15 U.S. Town and City Names With Unusual Backstories

Michael Swigart, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Michael Swigart, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While many towns and cities in the United States were named after historical figures or nearby topographical features, some monikers have origin stories that are a little more unusual. Here are 15 names with backstories that range from the curious to the downright bizarre.

1. TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, NEW MEXICO

Originally named Hot Springs, this New Mexico spa town changed its name to Truth or Consequences on March 31, 1950, in reference to the popular game show of the same name. Host Ralph Edwards had promised to host the show in the first town that changed its name to Truth or Consequences. Hot Springs obliged, and Ralph Edwards kept his promise. But rather than change their name back to Hot Springs once the novelty wore off, residents voted to make the name permanent in 1967.

2. ZILWAUKEE, MICHIGAN

An exit sign for Zilwaukee, Michigan
Ken Lund, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

If you noticed that the name Zilwaukee sounds a little bit like Milwaukee, that’s no coincidence. Zilwaukee, Michigan wasn’t just named after Milwaukee as a tribute to the Wisconsin city, but to trick potential settlers who were interested in moving to Milwaukee. Started in 1848 by New Yorkers Daniel and Solomon Johnson, the settlement initially consisted of little more than a few houses and a sawmill. In need of workers, the Johnson brothers decided the best way to attract settlers was through deceit. They named their little riverside settlement “Zilwaukie” (later changed to Zilwaukee) and waited for settlers to start pouring in. It’s unclear whether their plan was successful; settlers did eventually arrive, though it may have been the general desire for work (the founding of the town happened to coincide with an influx of German immigrants), rather than the Johnson brothers' clever scheme, that attracted the town’s residents.

3. PORTLAND, OREGON

If not for a momentous coin toss, Portland could have been named Boston. Founded by Massachusetts-born lawyer Asa Lovejoy and Maine-born Francis Pettygrove, the 640-acre site that would become Portland was originally known only as “The Clearing.” When it came time to give the town a real name, Lovejoy and Pettygrove began to argue. While Pettygrove insisted the town be named Portland after the city in Maine, Lovejoy wanted to name the settlement for his hometown, Boston. In order to settle the dispute, the two founders decided to flip a coin. Winning two out of three tosses, Pettygrove got his way, and gave Portland its name.

4. EGG HARBOR, WISCONSIN

While there are a few theories regarding Egg Harbor’s origins, one of the most popular (and well-documented) centers on the great battle that took place just offshore in 1825. According to an 1862 recounting, a group of traders traveling in a handful of small boats to Mackinac Island decided to take shelter in an unnamed harbor overnight. As they paddled toward shore, a friendly race broke out, with each boat trying to overtake its neighbor. In order to slow each other’s progress, the traders began tossing bits of hardtack (a type of biscuit or cracker) at each other. But they soon realized they might need the hardtack later, and so they started throwing eggs. According to one witness, the fighting didn’t stop once the traders reached shore. Instead, they repeated their egg fight on land, stopping only once they ran out of eggs, and had “laughed until exhaustion.” The next day, speeches were made commemorating the great egg battle, and Egg Harbor was given its name.

5. NAGS HEAD, NORTH CAROLINA

Some believe Nags Head was named for one of the several towns of that name on the English coast. Others, however, believe Nags Head has a more nefarious backstory. According to legend, recounted in the 19th century by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, pirates once used the beach at Nags Head to lure in their prey. They’d attach a lamp to the neck of an old horse (or nag), which would slowly walk the beach at night. Mistaking the nag’s lantern for the lights of another boat, ships would sail toward the light, grounding themselves in the shallow waters near the beach and making themselves a perfect target for pirates.

6. BASTROP, LOUISIANA & BASTROP, TEXAS

A sign in Bastrop, Texas
Wil C. Fry, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Another town name with a criminal backstory is Bastrop. The two towns with the same title in Louisiana and Texas were named for Dutch nobleman Felipe Enrique Neri, the Baron de Bastrop, who played an important role in settling the future Lone Star State. Only it turns out the Baron de Bastrop wasn’t a baron at all: Historians now believe the self-proclaimed Dutch nobleman was actually one Philip Hendrick Nering Bögel, a former tax collector who left Holland after being accused of embezzlement. Bogel fled to America with a 1000 gold ducat price on his head and reestablished himself as a Dutch nobleman. He went on to help establish several Anglo-American colonies in Texas, and even acted as a representative to the state of Coahuila and Texas in the 1820s.

7. MODESTO, CALIFORNIA

From towns and cities, right down to buildings and park benches, people seem to love naming landmarks after themselves; it’s the nature of the human ego. Which is why the story behind Modesto, California's name is particularly surprising. Founded in 1870 and incorporated in 1884, Modesto was the last stop on the Central Pacific Railroad line. Town residents decided that they wanted to name their new town after financier William Chapman Ralston, to honor the man who brought them the railroad and connected them to the rest of the country. But Ralston was too humble, and asked the town to find a more suitable namesake. Instead, residents decided to call their town Modesto, in honor of Ralston’s modesty.

8. CHICKEN, ALASKA

A town sign in Chicken, Alaska
J. STEPHEN CONN, FLICKR / CC BY-NC 2.0

Originally a mining town, Chicken got its unusual name from a group of gold miners who weren’t great at spelling. The miners wanted to call the town Ptarmigan, after the grouse-like bird that inhabited the area, but couldn’t figure out how to spell the word. So they settled on naming the town for an easier-to-spell bird: the chicken.

9. FROG EYE, ALABAMA

According to legend, Frog Eye was named after a ceramic frog. During the prohibition era, the proprietor of a local saloon kept the little frog sculpture in his shop window at all times: When police officers were in the bar, he’d close one of the frog’s eyes so that customers would know not to order illegal liquor.

10. HOT COFFEE, MISSISSIPPI

A sign in Hot Coffee, Mississippi
Jimmy Emerson DVM, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Mississippi community known as Hot Coffee was, you guessed it, named for its damn fine cup of coffee. According to a WPA history of Mississippi written during the Great Depression, a Civil War veteran named J.J. Davis built a store at the intersection of two major thoroughfares in Mississippi, hoping to attract travelers. “He hung a coffee pot over his door, and served coffee that was both hot and good, made of pure spring water and New Orleans beans,” explains the WPA historian. “He used molasses drippings for sugar and the customer could have either long or short sweetening; he refused to serve cream, saying it ruined the taste.” The 19th-century coffee connoisseur soon developed a reputation for his superior beans, and both travelers and local politicians would frequent his shop. According to legend, Davis started calling the community Hot Coffee after a traveling salesman burnt his mouth trying to drink Davis’s coffee too quickly, calling out, “Mister, this is hot coffee!”

11. SLAUGHTER BEACH, DELAWARE

There’s some debate as to how Slaughter Beach got its name. While some believe the bayside community was named for local postmaster William Slaughter, others claim it was named after the hordes of horseshoe crabs that lay their eggs on the beach of the Delaware Bay each spring. Because of unpredictable tides, the horseshoe crabs often ended up stranded on the beach, at the mercy of predatory animals like foxes and raccoons—which resulted in something of an annual horseshoe crab slaughter.

12. KITTS HUMMOCK, DELAWARE

According to local legend, the little Delaware community now known as Kitts Hummock was originally named Kidd’s Hammock, after Captain William Kidd. The notorious pirate terrorized America’s east coast during the 17th century, and though there is little historical information to tie him specifically to the community of Kitts Hummock, legends of Kidd’s treasure buried somewhere in Delaware persist to this day.

13. TELEPHONE, TEXAS

Back in the 1880s, having a telephone was a really big deal. Such a big deal, in fact, that one Texas community decided it was worth naming their town after. According to the Texas State Historical Association, the tiny community of Telephone was established in 1886. General store owner Pete Hindman submitted a series of town names to postal authorities, but all were already in use. Frustrated, Hindman submitted the name Telephone, in reference to the fact that the only telephone in the area was in his store.

14. TIGHTWAD, MISSOURI


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According to Tightwad residents, the little Missouri town’s name dates back to the early 20th century, when the local mailman asked the local grocer to set aside a watermelon for him while he made his rounds. The postman came back after delivering the community’s mail only to find that the grocer had sold the watermelon to a customer who had agreed to pay 50 cents more. The postman accused the grocer of being a tightwad, and apparently the rest of the community agreed, and even embraced the accusation. They unofficially called the little community Tightwad until the village was incorporated in the 1980s, making the title official.

15. JIM THORPE, PENNSYLVANIA

Originally two towns called Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, this Pennsylvania town became one and changed its name to Jim Thorpe after the legendary turn-of-the-century Olympic athlete, baseball player, and football star in the 1950s. The two towns didn’t have any pre-existing connection to Thorpe, who was from Oklahoma and had played for Milwaukee and New York teams. Rather, after Thorpe’s death, his third wife made a deal with them. Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk were looking for a way to promote tourism; at the same time, Thorpe’s wife wanted what she considered a proper memorial for her husband, so she essentially sold the towns on rebranding themselves as Jim Thorpe. The towns merged, bought Thorpe's remains from his widow, built him a monument, and became Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Two of Jim Thorpe’s sons then fought a legal battle to have his remains returned to Oklahoma, but in October 2015 the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, leaving in place the appeals court ruling in favor of the town.

A version of this story originally ran in 2016.

The U.S.-Canada Border Runs Directly Through This Library

Though the Haskell Free Library and Opera House might not be as well known as the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty, it's undoubtedly one of America's most unique tourist attractions. Completed in 1904, the building is stationed directly between Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont, with the official U.S.-Canada borderline running right across the library's floor.

Martha Stewart Haskell and her son, Colonel Horace Stewart Haskell, both Canadians, built the building as a tribute to Mrs. Haskell’s late husband, Carlos. The family hoped that citizens from both countries would use it as a “center for learning and cultural enrichment,” according to the official Haskell Free Library website.

The Haskell is divided between the two countries. While the library’s official entrance is on the U.S. side of the building, most of the books are on the Canadian side. The opera house is similarly split, with most of its seats in the U.S. and its stage in Canada. As Atlas Obscura reported, it is often said that the Haskell is the only library in the U.S. with no books, and the only opera house in the country with no stage.

U.S. Border Patrol Agent Andrew Mayer speaks to Nancy Rumery as he stands on the Canadian side of a line on the floor of the Haskell Free Library and Opera House that marks the border between the U.S. March 22, 2006 in Derby Line, Vermon
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Passports and other forms of identification aren’t required to cross from country to country in the library, though the Haskell’s website notes that the border inside the "building is real and it is enforced.” Visitors are expected to return to their side of the border after a visit; if they don’t, they risk possible detention and fines.

Even beyond the building's unique position, library director Nancy Rumery told CTV News that Haskell staffers—Canadian and American alike—consider the institution to be like any other library in the world.

"We're just trying to be the best library we can, and our community is made up of people from two different countries," she said. "We don't think of it in that big symbolic way that I think a lot of people do. These are all our neighbors and we do our very best to help them on their life-long learning journey."

This article originally ran in 2016.

Are You Smart Enough to Pass Thomas Edison's Impossible Employment Test?

 Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

If you thought Elon Musk's favorite question to ask job applicants was tough, you should see the employment test devised by Thomas Edison. When he wasn't busy inventing the light bulb or phonograph, or feuding with Nikola Tesla, Edison was apparently devising a trivia test of nearly impossible proportions.

As Smithsonian reports, the 146-question quiz was designed to weed out the candidates who would be ill-suited to work at his plant, which was a desirable place to get a job in 1921. College degrees didn't impress him much—"Men who have gone to college I find to be amazingly ignorant," he once remarked—so he needed to find a more effective method of determining prospective employees' knowledge.

The test may have been too effective, though. Of the 718 applicants who took the test, only 57 achieved a passing score of 70 percent, and only 32 scored Edison's desired result of 90 percent or higher. This was certainly frustrating to applicants who considered themselves to be pretty well-educated. An unsuccessful applicant named Charles Hansen, who shared all of the questions he remembered with The New York Times in 1921, called the test a "silly examination." Another applicant said it was "not a Tom Edison but a Tom Foolery test" [PDF].

After the test questions became public knowledge, reporters went out and started polling people to see how well they'd do on Edison's test. Albert Einstein reportedly failed (he didn't know the speed of sound offhand), as did Edison's youngest son, who was a student at MIT at the time.

If you want to challenge yourself, check out a few of the questions below, then scroll down to see the answers that appeared in The New York Times. (Note: The answers given were the correct answers in 1921, but some may have changed since then. Some questions and answers have been edited lightly for clarity.)

1. What city in the United States is noted for making laundry machines?

2. In what country other than Australia are kangaroos found?

3. What region do we get prunes from?

4. Name a large inland body of water that has no outlet.

5. What state is the largest? The next?

6. What is the name of a famous violin maker?

7. What ingredients are in the best white paint?

8. What causes the tides?

9. To what is the change of seasons due?

10. Who discovered the South Pole?

11. How fast does light travel per foot per second?

12. Of what kind of wood are axe handles made?

13. What cereal is used all over the world?

14. Name three powerful poisons.

15. Why is a Fahrenheit thermometer called Fahrenheit?

Feeling stumped? Scroll down to see the answers.

1. Chicago

2. New Guinea

3. Prunes are grown in the Santa Clara Valley and elsewhere.

4. The Great Salt Lake, for example

5. Texas, then California (Note: Today it's Alaska, then Texas)

6. Stradivarius

7. Linseed oil, with a small percentage of turpentine and liquid dryer, together with a mixture of white lead and zinc oxide

8. The gravitational pull of the moon exerted powerfully on the ocean because of its fluidity, and weakly on the Earth because of its comparative rigidity.

9. To the inclination of the Earth to the plane of the ecliptic. In the Earth's revolution around the Sun, this causes the Sun's rays to be received at varying inclinations, with consequent variations of temperature.

10. Roald Amundsen, and then Robert Falcon Scott

11. Approximately 186,700 miles a second in a vacuum and slightly less through atmosphere.

12. Ash is generally used in the East and hickory in the West.

13. No cereal is used in all parts of the world. Wheat is used most extensively, with rice and corn next.

14. Cyanide of potassium, strychnine, and arsenic are all acceptable answers.

15. It is named after Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit, the German physicist who invented it.

For the full list of questions and answers, check out Paleofuture's article about the test on Gizmodo.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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