One of a series of posts about Sunnyside streets and street names.
By Amy O’Hair
One of Sunnyside’s shortest streets is Acadia–the ‘A’ in the brief set of alphabetized north-south streets. The name reaches deep into history, like many of the somewhat obscure choices made by the Sunnyside Land Company in 1891 when the district was laid out–such as Congo, Gennessee, and Detroit. Like those names, Acadia touches on the history of colonization and land appropriation.
Also like some of the neighborhood’s other streets, it suffered from misspelling over the years. ‘Arcadia’ was the name in directories and on maps for a time. It was a natural mistake; Arcadia, meaning a place of rural contentment, is the English version of the French word l’Acadie. The name originated in ancient Greece, referring to an isolated place there where the people lived in pastoral simplicity.
An International Atrocity
To start with, the political history: L’Acadie (anglicized to Acadia) was the name of the place where French pioneers explored and later colonists settled in eastern Canada—areas that are now called New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia.
From 1755–1764, the British waged a concerted campaign to forcibly deport the French settlers, who were called Acadians–an event known as the Great Expulsion.
Many thousands of Acadians were shipped off to various places in North America, including Louisiana, where their name became the more familiar ‘Cajuns.’ The distances they were forced to travel were great; many died in the process. Acadians who resisted were often sent to the farthest-flung locations.
Immortalized in Verse
This forced exodus captured the imagination of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the 1840s, and he wrote a long poem that was well-known to readers in the nineteenth century, Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie (1847).
The rather sentimental work follows the trials of a young Acadienne named Evangeline, separated from her beloved during the upheaval. The steadfast virtue of the poem’s eponymous heroine inspired a good deal of artwork, such as statues and paintings. Historical and political accuracy are lacking in the poem, but “the poem had a powerful effect in defining both Acadian history and identity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” (Wikipedia).
Through the work, Longfellow brought to light the history of the area before its resettlement by the British–a period that had been largely ignored and not documented. The sentimental work engendered empathy in later Protestant anglophones for the plight of the Catholic Acadians that preceded them. (The plight of the native people who preceded both waves of settlers is not included in either narrative.)
Read the poem here. Read more about the poem here. And here.
Recovering Lost History
What followed later, due to the popularity of the poem, was a historical work by Philip Henry Smith in 1884, Acadia: a Lost Chapter in American History. Smith attempted to present a more accurate record of this little-documented episode in North American history.
Cover and title page from Philip H Smith’s book, 1884. Read this book here.
Smith wrote: “It is hard to explain in light of the present century the extreme measures decided on by the Governor and Council…convened at Halifax on July 15th, 1755, no less a measure than the eviction of the whole of the French population of Acadia and their dispersion among aliens in a strange land.” (Smith, p.198-9).
Even though this book was not rigorously annotated, Smith sought to redress the lack of information and allay the sentimental haze that surrounded the event, to better inform people about the nature of the atrocity.
Acadia in Sunnyside
For any late-nineteenth-century history buff interested in the annals of colonized North America, Smith’s book was a familiar work, likely to have been on their bookshelf. And here is the connection to Sunnyside’s beginnings. My research suggests that James P McCarthy, the major capitalist behind the development of Sunnyside, Mt Davidson, and Lakeview, as well as his son and Sunnyside investor E. Avery McCarthy, had just that sort of historical interest. Their use of other geographical locations that are pivotal in colonial and capitalist development is evident in other street-name choices, such as Detroit and Congo.
There was also a personal family connection to the area. The McCarthys originally came from upstate New York, not far from Acadia–and near the Genesee River, which also accounts for Sunnyside’s Gennessee Street (using an older spelling). Read more about the McCarthys here.
As stated at the beginning of this article, Acadia is the ‘A’ street in the alphabetized series of north-south streets in Sunnyside, which once ended with Hamburg Street–now Ridgewood Ave (changed in 1927). Read more about Sunnyside’s streets and street-names here.
The little matter of an extra letter
For several years, from the late 1890s to the 1920s, Acadia Street was misspelled ‘Arcadia’ with some consistency. It starts with the San Francisco Crocker-Langley Directory in 1898. The directory then used this spelling for four years, switching back to ‘Acadia’ in 1902.
This misspelling is given new life by the Sanborn Insurance map-makers in 1900, when they label the little street ‘Arcadia.’ (See map image below.) The misspelling may have persisted because ‘Arcadia’ sounded more familiar–but the reason cannot ever really be known.
The occasional use of ‘Arcadia’ persisted as late as 1962—probably merely a newspaper typographer’s misspelling—when this Sunnyside-Glen Park couple announce their intent to marry in the SF Chronicle.
The Coaling-Burning Powerhouse Next Door
Coal-fired industry, not pastoral simplicity, marked Sunnyside’s beginnings. The few residents who lived on Acadia Street in the early years of the district had as their near neighbor an imposing structure called the Sunnyside Powerhouse. It was located on Sunnyside Avenue (now Monterey) between Acadia and Baden, with big coal-powered generators inside and a car barn to service the streetcars.
The neighborhood of Sunnyside was initially an adjunct to this bigger project—San Francisco’s first electric streetcar. The president of the Sunnyside Land Company, Behrend Joost, wasn’t very interested in the district’s development, only in his own ambitions as a streetcar baron. The line, opened in 1892, originated downtown, ran down Circular Ave, then San Jose Ave, to the county line, later extended to the town of Baden (now South San Francisco). The streetcar was central to life in Sunnyside before automobiles.
The powerhouse operated on Monterey Blvd from 1892-1901, and then sat empty for decades after, until houses were built there in the 1940s.
Originally, Acadia Street was laid out to continue south of Monterey to Circular Avenue, as shown in the map above. This section was closed and houses built on it.
I have no photos of Acadia Street during these early years, but here are some from nearby.
‘The woods of Acadia are dead’
As you might expect, there are many streets also named Acadia in towns in Canada–as well as states where Acadians were relocated to, like Louisiana, Maine, North Carolina, Georgia, and West Virginia. But Acadias can also be found in Wisconsin, Oregon, Illinois, and several California cities besides San Francisco, like Santa Cruz, Petaluma, and San Rafael. Almost all are short, curvy, and residential.
Amazingly, this ancient Greek place name for a rural and idyllic land persists, still used to evoke the idea of pleasant sylvan wooded glades–although of course most of these roads are home to suburban houses, fences, and plenty of cars–not cows, farms, and open fires.
It is good to consider that the traumatic displacement of the Acadians gave rise to rich cultural blessings such as Cajun music, food, and, of course, Mardi Gras.
1 thought on “Acadia: The controversial history of a little street name”
Great work as usual! Loved this.