On November 25, 2015 · 0 Comments

A visitor landed on Twelve Mile Circle from Surprise. That was the actual name of the town; Surprise, Arizona. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised because more than a hundred thousand people lived there, yet I’d never heard of it. I also learned during my search that Surprise was a surprisingly common designation with 238 surprises lurking in the Geographic Names Information System alone. They included mountains, lakes, mines, basins, beaches, and of course populated places as well as just about every other feature imaginable. I picked a select few for further exploration and then moved on to a couple of international examples.

Surprise, Arizona

Naturally I wondered how a town could become a Surprise (map) and fortunately it provided a handy explanation.

Our city of over 120,000 people was just one square mile of farmland back in 1938 when Flora Mae Statler founded it. So why did she call us Surprise? According to Statler’s daughter Elizabeth Wusich Stoft, her mother once commented "she would be surprised if the town ever amounted to much." With our success, she would indeed be surprised and proud!

Surprise became one of the fastest growing cities in Arizona, a state already noteworthy for its remarkable growth. The US Census Bureau reported only thirty thousand residents as of 2000. Its recent growth could only be described as explosive.

A name like surprise offered opportunities for puns and odd juxtapositions. For instance the town held an annual Surprise party that wasn’t actually a surprise party. It was always announced ahead of time (December 4-5 this year). They also had a Surprise Women’s Heritage Trail. In most places, surprising women on a trail might become a matter for the police instead of a recognition of women’s history.

Surprise, Nebraska

Surprise, Nebraska Center Street 2
Surprise, Nebraska Center Street 2 on Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain

Events unfolded in a less pleasant surprise for the Surprise in Nebraska. It started well enough in the 19th Century according to Virtual Nebraska.

It wasn’t until 1881 that George Miller and several members of his family decided to built a dam on the small, spring-fed stream not far from the headwaters of the Big Blue River. They hoped to be able to impound enough water to operate a grist mill. It is said that Miller was not only pleased, but also quite surprised to get enough water power for such an enterprise, so he gave his mill the name "Surprise."

The settlement grew into a nice town (map) a few years later when the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad Company laid tracks through the area and built a depot there. Then Surprise began to suffer like much of the Great Plains with a slow outward migration of its residents. Peaking with a population above three hundred, Surprise declined with every Census starting in 1910, leaving only 43 souls at the 2010 Census.

Surprise Valley, California

Surprise Valley Cedarville trading post CA (0858)
Surprise Valley Cedarville trading post CA by Don Barrett on Flickr (cc)

I shifted to a larger geographic footprint for the third example, a 70 by 10 mile (112 by 16 kilometre) area in northern California called Surprise Valley, sandwiched between the Warner and Hayes mountain ranges (map). It encompassed several rural towns in Modoc County, including Cedarville, Eagleville, Fort Bidwell and Lake City.

The local Chamber of Commerce described how the area came to be settled.

A bad drought that occurred in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys in 1864 caused much of the livestock there to perish. Owners offered up to half their cattle herds to anyone who would take the animals into the high country to grass and water. Men who saw this as an opportunity to have their own ranches and herds recalled the big grassy valley they had passed through while on the wagon train to California.

I also found a Bureau of Land Management brochure that offered an explanation for the name. Prospectors heading towards the California goldfields suffered immense hardships as they trudged overland through the hostile Great Basin. "It was a welcome and unexpected surprise to see the trees, good water and grassy meadows in the valley below the high mountains we now call the Warners."

Mount Surprise, Queensland

Undara Lave Tubes-20
Undara Lava Tubes by Gouldy99 on Flickr (cc)

I found plenty of other surprises outside of the United States including Mount Surprise (map) in Queensland, Australia. It was a mountain, for sure, as well as a nearby town with the same name. They were set pretty much in the middle of nowhere, with the town becoming a home for fewer than two hundred. Tourists traveled there for fossicking. I had no idea what fossicking entailed so I looked it up. It was an Australian term for prospecting, much to my disappointment. People liked to search for gemstones at Mount Surprise. If not, they could explore lava tubes at nearby Undara Volcanic National Park.

Explore Australia discussed the name.

Mount Surprise is a historic rail town in the Gulf Savannah. Its name comes from the surprise the Aboriginal people felt when they were resting at the base of the mountain and the loud white people of Ezra Firth’s pioneer party arrived in 1864.

That seemed more than a little bogus to me although I couldn’t find a better explanation.

Surprise, Saskatchewan

I didn’t want 12MC readers in Canada to feel left out in the cold so I selected a surprise there, too. Surprise, Saskatchewan (map) barely existed although the Canadian Geographical Names Data Base still included an entry for it. The Rural Municipality (RM) of Enterprise No. 142 had only 160 residents and most of them lived in Richmound ("The Town With U In It"). Surprise? Maybe just a few buildings, mostly overgrown by prairie. The video I found claimed that the original settlers were surprised to find a complete lack of trees which surprised me because the prairie wasn’t exactly known for trees.

This Surprise shouldn’t be confused with the Rural Municipality of Surprise Valley No. 9, located farther south in Saskatchewan along the US Border.

So many surprises.

Directional Upstart Eclipses Namesake

On September 23, 2015 · 14 Comments

Loyal reader Cary suggested an article idea that built upon a previous topic, Upstart Eclipses Namesake. In that previous posting I offered "new" places that grew more prominent than their original namesakes. Examples I proposed included New Zealand (vs. Zealand), New South Wales (vs. South Wales) and others. There were several comments and a lively discussion — for instance the relative prominence of New Jersey and Jersey seemed to depend upon the side of the Atlantic of one’s abode — and it was all good fun.

Cary’s proposal took these efforts in a different direction, literally. Instead of new places, what if we looked at directional places instead? For example, suppose there was a town of Podunk and later a new settlement grew just to its north, and people lacking originality or hoping to ride Podunk’s coattails decided to call it North Podunk. Then suppose, over time North Podunk continued to grow until it eventually became significantly larger than Podunk. Cary was even kind enough to provide examples. I’m going to simply plagiarize Cary’s ideas in a callous manner, wrap a little text around them and call it a day. I like articles where someone else provides the hard part and I get to take a small break. Keep those ideas and suggestions coming!

Palm Beach vs. West, North and South Palm Beach, Florida

Palm Beach - "Whitehall" (Flagler Mansion)
Palm Beach – "Whitehall" (Flagler Mansion) by Roger W on Flickr (cc)

Palm Beach, that ritzy settlement on a sandy stretch of barrier island on the Atlantic side of south Florida, traced its founding back to the efforts of Henry Flagler. He was one of those Gilded Age gazillionaires at the tail end of the Nineteenth Century with abundant money to burn. Anyone familiar with Florida history should recognize the Flagler name. It’s everywhere. He laid the Florida East Coast Railway along the length of the state and plopped a string of luxury hotels down the tracks to Key West. He, maybe more than anyone else should be credited with opening Florida to mass tourism and settlement. Palm Beach was a crown jewel, the place he chose to build his winter mansion Whitehall in 1902 (map).

The opulence and wealth of Palm Beach attracted his well-heeled peers, however supply-and-demand with geography created limitations. There was only so much land available on a thin strip of barrier island. Parcels became obscenely expensive as wealthy industrialists seized the best spots for competing displays of extravagance. Those of lesser means built nearby in other directions, principally west across a narrow channel on the mainland. They still wanted to grasp a bit of the "exclusivity" of the Palm Beach brand, however. Thus grew additional towns of West Palm Beach, North Palm Beach and South Palm Beach. West Palm Beach has ten times more residents (about a hundred thousand) than Palm Beach (a little less than ten thousand). North Palm Beach is slightly larger (about twelve thousand). Only South Palm Beach has fewer residents (about fifteen hundred).

Certainly West Palm Beach overshadowed Palm Beach by population. However Palm Beach could still take some consolation. It’s most recent median annual family income was $137,867 while West Palm Beach was only $42,074.

Orange vs. West, East and South Orange, New Jersey

East Orange Station
East Orange Station by Adam Moss on Flickr (cc)

The story of "The Oranges" — and that’s how the collection of New Jersey’s orange-named places are often grouped — was quite a bit different. Why Orange? Like many places named Orange it referred to William III of England, a.k.a. William of Orange. A group of breakaway Puritans left the New Haven Colony in Connecticut in 1666 and settled in lands that would later become Newark and the Oranges (map). According to the City of Orange Township, the area composing the Oranges served as an agricultural portion of Newark. The interests of the two began to diverge by the end of the Eighteenth Century, with Orange finally detaching in 1806. Internal rifts appeared within Orange over the next few decades and it too split not long after earning town status in 1860.

… Orange was permitted to establish fire, police, street and other town departments. On March 13, 1860, Dr. William Pierson was elected as the first Mayor of the Town of Orange. Almost immediately, the new town began fragmenting into smaller independent communities primarily because of local disputes about the costs of establishing the new departments. The other areas separated from the Town of Orange…

That resulted in four Oranges: Orange, West Orange, East Orange and South Orange. Today Orange has about thirty-thousand residents, West Orange has about forty-five thousand, East Orange has about sixty-five thousand and South Orange has about fifteen thousand. Thus, two of the three directional Oranges grew larger than Orange.

Demographically the Oranges are starkly divided.

Orange and East Orange are relatively urban and working-class, while South Orange and West Orange remain affluent suburban enclaves. In addition, the residents of Orange and East Orange are predominantly African American (75.1% and 89.5%, respectively), while those of South Orange and West Orange are predominantly white.

Battleford vs. North Battleford, Saskatchewan

Downtown North Battleford
Downtown North Battleford by waferboard on Flickr (cc)

Battleford in Saskatchewan provided another interesting tale. First I wondered about its name. Was there really a battle on a ford or was it simply some Englishman’s surname that transposed to the colonies and found its way to the Canadian prairie? Battleford (map) sat near the confluence of the North Saskatchewan and Battle Rivers, and a ford actually existed there. That solved part of the mystery. Also the "battle" wasn’t a single clash, rather it reflected an ongoing series of conflicts between Cree and Blackfoot tribes within the larger geographic footprint. Learning that, I felt comfortable and could move on with my investigation.

Poor Battleford. It should have risen to such greater prominence. Things began well at its founding in 1875 and soon it became the capital of the North-West Territories. Then came the railroad. Originally the Canadian Pacific Railway would have passed directly through Battleford, cementing its future.

But in 1881 the community’s destiny was altered with the federal government’s abrupt decision to alter the route of the trans-continental railway to cross the southern plains: as a consequence, the territorial capital was officially transferred to Regina in 1883…

Then, to add insult to injury, the Canadian Northern Railway came along in 1905 and built a line to Edmonton, placing its route on the other side of the river from Battleford. Naturally a new settlement migrated there and became North Battleford, soon eclipsing the original Battleford. Current Battleford has about five thousand residents compared to North Battleford with at about fifteen thousand. Battleford could have been Saskatchewan’s capital. Instead it became North Battleford’s smaller cousin.


Cary offered several other examples although I got tired of typing:

  • North Richland Hills vs. Richland Hills in Texas
  • North Tonawanda vs. Tonawanda in New York
  • West Covina vs. Covina in California
  • West Babylon vs. Babylon in New York

I’m sure the 12MC audience can find others. Thanks Cary!

Snipp, Snapp, Snorum, Hej Basalorum

On June 22, 2014 · 2 Comments

I don’t think I’ve ever milked three articles from a single small town before. Earl Grey, a village in Saskatchewan struck the trifecta once I considered it’s origin though. I’d mentioned in the previous article that one source said, "the district was then known as Snorum." Did anyone else find that amusing? Snorum. It sounded like it must have been the most boring spot on the planet, so boring it put people into a snoring sleep.(¹) The unnamed Canadian Pacific Railroad official who suggested Earl Grey as a preferable name did the town a favor.

Earl Grey, formerly Snorum, Saskatchewan, Canada

That same source From Buffalo Grass to Wheat: a History of Long Lake District noted that Earl Grey settlers came from "… Austria, Germany, England and Scotland. Others came from Ireland, Norway, France, Sweden and eastern Canada." I never did discover the source of the original name, Snorum. I think the Swedish settlers may have been responsible. Let me explain.

Snipp, Snapp, Snorum, Hej Basalorum

"Snipp, Snapp, Snorum, Hej Basalorum" was a common Swedish children’s rhyme of the period, and may still be for all I could determine. I couldn’t find a literal Swedish translation for this nonsensical string of words. Apparently it wasn’t much more meaningful than all of the words happened to flow well together. It wouldn’t be any sillier than something the "Nanny nanny boo-boo" uttered by American schoolchildren. Kids are like that.

The chant derived from a Danish phrase, "Snip-snap snurre, basselurre." used similarly. The Danish version even appeared in a Hans Christian Andersen story, "Hørren" (the Flax). In it, the phrase appeared three times as the flax was harvested, turned to linen, used as an undergarment, cut to rags, turned into paper, and printed into a book. Each time it was reborn for a new purpose until it was burned finally at the very end of its long, productive lifespan.

I consulted a Danish dictionary and found a better explanation. Translation software provided an approximation of its original meaning. Life is a Snip, a Snap and a Snurre (to spin). Death is a Basselurre. The dictionary went on to explain that Basselurre was a meaningless word (et meningsløst ord) that simply completed the children’s rhyme of life and death. That seemed to be a pretty grim topic for a child’s chant — confrontation with one’s own mortality.

Snip, Snap, Snorum also became a card game at least as far back as the 18th Century and probably earlier.

The Villages of Snipp, Snapp, Snorum, Hej and Basalorum

Snipp, Snapp, Snorum, Hej Basalorum

Thanks for bearing with the tangent. I had to go through that elaborate explanation to tie the topic back to geography.

I uncovered a Swedish-language description of the towns of Snipp, Snapp, Snorum, Hej and Basalorum, which I shall paraphrase as best I can. An iron ore mining company wished to open new facilities near Jörn in northern Sweden, in 1836. Few people lived there at the time, however, and the company wouldn’t have enough miners.

Hej14aug2010” by Enar NordvikOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Thus, Five villages were created, Snipp, Snapp, Snorum, Hej and Basalorum, each named for a different word in the children’s rhyme. Mining in the adjacent area petered-out quickly and the settlements never amounted to much, although the mere fact that someone named them like this was fantastic. Most of the settlements were never more than a cluster of homes or farms. Hej was probably the only one that became a true village.

Now to search for towns in North America named Nanny-Nanny and Boo-Boo.

(¹) When I was young and whenever we happened to be driving in Virginia’s exurbs outside of Washington, DC, and spotted the control tower at Dulles International Airport, my dad would always say: "That’s the world’s most boring airport. Why? Because it’s the dullest (for the 12MC audience that doesn’t speak English natively, it’s a play on words). That, or he’d call it the "Golf Ball Hall of Fame" (look at the tower and you’ll understand why). I think it’s mandatory for all fathers to tell bad jokes.

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