Over the course of any of the numerous meetings about the re-design of Rutherford Avenue, there’s always a frustration – perhaps even outrage – in the air within the crowd.
It has nothing to do with lanes of traffic or the presence or absence of underpasses.
It’s how everyone in the room is pronouncing ‘Rutherford.’
There are two schools of thought.
The first is that it’s pronounced ‘Ruth’-erford – like the name ‘Ruth’ at the beginning.
The second is that it’s pronounced ‘Ruther’-ford – more like the word ‘mother’ at the first. (For purposes of this article, going forward, the different pronunciations will be identified as they are above).
There is no agreement on flexibility on the matter in the Town, and either side of the argument has dug in their heels on being right.
The truth of the matter is there is really no real answer to the question, and at the end of the argument, that’s likely refreshing in this day and age of Internet fact-checking; a world where there is an answer for everything in an instant.
Despite that, there’s still no reason not to have the argument. And according to many in the Town, that argument is alive and well – especially with the massive re-design of the Avenue.
Mayoral Liaison Quinn Locke grew up in Charlestown and still lives there, and said he has been corrected either way many times. While many believe that longer-term residents, or Townies, say it ‘Ruth’-erford and newer people say it ‘Ruther’-ford, that isn’t always the case.
“I say ‘Ruther’-ford,” he confessed. “That’s how I heard it growing up in Charlestown. Of late, I’ve been corrected on the matter several times, and I starting saying it ‘Ruth’-erford. Then I was corrected on that and went back to ‘Ruther’-ford. You ask around City Hall and no one really knows either…It’s one of those things that every time I look it up or ask around, there’s no clear, exact answer.”
Arthur Hurley, a long-time member of the Charlestown Historical Society, said it has to do with those from Charlestown versus those coming from outside of the Town.
“It’s about people coming from different parts of the country,” he said. “That’s what it’s about. I call it ‘Ruth’-erford and I bet most Townies do too.”
Said Tom Coots, of the Historical Society, “According to every Townie I’ve met, it’s ‘Ruth’-erford, as in the name Ruth.”
Added Judy McDonough, “It’s like Tomato-Tomahto, Copley-Copely, Fanuel-Fannell, and Fi-lenes vs. F-lines. Weird.”
Hurley said he confirmed this week, with the help of the City Archives, that the Avenue was named after Rutherford B. Hayes – though they only named it after the president’s first name. That happened by order of the Boston Alderman on May 27, 1878. According to the archived records for the meeting, “Report and order that the streets in Charlestown heretofore known as Richmond Street and Canal Street be hereafter called and known as Rutherford Avenue, and that the superintendent of streets be directed to place street signs upon and number said avenue.”
Hurley said it was very odd that they only named it after the President’s first name, and he said there was no truth to the matter that Hays Square by the Police Station was named that way to complete the cycle. Instead, that was named after a local man from The Point named the Hon. James E. Hays. Hurley said it’s possible the street got its name due to a former Hayes administration official. Charles Devens was originally from Charlestown, Hurley said, and served as the U.S. Attorney General during the Hayes Administration.
“I’m guessing he pulled a few strings to get the name there,” he surmised.
But the naming gives no clue to the conundrum of the pronunciation.
In Fremont, Ohio, lies the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Museum – the first such presidential museum in the country’s network of executive libraries. Even there, they have no clear answer to the question because there are no recordings or videos of the president or anyone close to him saying ‘Rutherford.’ They do, however, have their opinions.
“We call it ‘Ruther’-ford,” said Kristina Smith, a spokesperson for the museum. “We do run into people who say ‘Ruth’-erford, like the name Ruth, when they come here. We believe the best pronunciation is ‘Ruther’-ford, though, and our staff does stay consistent here in saying it like that. We do hear a lot of people say it both ways, and we get asked a lot about whether it’s ok to say ‘Ruth’-erford. We aren’t certain, but the staff does say it ‘Ruther’-ford.”
She said in their pronunciation research, they can point to one clue. That clue is a series of letters between himself and his wife while the future president was recovering from a Civil War injury in Richmond, Va.
“In the letter, her nickname for him is ‘Ruddy,’ and not ‘Rudy,’” she said. “We think that’s why it’s ‘Ruther’-ford.”
In Charlestown, the issue likely is far from settled.
Bill McCallum, of Charlestown, said he can recall having drinks at Old Sully’s and hearing it neither way – though as an academic – he said he finds the argument fascinating.
“I even had a few drinks at Old Sully’s back in the day and had never heard anything other than the usual Bostonian accent on this: rah-the-fudd, with a silent second R,” he said. “It’s unique as about the only example in American patois I can find where a U.S. president’s name gets an extreme regional pronunciation. For some reason, president’s names enjoy strict pronunciation, even against solid local background traditions.”
He said a clear example of this was when Ronald Reagan became president. Despite the Irish-American tendencies in Boston to pronounce it ‘Ree-ghan,’ people here maintained that it was pronounced ‘Ray-gun’ as the president said it himself.
“The Roosevelts also left a confusing legacy here as in some of FDR’s speeches…he seemed to use ‘ruse-a-veld,’ not ‘rose-a-veldt,’ but Teddy Roosevelt was adamant that it was the latter,” said McCallum.
Nevertheless, the Rutherford issue will likely not be totally solved, and Hurley said maybe it’s a case of Charlestown versus the world.
“People from the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library, why do they say ‘Ruther’-ford over ‘Ruth’-erford?” he asked. “Maybe they’re wrong and we’re right. Who’s to say really?”
New Rutherford vs. Old Rutherford
Mayoral Liaison Quinn Locke said there is another mystery about Rutherford Avenue that he recently solved, and that’s the New and Old Rutherford Avenues.
During Urban Renewal and the rebuilding of Rutherford Avenue years ago, a new street popped up called Old Rutherford Avenue. In the course of changing the signs recently, Locke discovered there is no Old Rutherford.
“For Old Rutherford, there’s no such thing,” he said.
Apparently, Rutherford Avenue goes from City Square and then veers off to the right towards the skating rink and Peter Looney Park – a stretch now mistakenly known as Old Rutherford. However, that is actually simply Rutherford, and it winds back around and becomes the traditional Rutherford Avenue again by the pedestrian bridge.
The stretch between Old Rutherford and Austin Street is actually called ‘New Rutherford.’