I grew up in the Central New York village of Solvay which borders on Syracuse, geographical hub of New York and for years the hub of my universe. I loved Central New York, its geography, its seasons, even its long, hard winters, but most of all I loved its names – Camillus, Cazenovia, Chittenango, Marcellus and my favorite, Skaneateles (which we pronounced “Skinny Atlas”).
Off to college at Kent State University I discovered Ohio’s treasure trove – Chippewa on the Lake, Conneaut, Coshocton, Newcomerstown, Put-in-Bay, Gnadenhutten, Wapakoneta, etc. My family had a special fondness for Ashtabula. (When we passed signs for it along a highway we’d sing it out to the tune of "Oklahoma.")
It was a fondness for place names that started me reading state maps like they were best sellers. I discovered towns such as Choccolocco (Alabama), Hungry Horse (Montana), Deadhorse (Alaska), Marmaduke (Arkansas), Crested Butte (Colorado), What Cheer (Iowa), Waterproof (Louisiana), Good Thunder (Minnesota), Chain of Rocks (Missouri), Hoodoo (Tennessee), Zig Zag (Oregon) and Chickasawhatchee (Georgia).
Unique names stand out, but I also couldn't help but notice names so popular they were everywhere. What state doesn’t have its very own Springfield? Or Arlington? Fayetteville?
So far I've found 22 Auburns, including one about 25 miles from my hometown. According to American Place Names (George R. Stewart, Oxford University Press, 1970), the original Auburn is a British village in Yorkshire that was praised as “Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain” in Deserted Village, a poem by Oliver Goldsmith.
As you head westward across the United States you’ll find many places that weren’t named because they fit a particular description, but because settlers had carried with them a love of their previous home. California’s Auburn is named for the Auburn in New York. So are several others.
Many American cities were named for places in England. We have countless cities and towns named for Liverpool, Birmingham, Cambridge, Chelsea, London and Warwick, for example.
Others towns borrowed from ancient Greece and Rome. This was especially true in Central New York, thanks to a 19th century surveyor who sprinkled names that sounded like characters in "I, Claudius" – Camillus, Fabius, Marcellus and Pompey.
Native Americans obviously inspired many place names, but their words were filtered through French, Spanish and English spellings. Often the original meaning was changed in the translation and spelling was always uncertain. Alabama has Opelika, from a Creek Indian word for “big swamp.” The Seminole Indians used a similar word, but the Florida city that bears the name is spelled Opa Locka. And imagine if Iowa were still spelled the way a it first appeared on a map of the New World – Ouaouiatonon.
Even cities named from simple Spanish words are open to interpretation. Boca Raton, Florida, is a good example. Why boca (“mouth”) and raton (“mouse”)? American Place Names says the city’s name means “hidden rock that frets cables,” like a mouse gnawing, which may be a description of troubles encountered by ships that approached shore near the present site of the city. In any event, Boca Raton sounds chi-chi and upscale; Mouse’s Mouth certainly doesn’t.
Railroad officials were responsible for many place names, particularly in the western half of the country. Fargo (North Dakota) was named for W.G. Fargo, director of the Northern Pacific Railway (and also founder of Wells-Fargo Express); Orem (Utah) for W.C. Orem, who built an electric railroad in the city, and Billings (Montana) for Frederick Billings, president of Northern Pacific Railway which founded the town. Annelly (Kansas) was named by a railroad official for his wife Ann and their daughter Ellie. And then there's Colo (Iowa), named after a railroad official's dog, a fitting memorial since the animal ran onto the tracks and was killed by a train.
As tiny post offices popped up all over the United States, there was a need to give a name to each village that had one. These names had to be submitted to the United States Post Office in Washington, D.C., for approval. Sometimes approval didn’t come easily. The Post Office rejected several names for a town in Kentucky before it gave the okay to Chevrolet, which turned out to be the make of the mail carrier’s car. Cuzzie (West Virginia) was named for the town’s first postmistress, Mrs. Cuzzie Smith. Durwood (Oklahoma) was supposed to be Deerwood, but an official at the Post Office Department misread the application, certainly an argument for neat handwriting. An Idaho postmaster submitted Eagle, but was told the state already had one. The postmaster dropped the first letter and substituted another. Weeks later Sagle, Idaho, was officially born.
And then there’s tiny Retsof (New York), south of Rochester, near Geneseo. Retsof was home to a huge and successful salt mine that unfortunately closed in the early 1990s because of underground flooding. The mine was started in the 1880s by William Foster Jr. who declined when people suggested his company and the town where it was located be named in his honor.
Fine, said the people, who turned Foster’s name around and created Retsof. Likewise, Retsil, Washington, is a reverse spelling of Lister, as in Gov. Ernest Lister. Several other American places were named in similar fashion.
Millions of Americans were witness to an unusual name change in the 1950s when residents of Hot Springs, New Mexico, voted to become Truth or Consequences, in honor of a popular radio show that broadcast the event as a publicity stunt. The program is long gone, but the city still bears its name.
Some memorable names don’t appear on maps. As a teenager I came upon a place called Rattlesnake Gulch, which I assumed was a joke. Only later did I learn there really are eastern rattlesnakes. (Had I had known earlier I wouldn’t have taken the road through Rattlesnake Gulch when I drove from Solvay to Oneida Lake.)
I’ve yet to find any map that indicates its location, but if you drive through the Cicero Swamp on Route 298 you’ll see a road sign announcing the existence of Rattlesnake Gulch.
It's impossible to account for most of the information because sources borrow from each other. The granddaddy of them all, in my case, is American Place Names by George Stewart, who did his research many years ago. For this reason his books may be the most reliable sources. (He's done a bunch of them.)
Also invaluable is one of my favorite websites, www.epodunk.com, which offers brief histories on thousands of towns.
And I recommend an interesting book called "A Place Called Peculiar" (Mirriam Webster) by Frank K. Gallant.
I've spent much time online googling away on Google.com, searching for place-name information.
There seems to be a place-name book for every state, but their authors and publishers — most of them, anyway — are understandably reluctant to make their well-researched information available for nothing.
There are exceptions. My favorites are websites in Georgia, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, though I was disappointed when I read the long list of Vermont place names. Tommy Squatter was missing, leading me to wonder if it had been a figment of my imagination.
But, no, it exists on the pages of American Place Names.
T.B. or not T.B.?
Even being on a map doesn’t necessarily prove a town’s existence. In Maryland there’s a place called T. B., named from initials carved into a tree or a stone many, many years ago by a man named Thomas Blandford. Several road atlases show T.B. where U. S. Route 301 crosses state highway 373. I’ve driven through that intersection several times, but I've never found T.B.