Hunt Club for a number of years through Kelly's Woods." There were many summerhouses in the woods of Bridle Path and it was close to the northern area of the road "that the corpse of an unidentified woman was found in the 1920s." That body still remains as "New Canaan's only unsolved modern murder."
Two other roads, Cheese Spring Road and Benedict Hill Road, are also intertwined in another murder more than 100 years ago. It was the murder of Susan Anderson in 1898. She lived on Cheese Spring Road until she was killed by one of her workers. The name itself seems to come from a similar place in Wilton called Cheese Spring Brook, which was in existence long before the New Canaan road. There were rumors that it was named for the cheese cooled in the nearby water but the historical society called that "plain fancy."
Benedict Hill Road, which runs east from Valley Road to Cheese Spring Road, was not named until Arthur L. Benedict moved into the area. He moved into the Anderson farmhouse six years after she was killed "despite the horrified protests of his East Avenue neighbors." The cross road, which was nearly impassable in the early part of the 20th century, was later named Benedict Hill Road in honor of his courage for purchasing and living in the "cursed" farmhouse.
There are also streets that had very different names, multiple names in fact, before they became what they are today. Old King's Highway, for instance, has a past peppered with intrigue representative of the times.
"This highway, which appears as an abandoned road on the 1867 map, was once called Nigger Lane, because its only resident was Uncle Ned, a slave whom Samuel Smith had freed in 1825," the annual explained.
Other names come from more amusing situations. Ludlowe road was supposed to be named after "Roger Ludlow, who in 1640 purchased from the Indians the land between the Norwalk and Saugatuck rivers, now occupied by East Norwalk and a part of Westport."
Ludlow's last name did not have the "e" present on the sign today. This is because "the deed of purchase in the Norwalk records is a copy of the original by a town clerk who misspelled Ludlow."
Mariomi Road is an amalgamation of the names Mary and Naomi after Mary Naomi St. John. According to the annual, St. John also owned land in Valley Road and near the Silvermine River "where small boys delighted to shock her by swimming in the nude."
The historical society never managed to figure out the history of every single road in town. Many of those street names are still caught up in a shroud of mystery but the importance of the roads they did research 50 years ago remains significant and encouraged readers and residents to learn more about the often overlooked green signs scattered around.
"It is hoped, however, that readers will find their interest stirred by the realization that in traveling along New Canaan's roads they are following the paths of her history."