I Told You They Could Change The Name of Swastika Mountain, and More Ridiculous Oregon Place Names
So, I hear they’re changing the name of ol’ Swastika Mountain.
In a stunning victory for both progressive geography nerds and people who still get upset about things they read in the newspaper, the Oregon Geographic Names Board finally voted to change the name of the mountain southeast of Eugene, thanks to a public campaign by a concerned Lane County citizen named Joyce McClain.
After over 100 years of looking at the word “Swastika” on maps and atlases, the mountain’s new name will reportedly be Mount Halo, after the shortened form of Chief Halito, a leader of the Yoncalla Kalapuya tribe that once lived in the area. (The Oregon Historical Society notes that the chief’s “Native name” was “Cam-a-phee-ma”, but he was otherwise known by the name Halo.) Chief Halo, who died in 1892, already has Halo Rock and Halo Creek named for him, but the renaming of this particular mountain in his honor has elevated him to a place of prominence – at least in terms of Oregon geographic names.
This is a good thing! Naming the mountain for a 19th-century indigenous leader is certainly a whole lot better than “Swastika” – regardless of whether the place was named for a settler-colonist’s cattle brand, an early 20th-century post office, or a Sanskrit symbol for luck and good fortune or whatever people want to argue. As I wrote last year when I first learned of the existence of Swastika Mountain, names are arbitrary and can be changed at any time. I even changed mine! Which means we sure as shit can change the name of mountains.
Granted, it would’ve been better if people hadn’t stolen Chief Halo’s land and exiled his people to reservations away from their ancestral homes. And maybe it might be better if we discussed reparations for all the murdering and colonizing that white settlers have done over the centuries. But, renaming a mountain in Chief Halo’s honor is not a bad thing!
So kudos to the Oregon Geographic Names Board for doing, you know, the bare minimum that’s within their authority to make life just a little bit less awkward for the people of Oregon. Next up, we really should talk about renaming Lane County, because Joseph Lane was a huge piece of shit.
But first, to celebrate this momentous occasion in Oregon geographic history, I thought I might highlight some other silly, ridiculous and downright stupid Oregon place names.
Unlike the last time I did this, I didn’t have to do endless sleuthing through long-since de-indexed webpages chronicling strange Oregon place names, because I have a fun new reference tool.
A few weeks ago, while feeling especially homesick for Oregon, I ordered a copy of Oregon Geographic Names from a rare book store. This is the definitive resource on Oregon place names, compiled first by Lewis A. McArthur before his son Lewis L. McArthur took over the job, and it cost me all of twelve dollars. My copy is the fifth edition, revised in 1982, so it’s fairly out of date – they’re up to the seventh edition now, but good luck finding a copy of that outside a library. It’s published by the Oregon Historical Society and it’s a fun little resource to flip through. Not only are some of the names downright silly, but there’s also a lot to learn about the history of a place simply by knowing the origin of its name.
And I thought I might share a few of my favorites.
None of these are listed in any particular order, and all quotes come from McArthur’s book unless otherwise noted. And finally, I must acknowledge that most of these names are, obviously, chosen by the settler colonists that came on the pioneer trails in the 18th and 19th centuries, and therefore quite problematic. There are certain quotes, you’ll see, that more or less show that Lewis McArthur was a bit of an ass-hat.
Battle Ax, Marion County
This stratovolcano, elevation 5,547 feet, was supposedly named by an unknown woodsman who particularly enjoyed a brand of chewing tobacco called BattleAx, which was popular in the 1890s.
Located at the boundary between the Mount Hood Wilderness and the Willamette National Forest, Battle Ax offers some really lovely views of the Cascades.
Bourbon, Sherman County
“Bourbon you will recognize as the drink of the frontier, the product of good American corn, the elixir of the common man,” McArthur writes. “Some say that when the first construction crew went to Bourbon to stake out the site of the first warehouse, they found a bottle that once contained Bourbon and named the place for that reason. Another story is that the crew built the warehouse a little askew of the railroad and the reason for such lack of constructive ability was laid to a superabundance of Bourbon.”
In short: some pioneers supposedly got drunk and tried to build a train station, and instead of abandoning the project, they just named the place after the liquor they drank.
Sometimes, it feels like a miracle that this country has survived these 246 years.
Do Little Flat
Funny how people want to say that today’s generations are lazy and entitled when 19th-century colonizers could call their homesteads things like “Do Little Flat” and wait around for some rich rancher to buy the land they claimed.
Butte Disappointment, Lane County
This is the butte to the northeast of Lowell that overlooks the town and Dexter Reservoir, so named because a party of settlers led by early settler-colonist Elijah Bristow went looking for a party of indigenous “marauders” (McArthur’s words) but failed to find them. The settler-colonists gave up once they reached the base of this butte, and apparently decided to project their disappointment on this innocent hill.
Cannibal Mountain, Lincoln County
McArthur claims that there’s no explanation for why this mountain in the Coast Range, about five miles south of Tidewater is named Cannibal Mountain.
This writer thinks that McArthur knows more than he’s letting on. And even if McArthur has no idea what happened on Cannibal Mountain… well, I think the rest of us do.
Deathball Rock, Lane County
“This rock is southeast of Blue River,” McArthur notes. “It received its name after an attempt made by a surveying party cook to bake some biscuits. It would appear he was not entirely successful.”
This writer asks: how badly have you ever fucked up making some biscuits?
Dad Spring, Wallowa County
No one ever found the mythical Fountain of Youth, but perhaps this spring near the Oregon-Idaho border is the source of all dads… or at least dad jokes. Named for Ebert B. Wilson, who apparently went by the nickname “Dad” when he settled on this little piece of land in Wallowa County.
Granddad Butte, Douglas County
McArthur says that this mountain was named for an old prospector who the locals only ever knew as “Grandad.” His name, somehow, has been lost to time.
But, I’m here to tell you that I found this old prospector’s name. It’s Gus Chiggins.
Buttermilk Creek, Benton County
According to McArthur, there used to be a successful creamery on the banks of this little creek near Philomath – a creamery so successful that they literally dumped their excess buttermilk into the creek. If you’ve ever smelled buttermilk curdling on a hot summer day, you can understand why the people of Philomath were more than a little upset. They formed a “Smelling Committee” to address the stench, and eventually, the creamery was driven out of business.
Remember that the next time a business in your community disrupts the environment and adversely affects your neighbors because they’re trying to artificially inflate the price of their product.
Dick Point, Tillamook County
Look, sometimes things are just funny, okay? And sometimes, you’re near Tillamook, on the hunt for some excellent cheese, and you see a sign for Dick Point, and you just have to giggle a little bit, okay?
Asbestos, Jackson County
An old village whose post office was closed in 1918, so named because the minerals that make up the general term “asbestos” were found in abundance in the area, specifically near the delightfully named Raspberry Creek.
No word on whether this town has higher rates of mesothelioma than the rest of Jackson County. Maybe James Sokolove knows?
Dread and Terror Ridge, Douglas County
There’s simply no explanation for why this place is called Dread and Terror Ridge that is any cooler than whatever you’ve come up with in your head. Just an objectively great name for a ridge deep in the forest. Evocative. Scary.
Lonely, Lake County
“Little is known about the place called Lonely with its appropriate name,” McArthur writes, and my heart breaks just a little bit.
Eight Dollar Mountain, Josephine County
Adjusting for inflation, it’s actually Two-Hundred Seventy-Eight Dollars and Eighty-Five Cents Mountain.
That’s a stupid joke, but not as stupid as economics.
Horse Heaven, Jefferson County
I think that’s just a nice name, until you find out it’s a ghost town set upon an old mercury mine, and then you get to wondering whether this isn’t the place where horses go to heaven, but the place that sends horses to heaven.
This writer agrees: this mountain is pretty unnecessary, especially considering that there’s a different Unnecessary Mountain up in British Columbia, near Vancouver.
Home, Baker County & Malheur County
Not to be confused with Sweet Home (this writer’s personal favorite Oregon town name).
Confusingly, there were two different places called “Home” in Oregon’s history, according to McArthur. The first was in what’s now Malheur County in the late 19th century, but was eventually overtaken by the sprawling metropolis of Vale.
The second was out in Baker County on the banks of the Snake River. According to lore, the first postmaster there wanted to name the town Marble, but the postal service rejected his request and told him they were going to call it Home because, apparently, the folks at the Postal Service were bored that day.
But, it didn’t really matter, because this Home was eventually drowned beneath the waters of Brownlee Reservoir in 1959.
Liberal, Clackamas County
See, when people say “Oregon is a liberal place,” they actually mean that “there’s a place in Oregon called Liberal.” It’s located in the southeastern edge of Clackamas County, a place where, of course, everyone has extremely liberal views.
Curiously, there’s no record of a place called “Conservative” anywhere in Oregon – further proof of this state’s bias against Republicans and right-wingers. Sad!
Marx, Tillamook County
For once, I am happy to report that Marx, Oregon, was in fact named for Karl Marx, everyone’s favorite German Socialist.
Marx was the original name of Neskowin, the sleepy little seaside town along the 101 in Tillamook County. So, next time you’re taking a trip up the coast, make a stop in Neskowin and read a few lines of Kapital, in honor of our late friend Karl.
Ben Johnson Mountain, Jackson County
I don’t list this name because I think it’s funny, but to draw attention to something McArthur wrote about this place when it was still known by a slur (emphasis mine):
“In 1964, when integration was the watchword, the [United States Board on Geographic Names] in Decision List 6402 changed the name to its present form [that is, from one version of a slur to another]. 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.”
The Oregon Board of Geographic Names changed the name to Ben Johnson Mountain in 2020.
So, get bent, Lewis McArthur.
Jennyopolis, Benton County
This little town south of what is now Corvallis lasted for only five years, between 1852 and 1857. No one seems to know why it was called Jennyopolis.
It’s a stupid name for a town, and I love it.
Big Noise Creek, Clatsop County
Some twenty miles east of Astoria, presumably named because the creek made a big noise. McArthur says it was because there was some sort of logging operation nearby that involved big logs banging into water gates, but this writer will continue to assume that it’s the sound of Bigfoot leaping from a tire swing until proven otherwise.
Poly Top Butte, Deschutes County
You get it.
Popcorn School, Polk County
Listen to this shit:
“The only explanation that the writer has been able to get about the name is to the effect that in early days, a group of rebellious children locked their teacher in the schoolhouse. Fortunately, [the teacher] had some popcorn with him and this he proceeded to pop. The youngsters opened the building to share the treat and thus liberated the resourceful pedagogue.”
What a story, Mark!
Straightsburg, Hood River County
After years of tyrannical oppression at the hands of the LGBTQIA+ community, straight people finally found a place where they could live in peace, far away from the frightful images of rainbow flags and drag queens. They were so excited that they named the place Straightsburg, after Henry D. Straight, the first straight man in Oregon.
Thief Valley, Union County
We know the name of the thief, John Wetherly, who was hanged here in December 1864 for stealing some mules in Boise, Idaho. But we don’t know the name of the person whose mules got stolen.
So, don’t you tell me that a good crime won’t give you a little slice in the annals of history.
Climax, Jackson County
You know what, I don’t have anything left to say.
Instead, read this excerpt from a poem masquerading as a newspaper article published in the Upper Rogue Independent in 1977:
“Several years ago Lester decided he was tired of
taking a bath in the washtub; however, bathtubs were still considered
quite a luxury. Feeling they were unable to afford a “store boughten”
tub, Lester set out to improvise.
With the help of Mabel on
one end of a crosscut saw he felled a very large cedar tree. He
hollowed and sanded on the trunk of the tree until he had fashioned a
quite adequate bathtub.
At the top of the tub where the
faucets extend over it a knot is still visible. The other end is
slanted and Mabel said when the kids were little they would soap it up
and have great fun sliding down into the water.
The tub is now painted pink, but when they get tired of the color Mabel just repaints it.
spring the Wertzs will celebrate 60 years of marriage. Most of those 60
years have been spent in the serene meadows and hills of Climax.
Mrs. Warlow applied for the post office, she debated on calling it
Chimney Rock or Climax. Possibly she called it Climax because it was
the end of the road, but to the Wertzs it has been more like the end of