What's in a name? Alaska landmarks have quirky monikers

FAIRBANKS — Until recently, I didn’t know Alaska had a Wall of China, Washington Monument Rock, Vancouver Island, river Styx, Hell’s Kitchen, Grand Canyon, Chinatown, or 12 Long Islands, seven Crater Lakes and three Death Valleys.

These exotic Alaska locations are all part of Donald Orth’s Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, which LoAnna Savage of Craig, Alaska, inspired me to open when she wrote to tell me of her interest in the origins of Alaska place names. She didn’t ask about how Craig came to be, but her town was first named “Fish Egg” after a nearby island, later adopted the name “Craig Miller” after a cannery operator, then dropped his last name when the post office came to town in 1912.

Orth’s book, a government document last updated in 1971, is full of revelations, including the fact that Alaska “is a corruption.”

Orth explained: “The name and its application to the State and peninsula was well established in the late 1880s when W.H. Dall wrote: ‘This name, now applied to the whole of our new territory, is a corruption, very far removed from the original word . . . called by the natives Al-ak-shak or Al-ay-ek-sa . . . From Alayeksa the name became . . . Alaksa, Alashka, Aliaska, and finally Alaska.’”

William Dall explored and mapped much of Alaska during the late 1800s, and he is one of the many eclectic sources for Alaska place names, most of which were bestowed by Natives, seafaring Russians, Britons, Spaniards, French and Italians, and the ubiquitous gold miners who followed them. By my count, Dall is the person whose name remains on the most features in Alaska: two mountains, a bay, a glacier, a lake, a ridge, a river and a point of land jutting into the Bering Sea, which is one of four places named for explorer Vitus Bering. Bering was the first non-Native to spot Alaska, when in 1728 he named St. Lawrence Island.

Politics played a role in some of the biggest names in Alaska. Fairbanks began life as “Barnette’s Cache,” which was accurate and descriptive, then took its current name in 1902 “to honor Charles Warren Fairbanks,” a senator from Indiana. The village of Dillingham was named for a Vermont senator who had toured the state in 1903, and the Koyukuk River village of Hughes took its name after a governor of New York.

In 1896, a prospector named William A. Dickey kindled one of the state’s enduring debates when he named the tallest mountain in North America “after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the presidency, and that fact was the first news we received on our way out of that wonderful wilderness.” In 1943, members of the U.S. Army Alaskan Test Expedition named a prominent feature on the mountain Denali Pass “so that the old Indian name for McKinley would forever be preserved on a prominent feature near the top of the peak.”

Mount Hunter, one of Mt. McKinley’s lovely neighbors, owes its name to a 1906 mistake by R.W. Porter of the U.S. Geological Survey. Porter labeled the 14,573-foot peak “Mount Hunter” when the real Mount Hunter stood about 9 miles southeast. A New Yorker who visited the area in 1903 named the smaller mountain in honor of his aunt, Anna Hunter, who had paid for his trip to Alaska.

Many Native names survived the rush of white exploration; one of them might be the longest name in Orth’s dictionary—the Nunathloogagamiutbingoi Dunes, which extend for three miles along the southeast coast of Nunivak Island.

Some of my favorite Alaska names speak for themselves: Lost Temper Creek, named by a geologist in 1950 “because of a camp incident;” Mishap Creek, named by a man who stripped naked to cross a creek, then watched his clothes disappear downstream as he attempted to throw them across; Odor Creek, which smelled of petroleum; and the Ribdon River, named by USGS scientists in 1951 because “one of the geologists named Don had a rib injury.”

This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.