Sunday, March 02, 2008

Nevada's Strange Place Names

Weed Heights

Nevada is without peer when it comes to unique and descriptive names for its towns, mountains, waterways, canyons and other places.

Where else but in Nevada would you find place names like “Fatty Martin Lake,” “Toe Jam Mountain” or “Lousetown?”

In many cases, names were selected because of some noteworthy aspect or event related to a place. For example, in Clark County there is a “Slim Creek,” named not because it is narrow but because its waters were so sickening that anyone drinking from the creek would get ill and lose weight.

Some of the more unusual names were not initially intended to be bizarre but evolved over time from one name to another. A classic example of this is “Burning Moscow,” the name of a Virginia City mine.

Apparently the owners originally wanted to name the mine after the Spanish word for firefly. However, they only partially translated the word, using Spanish word “mosca,” for fly, and adding the English word “Burning.” Thus “firefly” became “Burning Mosca,” which was further mangled into “Burning Moscow.”

Another two examples of names taking on unintended meanings are Carp and Weed Heights. In the case of Carp, a southern Nevada railroad stop, it was not named for the big-mouthed, ugly fish in Lake Mead but rather in honor of a Union Pacific Railroad official. Similarly, Weed Heights had nothing to do with unwanted vegetation but was named after Clyde E. Weed, a mining company executive.

And who wouldn’t want to live near a place named Adverse? While the name might describe some of the more desolate places in the state, it was actually given to a railroad siding near McGill, which was called that because there the train track ran counter to the grade (which is known as an adverse grade).

Other place names are just plain clever. For instance, Adaven is Nevada spelled backward and it’s a name that has been given to two places—a post office in Elko County in 1911-16 and a tiny, remote settlement between Tonopah and Pioche. Neither exists today. Oot dab.

Perhaps the most interesting story behind a name is the tale relating to the naming of Jiggs. This ranching community south of Elko was actually named after a comic strip character.

The hamlet had previously been called Mound Valley, Skelton and Hylton—unfortunately, all at the same time. Since no one could seem to agree on a name, postal authorities chose a new name from a list submitted by local ranchers. One of the names was Jiggs, a character in the “Bringing Up Father” comic strip, who, not surprisingly, is always bickering with his wife.

The story behind the naming of Ragtown is equally intriguing. In the 1850s, thirsty, exhausted survivors of the trek across the 40 Mile Desert on the Emigrant Trail would straggle into the Kenyon Farm Station, located on the Carson River near present-day Fallon. There, the travelers bathed and washed their tattered clothing, which they frequently hung to dry on the trees, thus giving the place its name.

There is also the southern Nevada town of Searchlight, which, according to a popular myth, was named after a brand of matches. While that’s a great story, the truth, according to more recent historical research, is that it was most likely named when one of the town’s founders, George F. Colton, allegedly remarked that while there is gold in the area—it would take a searchlight to find it.

Another good yarn involves the naming of the town of Tobar, located 20 miles southwest of Wells. The town, which no longer exists, was founded as a railroad construction camp in 1908.

Tobar gained its name in a rather unusual fashion. One of the first businesses to open in the camp was a tent saloon. To advertise the establishment, a crude directional sign was painted and nailed to the side of the railroad station. Others who saw the sign mistakenly thought it was the name of the town—and that’s how Tobar came to be named.

Some place names just sound weird and don’t have any colorful stories behind them. For example, Central Nevada topographical maps show a place called “Goblin Knobs.” It was not named for one of Harry Potter’s bankers but rather by the United States Geological Survey because the “local tuff weathers into hoodoos and weird knobs.”

Whatever the heck that means.

A good source of information about why Nevada places are named what they are is “Nevada Place Names” by Helen S. Carlson, available in local bookstores.

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