How 17 Great American Cities Got Their Names

You know that Washington, D.C., is named for George Washington, but how well do you know where other major cities got their names? Here's a look at how a few of our bigger American municipalities found their monikers.

1. Atlanta
The ATL was very nearly the MAR. In the early 1840s, what is now Atlanta called itself "Marthasville," a nod to former governor Wilson Lumpkin's daughter Martha. The name changed to Atlanta in 1847, and although J. Edgar Thomson, chief engineer of the Georgia Railroad, gets credit for coining the "Atlanta" name, there is some debate over what inspired him. Some sources claim the aforementioned Martha Lumpkin's middle name was Atalanta. Others claim that Thomson took inspiration from Greek mythology's Atalanta. Still others claim that Thomson shortened the name from his original idea, "Atlantica-Pacifica."

2. Baltimore
Charm City gets its name from Cecilius Calvert, 2nd Lord Baltimore, the first Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland from 1632 until 1675.

3. Boston
Like a lot of New England cities, colonists named Boston after the city they left back home. In this case, Boston, MA, is named after Boston, Lincolnshire, England. Unlike its New World namesake, Boston, England, is still fairly small; its population is just a hair under 60,000.

4. Chicago
Chicago may be the Windy City, but its name has a fragrant origin.

"Chicago" comes from the French pronunciation of shikaakwa the word for "wild garlic" in the Miami-Illinois language. Chicago was originally rife with the wild garlic we also know as ramps.

5. Cincinnati
Cincinnati was originally known as Losantiville, but that didn't sit well with territorial governor Arthur St. Clair. During a 1790 visit to Losantiville, St. Clair changed the name to Cincinnati to honor the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of former Continental Army officers. (You guessed it; St. Clair was a member of the society.)

6. Cleveland

Cleveland takes its name from General Moses Cleaveland, a surveyor and investor for the Connecticut Land Company who led the first group to settle in the area in 1796. Cleaveland oversaw the planning of the early town, then headed back to Connecticut a few months later and never returned to the town that bears his name.

It's not exactly clear when the first "a" in his surname got dropped from the city's name, but one story explains that in 1830 the Cleveland Advertiser was pressed for space on its headline and simply axed the "a." The change caught on, and the town became known as Cleveland.

7. Denver
Colorado's capital is named after James W. Denver, a 19th-century Renaissance man who served in Congress, fought in the United States Army, and served as Governor of the Kansas Territory. He only visited his namesake city twice, in 1875 and 1882, and was reportedly unhappy that the residents didn't give him more of a hero's welcome.

8. Detroit
The Motor City gets its name from the French word détroit, or "strait," because of its position along the strait connecting Lake Erie to Lake Huron.

9. Los Angeles
The City of Angels' name has an appropriately religious background. Spanish settlers originally dubbed the settlement El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula, or "The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Little Portion." The official name was eventually shortened to El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, and it eventually became just "Los Angeles."

10. Miami
The hotbed of southern Florida is named after the Mayaimi, a Native American tribe that lived around Lake Okeechobee until the 17th or 18th century.

11. Minneapolis
This Minnesota city gets its name from two languages. In 1852 an early schoolteacher combined the Sioux word mni for "water" with the Greek word polis for "city" to get a name that paid tribute to the town's lakes.

12. New Orleans
French settlers originally called the Big Easy Nouvelle-Orléans in honor of Phillippe II, Duke of Orleans, who was Regent of France at the time of the city's founding.

13. Orlando
Disney World's hometown is another city whose name has murky origins. One local legend claims that the city is named after the character in Shakespeare's As You Like It, but the more commonly accepted tale is that a man named Orlando Reeves owned a plantation and sugar mill a bit north of what became the city. Early settlers found where Reeves had carved his name in a tree and assumed that it was a grave marker to a soldier who died in the Seminole War and mistakenly named their settlement after him.

14. Phoenix
When the Arizona city was first taking off in the late 1860s, settlers realized that their little town needed a name. Founder Jack Swilling, a Confederate veteran, wanted to name the town Stonewall in honor of Stonewall Jackson, but Darrell Duppa recognized that their site had been a Native American settlement centuries earlier. He suggested Phoenix because their new city would rise from the ruins of the former civilization.

15. Portland
There was a 50-50 shot that Portland, OR, was going to end up being called Boston, OR. In 1845 what is now known as Portland was just a small settlement called "the Clearing." Settlers Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove both wanted to name the settlement after their own hometowns. Lovejoy was from Boston, while Pettygrove was from Portland, ME. The pair settled their argument by flipping a penny. Pettygrove and Portland won the best-two-out-of-three contest, and the city became Portland. The so-called "Portland Penny" is still on display at the Oregon History Center.

16. San Antonio
The first Spanish missionaries and explorers came to what is now San Antonio on June 13, 1691, the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padua. They named their settlement in his honor.

17. Seattle
Seattle gets its name from an English corruption of the name of Si'ahl, a Duwamish chief who was a valuable ally to the area's early white settlers.

Highway Fidelity: When Cars Came With Record Players

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

In the winter of 1956, Chrysler unveiled a series of improvements to their lineup of automobiles. There was LifeGuard, a latch that prevented doors from flinging open in the event of an accident. New windshield wipers promised to clean 10 percent more of the glass surface than the previous year’s model. And for those consumers willing to spend an extra $200—the equivalent of about $1700 today—there was the Highway Hi-Fi, a factory-installed record player mounted under the car's dashboard.

Using an “elastic three-point suspension,” the unit played “non-breakable” 7-inch records. In advertising copy, Chrysler touted that the discs would never skip, not even during sharp turns or while crossing railroad tracks. “It’s almost impossible to jar the arm off the record,” the company promised, anticipating the dubious looks of dealers and buyers alike.

As it turned out, attempting to spin a record while in a moving vehicle was every bit as problematic as it might sound. But before 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and satellite radio, the Highway Hi-Fi represented the first opportunity for drivers to have some control over what they were listening to. They had autonomy—freedom to deviate from radio programmers, invasive ads, and boring talk shows.

Naturally, radio stations hated the idea.

A Chrysler car record player mounted under the dashboard
Courtesy FCA US

This bizarre automotive alteration was the result of an engineering genius who wanted to get his kid to shut up. Peter Goldmark was head of CBS Labs, a position which afforded him the resources to pursue other innovations. (He’s widely credited with ushering in the modern system of broadcasting color television.) He was the inventor of long-play (LP) records, which played vinyl at 33 and one-third revolutions per minute (RPM) instead of 78. Introduced in 1948, LPs revolutionized the music industry, packing more information onto the 12-inch discs by etching microgrooves into the vinyl and allowing producers to place up to 60 minutes of music on a side.

In the 1950s, Goldmark’s son observed that drivers had no influence over what was being broadcast via the transistor radios that had become standard in vehicles. While you could switch stations, you were still at the mercy of programming directors and their tastes in music.

As inventors tend to do, Goldmark identified the problem and then sought out a way to remedy it. His own creation, the LP, was far too big to have any practical application in a vehicle: The turntable would hang over a passenger’s knees. The 45 RPM record was much smaller but could only hold about five minutes of music on each side. Forcing someone to try and change records with such frequency while driving would likely result in accidents.

Goldmark devised a new option. Using a 7-inch record, he created a surface with ultra-microgrooves that played at 16 and two-thirds RPM. Each side could hold 45 minutes of music, a far more practical solution for people who couldn’t tend to the turntable easily. It also fit snugly under the dash, projecting out at the push of a button so the user could load a record and set the needle before pushing it back underneath and out of the way.

Goldmark made other adjustments. The vinyl records were thicker than standard LPs so they would be more heat-resistant during the summer months. He also developed a spring enclosure to absorb shocks and a counterweighted needle arm to make sure it wouldn’t leap off the record while traveling over bumps.

Goldmark tested it in a CBS executive’s Thunderbird. It worked flawlessly. He loved it.

CBS CEO William Paley hated it.

Paley equated the innovation to a form of self-sabotage. CBS had radio affiliates all around the country beaming their signals into millions of cars; those stations sold advertising spots to generate revenue. If drivers began listening to their own records instead of the radio, they were effectively diluting their own audiences. Paley thought sponsors would have a tantrum. He dismissed the idea entirely.

Perhaps feeling slightly petulant, Goldmark instead went directly to his potential customer: a car manufacturer. Visiting with Chrysler executive Lynn Townsend, Goldmark sold the company on the dashboard record player as a factory option. He rode along during a test drive, with Chrysler employees driving over bumps, railroad tracks, and other obstacles to see if the record skipped. It didn’t. The company ordered 18,000 Highway Hi-Fi units, a sizable investment that Paley couldn’t ignore.

CBS Labs mass-produced the devices, and Chrysler began instructing their dealers to pitch the add-on to prospective buyers. Each unit would come with six records, with the option to buy more through CBS-Columbia, a record label that manufactured the unique discs. Owing to Paley’s influence—he detested rock music—the choices were extremely placid. Car owners got the soundtrack to the Pajama Game Broadway musical, some Tchaikovsky, a jazz record, a dramatic reading of a George Bernard Shaw play, and songs from Disney’s Davy Crockett television series. (The latter was advertised to “help keep [kids] quiet.”) The catalog offered spoken-word reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Owing to their smaller grooves, the records couldn’t be played on conventional turntables. Given the selection, that was probably a blessing.

A print ad for a Chrysler car record player
Courtesy FCA US

The limited selection was one problem. The functionality of the Highway Hi-Fi was another. Goldmark had tested the device in a Thunderbird and in high-end Chrysler vehicles, but the company offered the machine in their economical Dodge and Plymouth models, which both had modest shock absorption. The records could and did skip, and the models were the source of several claims against the car’s warranty coverage. Local mechanics weren’t audiophiles and didn’t have the knowledge to make simple repairs. As word spread, Chrysler went from selling 3685 Hi-Fi units in 1956 to just 675 in 1957.

The option was discontinued shortly thereafter, but that wasn’t quite the end for car-mounted records. In 1960, RCA thought they had resolved some of the outstanding issues with their Victrola, which played 45s and overcame the short running time problem by constructing a 14-disc changer. When one record was finished, the unit would automatically drop another in its place. Similar to a jukebox, the needle was upside down and the record lowered on top of it to reduce skipping. Records slid into a slot in a manner similar to the CD players that were decades away.

The Victrola was picked up by Chrysler. It performed better than the Highway Hi-Fi, was cheaper ($51.75), and didn’t force users to limit themselves to the paltry selection of CBS’s custom discs. But it didn’t last long either; it was discontinued in 1961. (Another option, the UK’s Auto-Mignon, played 45s with manual switching: Each of the four Beatles was said to own one.) Before anyone could think to improve upon it further, 8-tracks arrived and soon became the portable car sound source of choice. CBS never followed through on plans to equip taxis, airplanes, buses, and other forms of transportation with their devices. In the evolution of on-demand music and auto transportation products, the Highway Hi-Fi was one step best skipped.

The Time 14 Cargo Ships Were Trapped in the Suez Canal ... for Eight Years

iStock
iStock

Egypt and Israel had a salty relationship in the mid-20th century. In 1967, war broke out between the two and Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula next door. In response, Egypt attempted to cripple the Israeli economy by blockading the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and debris—trapping 14 unlucky foreign cargo ships in the canal for eight years.

Marooned on the canal's Great Bitter Lake, the ships—British, French, American, German, Swedish, Bulgarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian—“clustered in the middle of the lake like a wagon train awaiting an Indian attack,” reported The New York Times [PDF]. Israel controlled the east bank of the canal; Egypt, the west. The sailors watched helplessly as both sides exchanged gunfire and rockets over their heads.

“We were in a very comfortable prison,” Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta said. “The first month was like a holiday. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible.” With nothing to do besides clean the ships and do basic maintenance, the boats puttered aimlessly around Great Bitter Lake in an attempt to keep the engines well-tuned. With nowhere to go, the crews eventually set aside their homelands' differences, moored together, and formed an unofficial micronation of sorts, calling themselves the “Yellow Fleet,” a reference to the windswept sand that piled on their decks.

Each ship adopted a special duty to keep the "country" running smoothly. The Polish freighter served as a post office. The Brits hosted soccer matches. One ship served as a hospital; another, a movie theater. On Sundays, the German Nordwind hosted "church" services. “We call it church,” Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But actually it is more of a beer party.” (The Germans received free beer from breweries back home.)

Beer was the crew’s undeniable lifeblood—one of the few things to look forward to or write home about. “In three days we tried Norwegian beer, Czechoslovak beer and wine and Bulgarian beer and vodka,” Captain Zdzislaw Stasick told The New York Times in 1974. In fact, the stranded men drank so much beer—and tossed all of the bottles into the lake—that sailors liked to joke that the lake’s 40-foot deep waters were actually “35 feet of water, and 5 feet of beer bottles.” As the British captain of the Invercargill, Arthur Kensett, said: “One wonders what future archaeologists in a few thousand years’ time will think of this.”

It was like adult summer camp. The men (and one woman) passed the time participating in sailing races and regattas, water-skiing on a surfboard pulled by a lifeboat. They played bingo and cricket and held swim meets. It was so hot outside, they regularly cooked steaks atop 35 gallon drums. During the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, they hosted the “Bitter Lake Mini-Olympics,” with competitions in weightlifting, water polo, air rifle shooting, high jumping, and, of course, swimming. (Poland won the gold.) During Christmas, they installed a floating Christmas tree and lowered a piano onto a small boat, which roved around the lake and serenaded each ship. The Yellow Fleet dubbed themselves the “Great Bitter Lake Association” and made special badges. They even had a club tie.

By the mid-1970s, much of the cargo the vessels had been carrying was rotten. The original shipments of the remaining wool, rubber, and sheet metal—which had been loaded in places as far away as Australia and Asia—were no longer needed. The Yellow Fleet resembled a ghost town, manned by world-weary skeleton crews.

Their patience was rewarded. By 1975, approximately 750,000 explosives had been successfully removed from the Suez Canal, making escape possible. The Great Bitter Lake Association disbanded, and the vessels of the Yellow Fleet finally returned to their separate homes. But by that point, the crew had learned that, no matter your circumstances, home is truly where you make it.

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