I’ve been fixated on the origins of unusual town names the last few days. First I unraveled the mystery of Snowflake; now I took aim at King of Prussia. A bunch of questions came to mind. Why would someone name a place King of Prussia? Did it refer to a specific king? Why not just name it after the guy instead of referring to him so generally?
US Route 422. Photo by Montgomery County Planning Commission on Flickr (cc)
Twenty miles northwest of downtown Philadelphia, where the Pennsylvania Turnpike converges with the Schuylkill Expressway, a sleepy rural town clustered around a colonial-era tavern expanded massively in the twentieth century to become the region’s largest employment hub outside of Center City Philadelphia.
That could have described perhaps a thousand other places in the United States too, although only one had the strange name. King of Prussia began as an inconsequential village only to be engulfed by the sprawl of a larger city, then transformed into an economic power in its own right. That still didn’t explain its name.
Friedrich Zweite on Wikimedia Commons. In the public domain.
It didn’t take long to track down the King of Prussia in question. It did refer to a specific Prussian king, Frederick II, often called Frederick the Great. Nobody seemed to know why he got the nod in Pennsylvania and various theories floated about the Intertubes. The area went by Reeseville when the original Quaker settlers moved there in the early 18th Century. The name flipped to King of Prussia sometime during or right after the Revolutionary War. Many Americans thought highly of Frederick II because he supported the Revolution from its earliest days. Also, it may have been a gesture of thanks to General von Steuben of Prussia who trained the Continental Army at nearby Valley Forge. Either way, the name probably arose from patriotic sentiments of local residents as the United States fought for and gained its independence.
However, the town did not really get its name from the Frederick the Great. Not directly, anyway. In an odd twist, the name actually came from a local establishment, the King of Prussia Inn.
The original Inn was constructed as a cottage in 1719… The cottage was converted to an inn in 1769 and was important in colonial times as it was approximately a day’s travel by horse from Philadelphia… General George Washington first visited the tavern on Thanksgiving Day in 1777 while the Continental Army was encamped at Whitemarsh…
The Inn (map) remained a local fixture and lent its name to the surrounding area, which also came to be known as King of Prussia. Despite its historical significance, the King of Prussia Inn sat abandoned for much of the last half of the 20th Century, trapped on a traffic island on US Highway 202. The state of Pennsylvania moved it to its present location in 2000. After an extensive restoration, it became the home of the King of Prussia Chamber of Commerce.
A cathedral to Consumerism aka King of Prussia Mall.
Photo by Thomas Mathie on Flickr (cc)
Most people today, if they knew anything about King of Prussia, probably associated it with its oversized mall. This behemoth housed more than 450 stores in a footprint stretching nearly 3 million square feet. That put it in second place in the United States behind only the Mall of America in Minnesota. From humble inn, to village, to suburb and mega-mall, King of Prussia underwent crazy changes during its history.
The View from Craig. Photo by Joseph on Flickr (cc)
I didn’t discover any other "King of [wherever]" locations in the United States. However I did find a prince, the Prince of Wales in Alaska. Sure, I expected Prince of Wales to appear in the Commonwealth of Nations — and indeed the name appeared all over — although I didn’t expect it in the U.S. Nonetheless, Alaska offered the Prince of Wales–Hyder Census Area, which also included Prince of Wales Island. The island’s largest settlement at Craig (map) included 1,200 residents.
A king ranked above a prince, I supposed.