Bumpy squirrels need not apply
December 13, 2015 2:41 PM   Subscribe

The other day I drove past a Squirrel Level Road in Virginia. Where did the name come from?

Googling turned up speculation that the name just refers to a flat tract of land nearby that happened to be known for squirrels back in the day. While that sounds truthy, I want certainty in all matters concerning squirrels! AskMeFi, can you provide a more definitive derivation (or the location of the original Squirrel Level, if there was one)?
posted by metaquarry to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This short Facebook Q&A answered by the Virginia Historical Society seems to be reliable.
posted by smorgasbord at 2:54 PM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

(And if you'd like more information, the Historic Petersburg Foundation could likely help!)
posted by smorgasbord at 2:55 PM on December 13, 2015

(there's no answer at either of those links, as far as i can see. i think maybe the first is only visible if you have a facebook account? maybe you could post the answer?)
posted by andrewcooke at 3:16 PM on December 13, 2015

I clicked on the "1 comment" and it showed the answer, which basically indicates roads called "Level Road" are typically so named due to level terrain unbroken by irregularities.
posted by Michele in California at 3:23 PM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

ah, ok, sorry!
posted by andrewcooke at 3:24 PM on December 13, 2015

I can't speak for this street, but a friend of mine's parents were allowed to pick the name of their street when they moved to a cabin in the woods, and they named it Squirrel Street just for the heck of it. Maybe it was just something like that?
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:23 PM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm still digging on this, because it's fascinating, but what I can tell you now is that the name of the road in question dates back to at least 1864. In October of that year, a Civil War skirmish took place nearby, and the road is referenced in many articles about the incident.
posted by mudpuppie at 6:22 PM on December 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Okay, I have a theory, and unlike most of my theories I think this one is actually correct. Basically, I think it's about money!

I think "level road" literally refers to an improved road that has been leveled. Check out this book on Good Southern Roads (1910) and search for "level."

I think this passage gives us enough information to draw an inference:
… As public road improvement goes on the farmer will find that he can begin to haul from two to four times as much per load as formerly, and in one-quarter to one-half the time, thus reducing the cost per ton per mile from one-quarter to three-quarters of what it cost him over the poor road. In the following table there is given, approximately, the cost of transporting a load of one ton by horse and wagon a distance of one mile over level roads, with different kinds of surfacing. It will illustrate the great saving in public road transportation if improved roads are constructed.

[Table: “The Cost of Transportation by Horses and Wagons, Hauling One Ton a Distance of One Mile on Different Road Coverings”]

The figure in the above table of course refer to level roads, but, unfortunately, we cannot in the South make all our roads level, as the topography varies from sea level to over 6,000 feet.
So my assertion is that roads that had been leveled and improved were named such so that farmers (or others) hauling goods knew that it was an improved (and possibly maintained) road that would take them to their destination with little risk -- both physical and financial.

The "squirrel" is a red herring, because absent the need to identify the road as safe for horses and wagons, it would just be "Squirrel Road," and we wouldn't bat an eye at that name.
posted by mudpuppie at 6:48 PM on December 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

(Counterpoint that helps back up my theory: Think of all of the roads in hilly areas that are named "________ Grade."
posted by mudpuppie at 6:51 PM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

The is a spot near Havre de Grace, MD called The Level, which suggests the term might have been applied to areas, though that particular area did not seem especially level to me.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:25 AM on December 14, 2015

In support of the idea that "X Level Road" is a general pattern, there's also a Smith Level Road in Chapel Hill, NC.
posted by biogeo at 10:53 AM on December 14, 2015

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