Outdoors

Where did Washington’s most creative place names come from?

A geologic dip just west (to the right) of Mount Rainier which soon could be named “Vancouver Notch” could be seen from Tacoma’s Fireman’s Park on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015. The Murray Morgan Bridge (11th Street Bridge) is in the foreground.
A geologic dip just west (to the right) of Mount Rainier which soon could be named “Vancouver Notch” could be seen from Tacoma’s Fireman’s Park on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015. The Murray Morgan Bridge (11th Street Bridge) is in the foreground. Staff photographer

Using a diesel-powered Albin cabin cruiser in 2012, Puyallup’s Barbara Reid replicated the route Peter Puget used to explore the body of water that now bears his name.

It was reading the journals of Puget and Capt. George Vancouver when she got a bit of chuckle out of some of the names they gave the islands of the South Sound.

One was named Long Island, because of its shape. Another was called Wednesday Island, because they visited on a Wednesday. Today the islands are called Ketron and Herron, respectively.

But it was a reference to Crow Island (now Cutts Island) that amused Reid most. The crew reportedly enjoyed shooting and feasting on crow on this tiny island, Reid said. “I tell people it gave the British a chance to eat crow and like it,” she said.

While these whimsical names may have been long since replaced, there are still plenty dotting Washington maps. Names that seem to provoke imagination and hint at a story.

There’s Mount Horrible in the Blue Mountains and Mount Triumph in the North Cascades. Mount Rainier has Oh My Point and the Kitsap Peninsula has Point No Point.

Of course, even less intriguing names have backstories. On Oct. 23, three new names for geographic features will be considered by the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names. A creek in Jefferson County could be named for homesteaders. A pond in McCleary could be named for a nearby school.

And a gap in the Mount Rainier foothills could be named for Vancouver, thanks to Reid. After her 2012 Puget Sound expedition, Reid launched the Lt. Peter Puget Memorial Project. Her idea is to erect memorials around the South Sound commemorating important points on his journey.

During her research, she came across a passage in Vancouver’s journal describing an “abrupt division” in the hills west of Rainier. She immediately set out to see if she could find the feature.

“I thought, oh my gosh, it is such a prominent feature,” said Reid, 72. She could see it from Browns Point, downtown Tacoma, while driving Meridian Avenue near South Hill’s Thun Field and from many other places.

The abrupt division, as Vancouver suspected, is where the Puyallup and Mowich rivers meet. It’s on private timber land, but Hancock Forest Management has agreed to let Reid tour the area Tuesday.

Reid submitted a request that the gap be named Vancouver Notch.

While Reid was surprised to find such a prominent feature unnamed, Caleb Maki, executive secretary for the state’s geographic names committee, says the state has many features without names. Maki said there seems to be an abundance of unnamed creeks.

While the committee weeds out frivolous naming ideas, they consider them all. Without offering specific examples, Maki says they do tend get more frivolous suggestions whenever media produce stories about place names. After all, he says, submitting a name change is as simple as filling out an online form.

The state has two pages of naming guidelines, some of which might have discouraged some of the state’s more creative place names had they been in place at the time. The guidelines also discourage changing names, to avoid confusion.

Still, the next time you pull out your map or atlas for an outdoor adventure, you’re bound to find some entertaining names for geological formations.

Using a state place name’s database hosted by the Tacoma Public Library, a few out-of-print place name history books, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names database and a dozen or so calls to local experts, we tried to find the stories behind some of our favorite Washington place names:

DIRTYFACE PEAK: Legend has it a homesteader known as “Old Dirty Face” cleared the land at the base of the peak near Lake Wenatchee. Perhaps, but official records indicate the peak was named by Wenatchee National Forest supervisor A.H. Sylvester for the dirty snow on its slopes. Sylvester is credited with naming more than 1,000 features in Washington, and he had reputation for being creative. Still a hiking destination, Dirtyface was briefly home to a ski area in the 1940s.

DUMBBELL: Sylvester thought this double-peak mountain in Chelan County looked like a dumbbell.

FROG HEAVEN: This marshy area on the south side of Mount Rainier is the promised land for frogs, or so we’ve been toad.

HARD-TO-GET-TO RIDGE: Some place names, like the one for this ridge in Garfield County, tell the whole story.

HEE HEE and HEE HAW CREEKS: Seven states have a Laughingwater creek or river, but only Washington has a Hee Hee Creek, according to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. “Hee hee” is Chinook jargon for “laughter.” Nearby Hee Haw Creek reportedly got its name as a bit of geographical humor.

KODAK PEAK: The name for this Chelan County peak occurred to Sylvester when one of his colleagues lost his camera on the mountain.

PICKET RANGE: These Whatcom County peaks offer some gnarly climbing and names that should serve as warning to those light on skill. Examples: Damnation Peak and mounts Despair, Fury and Terror. On a more positive note, there’s also Mount Triumph.

MOUNT HORRIBLE: Named by a group of cattlemen who suffered late-season storms on this peak in the Blue Mountains in the 1880s.

MOUNT MISERY: The cattlemen didn’t have any better luck on this Blue Mountains peak.

OH MY POINT: It’s not on many Mount Rainier Maps and it’s listed as an unofficial name in some National Park Service documents, but it’s listed in the state names database. It was reportedly a common refrain for those who stopped to take in the view from the last bend in the road before Narada Falls on the road to Paradise.

POINT NO POINT: Viewed from the water, the point seemed to appear then disappear so Navy Commander Charles Wilkes named it after a point of the same name on the Hudson River.

SKALAWAG RIDGE: The Ferry County ridge may be named for a homesteader who packed in supplies for U.S. Forest Service crews but kept some of the supplies for himself.

SKULL AND CROSSBONES RIDGE: This ridge in Loomis State Forest reportedly was the site of a short battle between sheepherders and cattlemen in the early 1900s.

STARVATION MOUNTAIN: A classic mountain biking destination near Twisp, it appears researchers were out to lunch when it came time to add it to the state place names database. Calls to a local museum, tourism offices, library and the Forest Service also didn’t unearth the story behind the name. Some guessed it was an old mining claim that didn’t pan out. Another guessed that perhaps an early homesteader didn’t fair well in that location.

“I always say it is called Starvation Mountain because it feels like the longest Forest Service road climb you have ever done,” said Kristen Smith, an avid cyclist and Methow Trails’ marketing director. “And odds are very good that you will be starving.”

RESOURCES

  • “Places Names of Washington,” by Robert Hitchman
  • “Washington State Place Names,” by James W. Phillips
  • “Washington State Place Names,” by Doug Brokenshire
  • Tacoma Public Library’s Place Names database: search.tacomapubliclibrary.org/wanames
  • U.S. Board of Geographic Names: geonames.usgs.com

6 STEPS TO PUTTING YOURSELF ON THE MAP

STEP 1: Gain enduring fame to the region.

STEP 2: Amass impressive public service credentials.

STEP 3: Become closely associated with a geographic feature that is of relatively similar importance as you.

STEP 4: Die.

STEP 5: Stay dead for at least 5 years.

STEP 6: Hope you made enough of an impact when you were alive that somebody will remember to propose naming a geographic feature after you. (See Step 1.)

NEW NAMES?

The Washington State Committee on Geographic Names meets 10 a.m. Oct. 23 in Olympia’s Natural Resources Building (1111 Washington Street SE) to consider three names:

Vancouver Notch: A V-shaped notch on private timberland in the foothills west of Mount Rainier. In 1792, Capt. George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy referenced the notch in his journal.

Wildcat Pond: McCleary School is requesting a nearby 10-acre pond be named after its mascot.

Cooper Creek: In Jefferson County, a group is requesting a 3-mile creek be named in honor of a family that homesteaded in the area 100 years ago.

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