When traveling, I’ve often been curious about the colorful names I’ve run into along the way. But I’m convinced that, like so many other things folkloric, we can usually find some really good examples right around us. I’ve discovered that St. Lawrence County is a great source. As the largest county in area in New York and fifth largest east of the Mississippi, there has been plenty of land to settle and names to put upon it. For much of this piece, I’m indebted to a couple of old friends, Mary Smallman and Kelsie Harder, whose diligent scrutiny of local maps, records and local talk produced “Claims to Name: Toponyms of St. Lawrence County,” a serious and thorough study published in 1992 by North Country Books.
Right here, there is evidence of all the major categories for naming places: for founders and settlers like Flackville, Ogdensburg, Hopkinton; for historical and otherwise important persons, like Rooseveltown for Teddy Roosevelt, Fort Jackson for Andrew Jackson, Remington Circle for native son, artist Frederic Remington; and names from faith, St. Regis from the French priests who established an early mission for Mohawks and St. Lawrence from the explorer Jacques Cartier, who is said to have named the river on his favorite saint’s day, Aug. 10. There also are numerous Old and New Testament names, including Jerusalem Corners, Jordan River, Galilee, Mount Pisgah, even Sodom. That one I’d really like to know more about.
There are descriptions of physical geography, like Dismal Swamp, Haystack Rock, Lazy River, and Ironsides Island; nods to our richly diverse geology, Iron Mountain Road, Copper Falls, Lead Mine Road, and Pyrites (pronounced: PY ri tees), probably a sardonic reference to “fools gold”; and lots of references to flora and fauna. There are scores of ponds, lakes and streams called Trout, Bear, Deer, Buck or Beaver. There’s Grasshopper Hill, Cranberry Lake, Gooseberry Mountain, Balsam Brook and Potato Street.
And of course Native American names, so ubiquitous in New York State, are here, too: Oswegatchie, Wanakena, Wyanoke Island and Chippewa Bay are a few. Podunk seems to have originated as “Amerindian,” and I’m happy to report we have one.
Perhaps most fun to the curious, however, are those places that locals have given colorful names, with interesting stories attached. Relying on old accounts and some local memory, Smallman and Harder gave us a sample of a few:
- Bingo Road: Many people attempted to farm here but all failed, so “Bingo!” they were gone.
- Hardscrabble Road and Pinchgut Road share the same connotations of a struggle for survival.
- California Road: A family on the road announced they were going to California for a better life but they never left, so mild derision by the locals followed for years.
- Caravan Road and Gypsy Lane: Where itinerant gypsies were allowed to camp.
- Crackerbox Road: A house shaped like an old time crackerbox at the end of the road.
- Cream of the Valley Road: Site of a one-time cheese factory.
- Flatiron Street: A family disturbance in which a wife threw a flatiron at a husband.
- Eel Weir: A natural dam in Black Lake outlet where eels are caught.
- Horseheaven: An area in the sandbanks along the Grasse River near Canton where horses were once buried because it was easy to dig graves there, more recently the site of the village dump.
- Hen Island and Pig Island: Small islands in Trout Lake where local character Pliny Gardner kept his chickens and pigs to supply food for his Old Trout Lake Hotel.
- Pulpit Rock: A 70 foot high natural rock formation used as a pulpit by early settlers who held services at the rock.
- Sunday Rock: A 43 ton glacial boulder used to mark the limit of formal civilization beyond [south of] which lay the region where only logging crews and hunters ventured. Beyond this point, it was said that law and Sunday did not exist.
- Sally’s Rock: Small rocky island in Big Tupper Lake said to be setting for the first wedding of Sally Cole, daughter of Tupper’s first settler, and Zibe Westcott had decided to set up housekeeping together. There was no clergyman then  within many miles, so when a timber cruiser who was also a justice of the peace from St. Lawrence County happened by, they seized the opportunity. The wedding party rowed out to the island–nearest point in St. Lawrence County–to tie the knot within the justice’s jurisdiction.
- Mount Alone: The romantic story is that a mean man married a woman and left her about two weeks later; thereafter, she lived on the mountain alone.
- Slab City: A crossroads hamlet where a large sawmill once operated, producing numerous huge piles of slab wood, the outer layers of wood left after lumber was milled. Usually the bark was left on and then cut into short pieces for woodstoves and fireplaces.
- Pest House Road: In the nineteenth century, each town had a “pest house” where locals went when they had communicable diseases or were quarantined.
- Whiskey Brook: In the old days, when Parishville had a distillery, patrons used to stop to add a little volume to the fiery liquid by diluting it a bit with some clear sparkling water from this little stream, and one day a man dropped his jug and broke it. Another man came along, saw the broken jug, and called the stream Whiskey Brook.
In the last few decades, official designations for American places have changed considerably. ZIP codes make our mail more efficient; 911 emergency numbers make our lives safer and more secure. But Robert Louis Stevenson once said of American names: “There are few poems with a nobler music for the ear, a songful, tuneful land.” Podunk is now 13652. And just around the corner from me in Canton, what was once Gypsy Lane was for a while Tupper Road. Now it is State Highway 310. What’s in a name?
Varick Chittenden is a folklorist, the founding director of Traditional Arts in Upstate New York and Professor Emeritus of Humanities at SUNY Canton. A version of this column previously appeared in Voices: A Journal of New York Folklore. Reprinted with permissin of the New York Folklore Society.