Cantrell Avenue: The Confused & Confusing History of a Street of Many Names

On June 28, 1899, a man named David H. Wisman bought a few acres on the southern fringes of Harrisonburg. The property sat on the east side of South Main Street and just south of the “Episcopal rectory” we know today as Emmanuel Episcopal Church.1

Now, the northwestern corner of Wisman’s lot is occupied by the intersection of South Main Street and Cantrell Avenue, potentially soon to be renamed in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. (More reading on that here and here.) Since that renaming was proposed, the source of the name “Cantrell” – one that some say carries local historical significance – has remained a mystery, prompting plenty of conjecture but little in the way of actual documentation. A public hearing on the proposed renaming is scheduled for this Tuesday evening’s city council meeting.

Like many city residents interested in the debate, Poti Giannakouros also wondered how the name Cantrell came to appear on our maps. But unlike almost everyone else, Giannakouros actually rolled up his sleeves and did some heavy duty original research, looking both into the history of the street’s name and the general civic climate in Harrisonburg at the time the street was built. He spent “many, many” hours at the library, reading an entire decade’s worth of newspapers (c. 1900-1910), tracked down and perused hand-written city council minutes from the same period, and posted a huge amount of detail on that period in our city’s history on this website. This account is largely based on Giannakouros’s work, with a little bit of supplemental in-house research.

Back to Wisman’s lot, situated at a lucrative spot at the turn of the 20th century, when the neighborhood surrounding the Episcopal church became the scene of rapid development. Wisman subdivided his property and began selling lots that fronted a new road that we now call Cantrell Avenue.

Detail of an 1885 map of Harrisonburg. The long, rectangular lot owned by C.F. Haas, lower center, is the same one purchased in 1899 by David H. Wisman.

When Wisman started selling off his lots, though, the road went by at least two separate names. Deeds for at least three lots he sold in the fall of 1903 list their location on “New or South Street” – both of which make sense, it being a new road on the very southern edge of town.2 (Specific geographic details in the deeds make it clear that this “New or South Street” is indeed modern-day Cantrell Avenue.)

By March of 1904, however, something had changed. Wisman sold yet another of his lots, located – according to reports in two local papers, the Rockingham Register and the Harrisonburg Daily News – on “South Street or Central Avenue.”3 In a curious twist, that very same sale was recorded in the county deed book with a different spelling of the street name: “South Street or Cantral Avenue.”4

Cantral Avenue was not a one time spelling error, however. While two other real estate transactions in 1904 used the name Central Avenue, one of them was later changed by hand to Cantral Avenue.5 And in early 1905, another deed records a sale of a lot on “East South Street or Cantral Avenue.”6

In another curious twist, when the newspaper reported on the transaction pictured above, with Central changed to Cantral, it used the spelling that persists to this day: Cantrell Avenue.7

Throughout 1904, the city council preferred the Cantral Avenue spelling. This appears twice in council minutes from May and October of 1904, when the city was discussing running a water line to service the new houses on Cantral, or Central, or Cantrell, or South, or New, or whatever people were calling the street.

The Rockingham Register, however, used Cantrell Avenue in its coverage of both these city council meetings. Here are the city council minutes from May 3, 1904:

“The petition of J.C. Staples and others for a water main extending from South Main Street along Cantral Avenue was on motion referred to the water committee.”

Here’s what the Rockingham Register published on May 6, 1904:

“A petition from property owners on Cantrell Avenue asked for an extension of water main eastward from South Main street to Mason street extended, which was referred to the Water Committee.”

Five months later, the exact same thing happened. City council minutes recorded discussion of the water main on Cantral Avenue, and the Rockingham Register reported on the council’s discussion of the water main on Cantrell Avenue.8

It’s hard to imagine this was an accident that happened twice. And while it’s also hard to guess at what the newspaper’s intentions were, it seems to have begun insisting on the name Cantrell Avenue while the city and the courthouse were both using Cantral Avenue or Central Avenue.

Just for extra fun, let’s introduce another bit of confusion. The very earliest documented appearance of Cantrell Avenue was also in the Rockingham Register, in an item on the social page, published on March 25, 1904. Several weeks later, the paper called the same street Central Avenue when reporting on a real estate transaction, and just several weeks after that, it went back to Cantrell Avenue in its coverage of the city council meeting.

The earliest known occurrence of the name “Cantrell Avenue” in Harrisonburg, from the March 25, 1904 issue of the Rockingham Register.

Over the next few years, real estate deeds remained confused, recording the street as Cantral, Cantrel and Cantrall between 1904 and 1908.9

In any case, the newspaper’s preferred spelling eventually prevailed. By 1907, the Sanborn Insurance Maps were using the spelling Cantrell Avenue, and after 1910, records in the county courthouse begin using it as well.10

Looking back, it’s hard to tell why all these changes happened, but the documented proof is all there. New Street and South Street, used interchangeably, became Central, or Cantral, or Cantrell. Central to Cantral seems like a plausible, if unusual, evolution. Cantral to Cantrell seems like plausible change in spelling. Central directly to Cantrell seems like a bit of a leap.

But “seems” is a far cry from fact. In any case, for reasons that remain entirely unclear, all three of these names appear in print within weeks of each other, in early 1904. Rather than appearing as isolated occurrences, ones that could be explained as spelling mistakes, all of these appeared repeatedly and concurrently for several years.

Most telling, though, may be something that’s not documented. No city council minutes, newspaper accounts or any other sources, at least as far as anyone’s yet been able to dig up, reveal an active, intentional decision to name the street ­Cantrell Avenue for specific reasons or in honor of any specific person, family or event. Instead, Cantrell seems to be the newspaper’s preferred name for the street, which it alone used (again, to the extent now known) for several years in the early 1900s, until the city, the circuit court, the mapmakers and others finally fell in line.


1. Rockingham County Deed Book (DB) 61 p. 204

2. DB 71 p. 1; DB 71 p. 247; DB 71 p. 247 (second occurrence)

3. Harrisonburg Daily News, April 12, 1904; Rockingham Register, April 15, 1904

4. DB 72 p. 331

5. DB 73 p. 232; DB 74 p. 155 (Central changed by hand to Cantral)

6. DB 76 p. 255

7. Rockingham Register, Jan. 27, 1905

8. Harrisonburg city council minutes, Oct. 4, 1904; Rockingham Register Oct. 5, 1904

9. DB 74 p. 319; DB 79 p. 193; DB 83 p. 71

10. DB 94 p. 434

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  1. DebSF says:

    What a terrific piece of careful, meticulous, original research.

    • Tobby Cantrell says:

      I think Cantrell Avenue was named for one of my ancestors who moved down thru the Shenandoah Valley in the mid 1750s or earlier. My GGGG GF Isaac descended from Richard Cantrell, b. in 1666, Derbyshire, England, who came to PA in 1682 and was a bricklayer who built some of the brick houses for William Penn and others. Isaac and some brothers, and others according to some genealogists, might have sojourned in and around what is Harrisonburg today. I think this needs further research before the street is changed to honor someone who has no connection to Harrisonburg or Rockingham County. There are genealogists who may be able to shed some light on this if we contact them.

      • Andrew says:

        Interesting. It seems hard to imagine, though, that Cantrells who were here in c. 1750 could have been prominent enough in local memory to be honored with a street name c. 1910 but then fade to obscurity by today. Why wouldn’t they appear elsewhere in the local historical record? Is there such a thing as a legacy that lasts 150 years but not 250?

  2. Brian Martin Burkhol says:

    Intriguing to say the least. Thank you, Poti, for digging deep to clarify the origins of the name Cantrell. Thanks also, Andrew, for your explorations and documentation to better inform an ongoing conversation among those with an interest in the history of this particular street.

  3. Charlie Chennault claims that Cantrell was a heroic soldier who died in the Spanish-American War and that one of those involved in developing the area around there pushed for the name to be for him. No idea if this was what was behind the curious push by Rockingham Register for use of that name.

    Anyway, Poti deserves credit for digging up these details and this very confusing set of names and changes of them during that early period, whatever is the ultimate truth.

    • Frank Joa says:

      There was a Charles P. Cantrell who won the Medal of Honor for the Battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War but he was from Tennessee and is buried in Tennessee. I am not sure why a Virginia town would name a street after a Tennessee soldier. His father was a Confederate officer but also from Tennessee serving in the Tennessee 23rd Infantry.

      • Wrong father. If it was the Captain and later Judge, this would be a
        different story. The social distance would no longer be
        incredible. The father of Private Cantrell was Abraham Cantrell, who
        like his son, seems to have peacefully raised more than half a dozen
        kids in the countryside of central Tennessee.

        The connection asserted by the source of the story is that wounded men
        told tales of the private (one of 23 other medal of honor winners in
        the war, most of whom got the same generic citation as the private and
        perhaps 5 men and an officer from his company in the same battle), to
        the Lieutenant while he tended their wounds between collecting
        silverware from the defeated Spanish commander’s table to show off
        less than a month later in Harrisonburg. Just like in the movies, he
        remembered the tales for years and conveyed them on a much later trip
        home, after more action in the Philippines. That might explain all
        the difficulty that was had with spelling the name?? I don’t know if
        the source is willing to come out as having admitted the war hero story is

        Now, if we were talking about Judge Cantrell of Shelbyville, whose
        claim to fame was prosecuting “dealers in futures” (Milan Exchange, 10
        Dec 1881) this would be a whole different ballgame.

  4. Billy says:

    This is great. What about Cantrell’s raiders? Could it have been named after them? Either way, misspelling or vigilante soldiers, seems like the name could be changed.

  5. C Nelson says:

    The name Cantrell should remain.

    • Ms. Nelson, I am sorry that my reply to Barkley Rosser hurt you. I should
      have been more sensitive in how I corrected a story to which some
      people might have become emotionally attached. While it is better to
      get things right than to work under mistaken views, with some people
      an even more vigorous rebuttal would have been welcome whereas with
      others the whole topic might have been better left for another day.

      You must be an independent thinker to read this site. I would be very
      interested to see your thoughts in greater detail.

  6. Jessica Velanzon says:

    Thanks for this research. From one who dreads the thought of looking through all that printed history, I greatly appreciate everyone on this story. Another great read!

  7. So, I have checked this out further, particularly since I shall be in Washington tomorrow evening and will not be able to participate at the City Council meeting.

    So, while Charles P. Cantrell won the Medal of Honor, he did not die in the Spanish-American War. He lived until 1948. I have no idea if somehow the Rockingham News picked up on him from some local person or not, but Poti’s story that it looks like what was originally “New” and “South” may have morphed into “Central” and then “Cantral” and then “Cantrell” has a lot of credibility.

    Obviously many locals have become attached to the current name, whatever its origins or provenance. Looks to me like the solution is the one that says rename if MLK, but put up some historical markers about the old name, preferably mentioning the war hero rather than honoring some silly linguistic mistake.

    • One thing that has not been mentioned in this already convoluted tale
      is that the street in front of the Haas house, now Grace Street, was
      called both Central and South Street prior to 1918. One deed
      demonstrated the ‘up and over’ logic with ‘East South’ which could
      only have been east of the street in front of the Haas house. The
      section in front of the Haas house was not re-named until they named
      it Grace. Did people simply want to diminish the apparent influence of
      the highly influential T. N. Haas? Did they want to dissent from the
      presumption that the street would someday occupy a central position in
      the city? Did Judge Haas eventually relent, naming his part Grace
      before withdrawing to his studies of John Stuart Mill and alternatives
      to property taxes (he had no problem with poll taxes)?

    • By all means honor the war hero. Dr. King was all about the little mortal person with the
      immortal soul. Things might have been smoother if we had chosen Rosser Blvd to be sure the Quantrill confusion would go away, and then rehabilitated Irish Street as Martin Luther King Way.

      • For the future generations addressed in this post, Irish and German had been the two main north-south streets at the founding of Harrisonburg. Irish was renamed to Main at the time of the Irish Potato Famine. The social status of Irish immigrants at the time was compared to that of African Americans. German was re-named Liberty around World War I. They converge to the intersection of the new Martin Luther King Way which forms the northern boundary of James Madison University. South Main passes through the eastern edge of James Madison University.

  8. charles chenault says:

    One of the most serious flaws in this theory is that Central or South Street was actually Grace Street as shown on the insurance maps lodged in the JMU libray archives. I would attach the maps if I knew how to. Dr. Rosser is correct in that we are very comfortable with our Cantrell naming history which I would also post if I know how. It is absolutely consistant with the 1885 Lakes Atlas and subequent insurance maps as far as land ownershiop is concerned and devolution is concerned. As one who has examined titles to real estate in the City for over 35 years, I expect misspellings to be the rule rather than the norm. I also thank my colleagues who contributed many hours to this mission. We have purposely withheld our research as a group to avoid clouding the Cantrell naming matter before that dreaded council.

    • Mr. Chenault, You mean the street in front of the Haas home, perpendicular to South Main Street, was never called Central or South? To what street did was East South Street in the Dovel deeds referring? Are the maps and linked sources at incorrect?

    • Andrew says:

      The Grace Street issue is confusing, but I checked it out carefully before posting this article. The section of modern day Grace St. on the west of South Main St. was indeed called both South and Central up through at least 1924. But the segment of Grace Street that is now east of South Main (the bit running up between the old hospital and JMU) wasn’t built for at least several more decades, according to the Sanborn Maps.
      The deed books and maps seem to make it pretty clear that when the street that we now call Cantrell was first built, it was also called South or Central – meaning that there was a dogleg in that street. West of S. Main, the street formerly called South or Central followed the section of road we now know as Grace. East of S. Main, the street formerly called South or Central followed the section of road we now know as Cantrell.
      Since doglegs make things pretty confusing (case in point right here), it makes good sense that people would have wanted to change one of those names. The eastern section of South or Central pretty quickly became Cantral/Cantrell, but tracing the deed history of specific lots originally subdivided by Wisman shows the same road went through a name evolution of New, South, Central, Cantral, Cantrell.
      At the same time, none of this really has much bearing on who or what was behind the name Cantrell, which is still kind of the big unanswered question in my mind.

      • The raw data is available on the CantrellAvenue , including a visualization
        of the name changes arranged by plots that seems to line up. The 1918 Sanborn Map
        shows no structures on the east side of Grace, between the former Stephenson and Patterson properties, except the S. Main facing houses and some notation along the line dividing those properties.

    • JFNafziger says:

      I’d love to see Mr. Chenault’s research, too. Not sure I understand the benefits of “purposely” withholding it.

  9. charles chenault says:

    We really should have a get together one evening and put our research together.

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