The names of some Minneapolis roadways fit their locations in a geographic, historic or popular context. There's Lake Street, which leads to the Chain of Lakes. Minnehaha Avenue ends near Minnehaha Falls. The Mississippi River boulevards straddle the national waterway in each of the Twin Cities.
Other roads are named for famous places or people like France and Penn.
Then there's Xerxes Avenue South, which among other things provides a useful southwest Minneapolis exit off Highway 62 with fabulous access to Richfield, Edina and the lakes. In north Minneapolis, Xerxes Avenue runs parallel to Victory Memorial Drive along a portion of the Grand Rounds.
Apple Valley native Jake Steinberg wanted to know, "How did Minneapolis end up with a street named after an ancient Persian king?" He turned to Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's community reporting project that finds answers to questions from readers.
Steinberg, who is currently riding out the pandemic in Iowa City, said the question came up when he and his girlfriend considered watching the movie "300," about the battle of Thermopylae, a clash between the Greeks, led by King Leonidas I, and the First Persian Empire of Xerxes I.
The answer, it seems, lies in expedience rather than the Persian empire.
In the late 1800s, the population of Minneapolis was booming and city engineers sought to create alphabetical and numerical street grids that could be reliably navigated.
Edward Hathaway, manager of special collections at the Hennepin County Library in downtown Minneapolis, said Xerxes — which follows Washburn and precedes York — was chosen to fill an alphabetical sequence. York, a county in England, was similarly chosen for its place in the alphabet, while Washburn was named for one of the Washburn brothers, who founded the company that became General Mills.
"The objective of the street naming efforts of the 1870s and '80s was to come up with systems that were orderly, so they'd be easier to remember," Hathaway said. "After all, what do Schuyler Colfax, William Cullen Bryant or Ralph Waldo Emerson have to do with Minneapolis? Nothing. But if we can say those streets were named for those figures, I suppose we could say Xerxes was named for the Persian king."
Hathaway pointed to a November 1883 newspaper story from a predecessor to the Star Tribune in which city engineers suggested street names for each letter of the alphabet, beginning with Afton, Baden, Clyde and concluding with Xaes, Yazoo and Zealand.
If the Minneapolis City Council meetings provided reasoning for the names eventually chosen, they've been lost to the ages.
"Why Xerxes?" Hathaway said. "I don't have that information, but there aren't a lot of proper names starting with an X and this one was simple enough."
But Hathaway noted that Xerxes is mentioned in the Bible and "classical references were in vogue those days."
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