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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Geographical Names


Well, I did it. Had to get out the bible again this morning.

I had been in Government Camp the other day, and found myself repeating the old story that, despite its name, there had never been a camp established by the government on that part of Mount Hood.
It's true, but the real story is: sometime in the 1840's, an army detachment on its way to Oregon City left a bunch of wagons there. To the people who settled there soon after, this conveyed a kinda official feel to the place.

Indeed, in this sense it resembles Battle Ground, Wash. in that they had anticipated a battle with th' Injuns occurring there, and when it didn't actually happen, the folks there sort of looked around and said, "Well, why don't we build a town?"

So I had to go get out my copy of Oregon Geographic Names, the official tome of the Oregon Geographic Names Board, and general settler of arguments. It has been published on a more or less regular decade-wise basis by the McArthur family since the 1920's. The version I currently own, though I've owned several, is from 1974, when Lewis L. (son of Lewis A.) McArthur had the franchise. As of a year ago, his son passed the family nomenclature biz over to his daughter.
As far as I know, Washington state has no comparable book, which is a shame since that state plays home to Twisp, Usk, Pe Ell, Gobbler's Knob, and Mount Colonel Bob.

I met Lewis L. when I was a kid, and already enthralled by these books. He wasn't exactly young, and told me tales of scooting down Mt. St. Helens on his ass, back when it was a full-size mountain, and the eruption of (whatever the hell that mountain's name was) that gave rise to the myth of Atlantis.
And the reason I was speaking with him at all was due to the fact that my family had been members of the Oregon Geographic Names Board going back at least as far as my grandparents generation. They were a wonderful bunch of (largely speaking) retired academics and state government figures who spent their retirements tearing ass all over the hinterlands, getting drunk and telling stories with their friends.

But also, they debated important points, since no one else would: Should we rename Whorehouse Meadow 'Naughty Girl Meadow'? (They did, but later changed it back.) If we were to rename Squaw Tit Butte, what would we name it? (I don't remember, but there actually was a law passed in Oregon on this subject, in 2001.)
Matter o' fact, this law also considered the few places in Oregon that were named after black people, which were all uniformly prefixed either 'nigger' or 'darky'. (At least Centralia, in Washington, which was started by a black settler named George Washington Bush, just got named for its central-ness.)

Consider:
"Negro Ben Mountain, Jackson County. For many years this 4500 foot peak in the Siskiyou Mountains, a little to the southwest of Ruch and Applegate River, was called Nigger Ben Mountain."
Then he gives the history of the place. But then old Lewis L. starts to editorialize:
"In 1964, when integration was the watchword, the USBGN in Decision List 6402 changed the name to its present form. There is no evidence that the original name was derogatory, and if every name that might now or in the future offend some ethnic group must be altered to suit the changing times, the authorities might just as well resort to a simple numerical designation."


This is about as close to 'fuck you' as an academic gets, I think. It's weird though: I don't recall the book being this lippy. Check this out:
"Deathball Rock, Lane County. This rock is southeast of Blue River. It received its name because of an attempt made by a surveying party cook to bake some biscuits. It appears that he was not entirely successful."

Or:
"Picture Rock Pass, Lake County (...) The name comes from some strange designs or pictures on the rocks about a hundred feet south of the highway. These peculiar marks, made by Indians, are strongly suggestive of a WPA style painting project operated by the aborigines."

Like I say, just plain weird: I've owned at least three editions of this book, and I can say with some certainty that the '80's and '90's editions weren't trying to be funny. It always struck me as a deadly serious business -geographic nomenclature- to these people, and if humor happened, it happened on its own. Consider what Lewis L. had to say about a geographic feature named for his own father:
"Tam McArthur Rim, Deschutes County (...) After McArthur's death in 1951 many people felt that some geographic feature in Oregon should have his name...In retrospect it is interesting to note two curious facts; the Broken Top alpine uplands was one of the few spots in central Oregon that McArthur had not visited, and he probably would have expressed some dissatisfaction at the inclusion of a nickname in otherwise serious nomenclature."

In many places where the place name is prefixed by 'big' or 'crooked', he goes out of his way to note, "the place name is descriptive". This still leaves room for plenty of great stories about actual pioneers contacting 'the original compiler' (i.e. his father) with their various arguments about the origin of certain names, many years old and largely forgotten. If necessary, he'll say things like "the usage 'North Forks River' is wrong", and just leave it at that.

The just-plain-strange is well represented here, as Oregon is a large state, and seems to have always been given to a particularly strong strain of self-mythologizing. You can almost hear the excited drooling that accompanied the writing of the following passage:
"Baby Rock, Lane County. This rock is on the southwest shoulder of Heckletooth Mountain, and above the track of the Southern Pacific Company just southeast of Oakridge. It was named by the Indians. Mrs. Lina A. Flock has given the compiler an unusual legend about the name. Indians who slept near the rock were believed to have been bitten by some animals that left the footprints of a baby. The wounds were fatal.
Finally two Indians determined to exterminate these peculiar animals , and hiding in the rocks above, they surprised the visitors, jumping down on them and covering them with blankets in such a way that they could not escape. The animals were twisted in the blankets and burned up. Indian Charlie Tufti would never go near this rock.
Mrs. Flock's grandfather, Fred Warner, was of the opinion that the peculiar animals were porcupines, which make tracks not unlike a small baby. Indians asserted that the baby tracks remained about the rock for many years, hence the name."


Kinda like "Life In These United States" from Reader's Digest, except on acid, ain't it? I like the friend-of-a-friend style of tale-telling, plus the wide scale dismissal of the humble comma. And 'Heckletooth Mountain'? Named by Mrs. Lina A. Flock's grandmother, of course-"...because of the tall rocks with which it is surrounded near the summit. These resemble the teeth of a heckle, an instrument for handling flax."

The omissions include the odd street and neighborhood names in Portland proper -which I've always held is a serious oversight- and out of the way, unincorporated places like Beggar's Hollow and Ironton. But a lot of what the McArthur family learned over the years has more to do with who had a post office, who was on a rail line...This leads to relatively lengthy posts about places like Box, which was briefly a town, but now is a corner in some guy's pasture.

My daughter might be pleased to note that the origin of the town nearest her home, Helix, "was named because a local resident had a painful experience in the helix of his ear. The testimony is not as conclusive as it might be, but is probably true." He then goes on to tell the somewhat unlikely story there, accompanied by two or so other bullshit-sounding stories.

And this book also brought me the wonder that is Opie Dildock Pass (actually, I think I first heard about it in Spy magazine, back in the '80's, if you can believe that):
"It was named in 1932 by Dee Wright and Ralph Engels, then USFS District Ranger at McKenzie Bridge. They had had difficulty finding a good way down into White Branch canyon but finally found one small, practical passage. They were both reminded of a comic strip character of the early 1900's named Opie Dildock who always found some way out of impossible situations so they decided to honor the pass with his name."

Again; commas, Mr. McArthur! But note here how some very specific spot on some trail I've never even heard of gets serious, loving attention. And there's more:
"The compiler has spent many hours trying to locate a copy of this comic strip to give credit to the cartoonist and verify the spelling. Donald J. Sterling, Jr., of the Oregon Journal and Robert Frazier of the Eugene Register-Guard have also given generously of their time in this quest."
The Journal went out of business and was subsumed into the Oregonian in the early 1980's, (which is why we have two pages of comics, incidentally). Bob Frazier and his wife Rosemary were dear friends of my family, and when he found out he had Alzheimer's, he went into the bathroom and shot himself in the head. There is where the general becomes personal, and where you realize that while we're wandering around living our lives, we are becoming History, whether we like it or not.

But anyway: "The only fact that can be added is that the name is a variant spelling of Knight's Opiedildock, a well known camphor and soap liniment of bygone days. If the reader can add further information, it will be greatly appreciated."

Curiously, it would seem that the book has no online component. Matter of fact, Googling it will net you some pretty interesting things, including this. . The 1974 edition is apparently the one where Lewis L. took over from Lewis A. (the Fourth Edition). I've never read any of the first three, and now see that I need to.
I'd be interested to see what the current generation is doing with this enterprise, being as completely personal yet jokingly serious and scholarly as it is. I imagine that it remains one of the longer tall tales you'll ever encounter, mixed with good, solid research work, and hopefully just as idiosyncratic as any of its forebears, with a solid imprint of the personality that decided it needed discussing.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Salty Miss Jill said...

Deathball Rock! oooh!
You have a daughter?

Cool post. As usual.

8:39 AM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

Thank you, M. Jille.

Yup. The one I sometimes refer to as She-Bear is going to be eighteen this year. Weird,eh?

9:28 AM  
Blogger George Popham said...

18 years old. damn. That was back in the days when I listened to 10,000 Maniacs, voluntarily. (See my comment in last post, for my list of awful bands, I had to make a few categories to organize my distaste.)

Anyway, I'm more or less incommunicado, i see there is a wealth of stuff here. Anyway I have been immured in some big dumb thing for the last couple weeks and will be until the end of the month... I'm in the middle of a throbbing disaster of a project that just gets bigger and bigger and must be done at the end of the Month.

Knee deep in the puddin' and without perspective... all within the sound of my typing send psychic aid.

I looked up Gov't camp last time I was in town @Powells. And, did the Mosier tunnels section of the gorge trail just open up recently? I had thought it was closed.

11:15 AM  

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