How Did They Name That Town?

Photo Courtesy of The City of Unalaska
Fact: There are 28 Springfields in the United States, according to the United States Census Bureau—and that’s not even the most-recurring place name in the country. But for every uninspired destination name, there’s one that’s so wacky, you might wonder whether some town official from way-back-when named it on a dare.

In some cases, that’s not far from the truth. But family names, language gaps and indigenous species have more to do with the far-fetched place names of middle America. Get your trivia fix right here.


Town of Duck in North Carolina started off as an Outer Banks waterfowl hunting haven, and now is a charming beach destination that caters to families. Ironically, Duck has only been an official town for 10 years, so the namesake activity had long since disappeared before its inception...replaced by summer concerts in the amphitheater and family outings to Duck’s Beach.

Luxe Tip: In the heart of Outer Banks’ prime fishing waters, Duck boasts such excellent fishing—inshore, nearshore and offshore—that the local operators publish an aggregate “What’s Biting?” report, sometimes updating it multiple times each week. (Photo courtesy of the Town of Duck)
The community of Chinchilla, Pennsylvania, on the other hand, was named after an animal that never lived there in any quantity. According to a published report in the Northeast Pennsylvania Newsletter, Chinchilla was named by a woman sometime between 1880 and 1890. It might have been a postwoman or a postman’s wife, but either way, it was someone who felt the original name—Leach’s Flats—had to go.

Luxe Tip: Chinchilla is located in Lackawanna County, just northwest of the Poconos—Pennsylvania’s popular tourism destination, equally famous for outdoor recreation and romantic themed inns.

You Wouldn’t Want to Visit the Originals

There are varying accounts of how Hell, Michigan comes to have its name. The most popular is that George Reeves, the most notable of the first settlers and owner of the general store, told Michigan state officials who inquired what to name it, “You can name it Hell for all I care.”

That was in 1841, and well into its second century, the tiny community of Hell has come to not only accept, but love its name. Businesses include Hell in a Handbasket and Hell’s Kitchen—and on the semi-official website, you can buy the honorary title “Mayor of Hell” for a day, for $100.

Luxe Tip: Seeking a more exotic version of Hell? You may prefer the limestone field on Grand Cayman. Though the site itself isn’t accessible on foot, viewing platforms make a fine photo op...and you can get postcards before heading back to your beachfront resort. (Photo courtesy of Hell, Michigan)
Nobody is sure how the borough of Mars, Pennsylvania got its name. The best guess from local historians is, it’s a shortened version of Samuel Marshall, the forefather who helped bring in a post office. Regardless, town kitsch plays up the interplanetary. There’s a flying saucer that moves to different locations around the town—and in case visitors can’t find it, a flying saucer stencil on the welcome sign coming into town.

Luxe Tip: If you’re around Mars for dinner, check out Springfield Grille, a steakhouse with a surprisingly contemporary menu and great value compared to similar restaurants in nearby Pittsburgh. This local gem also does a Sunday champagne brunch. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/macwagen)

Happy Holidays

Valentine is barely a blip on the vast landscape of West Texas—except for a few weeks out of the year, when the post office gets inundated with requests to stamp love letters from Valentine. According to multiple sources, it was named by railroad workers after the day they founded it: February 14.

Luxe Tip: Although neighboring Marfa has gotten a ridiculous amount of national press as an artist colony (and possible paranormal center), the famed “Prada Marfa” installation is actually in Valentine. You can’t miss it. Just look for a Prada storefront surrounded by prairie weeds. (Photo courtesy of Fort Davis CoC)
Not only festively named, the town of Santa Claus, Indiana is also cheerily Christmas-themed, with one tag line being “Celebrate Christmas every day of the year.” According to the official community website, a child suggested the name during a Christmas Eve town hall meeting in 1852. It would take 80 years before anyone started establishing Christmas-themed shops and attractions to go along with the name, but today, there’s Santa Claus Land of Lights, Santa’s Candy Castle and the Santa Claus Museum as well as the official Santa Claus Post Office.

Luxe Tip: If you’re visiting Santa Claus with children (likely), the most memorable moment will probably be a trip to Santa’s Candy Castle. Dating back to 1935, it is an artist-designed “Christmas castle,” complete with turrets and a tower, and filled to bursting with handmade candy. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/gobucks2)
Apparently Christmas Eve is a popular time to name towns: Moravian missionaries named Bethlehem, Pennsylvania based on their German patron’s Christmas Eve sermon in the year it was settled (1741 according to East Pennsylvania historians).

Luxe Tip: Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, the only Las Vegas Sands Corporation property in North America to bear the Sands name, opened gaming facilities in 2009. The Sands Hotel opened mid-2011. (Photo courtesy of Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem)

Misleading Monikers

Were it in any of 49 states, the town of Unalaska wouldn’t raise eyebrows. But no. It’s in Alaska. If this seems like any oxymoron, stop thinking in Latin-based languages and look to the language of the indigenous Aleut. They named it Ounalashka (“near the peninsula”) and in the 1700s, incoming Russian settlers Westernized it to the current spelling.

Luxe Tip: Two great American cultural touchpoints come from the obscure port of Unalaska: The Bering Sea king crab legs that are a menu staple of any steakhouse or seafoodery; and the Discovery Channel tent-pole Deadliest Catch, which pretty much launched the “manly man” craze in reality programming. (Photo courtesy of the City of Unalaska)
Don’t go to Happy, Texas looking for mood enhancement. It got its name because of nearby Happy Draw, a waterway serving cowboys in the mid-1800s. At the turn of the century, there were signs that Happy might boom. It got a post office...but not a railway stop. And thus it remained a small farm town, with a population hovering well below 700. There’s not much to see there besides a grain silo and a welcome sign, but the slogan remains, optimistically, “The Town Without a Frown.”

Luxe Tip: If you’re a fan of the American West, get over to Amarillo, the nearest city to Happy, for the annual Tri-State Fair & Rodeo—largest event in the Texas Panhandle, and famed for its stock show.
And finally, there’s Truth or Consequences, a town name that sounds like a game show, or possibly a Western romance title. Actually it’s the latter. The New Mexico town voted to name itself that in 1950, after radio host Ralph Edwards publicly wished that someone would name their town after his program. Edwards came and broadcast his show live there the same year…and according to the Chamber of Commerce, he returned every year for 50 years.

Luxe Tip: Natural hot springs were the town’s first claim to fame (and first name!) and the most popular hot springs inns are Riverbend Hot Springs, Sierra Grande Lodge & Spa, and quirky new addition Blackstone Hotsprings Lodging & Baths.

Lena Katz

Lena Katz is the author of the Travel Temptations series (SIP, SUN, SNOW), published by Globe Pequot Press in 2009. Lena is also a travel expert for Celebrations/1800FLOWERS and WEtv (online and on-air). She contributes to the South China Morning Post and ABC News online. Lena is a former Orbitz Travel blogger and former columnist for the LA Times. She's been published in Brides Magazine, Robb Rep...(Read More)

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