HOW ARE RIVERS NAMED “LOST” WHEN IT CLEARLY ISN’T LOST?
“There is that fucking, Lost River again!” I was incredulous, “this is the most winningest of lost rivers.” How are rivers named such that a seemingly prominent river can be given such an unassuming moniker?
Recently I was traveling with my wife on an unexpected highway in the Allegheny Highlands of West Virginia an hour or so west of Front Royal. You don’t expect the highway as you wind up on it directly after a mountain pass crossing Virginia’s border into West Virginia.
You enter the quaint little West Virginia town of Wardensville, where there is an unexplained giant chicken sculpture on the side of the road. Oh, and nearby the chicken is an impressive cow-cowboy sculpture at the Lost River Trading Post. The cow wears cowboy boots and a cowboy hat.
And then suddenly, you are on a four-lane highway with signs suggesting you abruptly accelerate to 65 mph. Drop the hammer, grandma’.
I must not have accelerated quickly enough as a train of cars, not known for their speed, whizzed by us in the passing lane. When I saw a Datsun pickup shoot by me, I knew that I must have been going well under the speed limit.
In my defense, it is breathtakingly beautiful out there.
HOW ARE RIVERS NAMED, “LOST” — IT MAKES THEM SAD
We soon passed a sign before a bridge proclaiming the “Lost River.”
Immediately I began to feel sorry for this river, like a flowing Little Orphan Annie. She just needs a home, someone to love her.
Perhaps someone settled there and got lost in the woods and would never find their new home again? The lost settler left it all at that lost river, his rosebud.
No, the river must be tiny, so infinitesimal it barely deserves a sign noting its existence. It must be – we began to cross more bridges with more of those little green river name signs that all read “Lost River.” Three signs more proclaiming this lost river. Then a more massive brown sign heralding a state park named after the river.
This is horseshit! If you have not one but four signs and a goddamn state park marking what is ostensibly a misplaced river, it’s not missing anymore.
And then you found it again. Oh, and look, here is the damn misplaced river also. Oh, and I forgot, look the cowboy-cow under a business named after the supposed lost river.
It also didn’t occur to me the river was snaking under the highway every few miles.
WHO THE HELL NAMED EVERYTHING?
The reason the name is “Lost River” appears to be because it passes underneath a mountain, going underground and becoming another river on the other side of Shady Ridge. And that makes sense, but who gives a shit.
“This river is not lost!” I kept repeating on our drive, enough that my wife finally asked me to please shut up.
So, who the hell has been naming the stretches of water that take up 2.9 million miles in the United States alone? How are rivers named?
Undoubtedly many of the names come from the folks who lived here long before the ships from Europe began showing up. “The name ‘Mississippi’ comes from the Anishinabe people (Ojibwe Indians.) They called the river ‘Messipi’ or ‘Mee-zee-see-bee,” which means ‘Big River’ or ‘Father of Waters.'”
Undoubtedly some dumb-ass names stuck as well. And with apologies to the folks of Lizard Lick, NC – if you are allowing a “passing observer” to entomb the name of your town in perpetuity, there is something wrong.
What if this passing observer hadn’t noticed the masticatory muscles of a bunch of squamate reptiles? Say, instead, he saw two dogs mating?
Or worse, someone invents a time machine to kidnap the “passing observer” so the time traveler could then wander about the future town observing aloud of all the brothels and buttcracks. Bordello-ee Buttcrack, NC, could be the result.
Apparently, my imagined scatological time-traveler has already struck England.
LET’S MAKE YOUR DUMB NAME OFFICIAL
And then all the geographic names appear to flow through the BGN, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. The BGN is a Federal body whose creation in 1890 was to establish and maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the Federal Government. Apparently, not having a consistent way of naming geographic features caused all kinds of problems.
I guess snags probably arose for colonial punks who wanted to duel their asses off at such and such river. And when both men show up with their muskets at the wrong place, they probably realize how bad it sucks being born pre-mapquest.
So, with an executive order, President Benjamin Harrison tried to rectify all of it with the creation of the BGN.
Now every god-fearing, witch-fearing, and apparently not musket ball-fearing gentleman could take 10 paces and blow the shit out of the other’s head in the right place on the map.
LETS STANDARDIZE HOW RIVERS AND SUCH ARE NAMED
So, the BGN standardized maps. And scratch that, I guess Americans were over all those occult fears by then. They didn’t seem to have an issue with Satans Kingdom, VT.
The BGN also let our forebears heap on the dumb. For example, a creek flows into the Colorado River named “No Name Creek.”
Someone in history had a chance to name that stretch of water after their mother or their horse or whatever they had for breakfast that morning. “Snake Egg n’ Beans Creek” sounds way, way better.
We could even borrow our kidnapped wandering lizard aficionado from a few paragraphs above, drop him off in Colorado, and get a better name. He’d probably call the place “Big Mountains Nearby Creek,” or “I’ve Been Kidnapped and Dropped Off in the Middle of What Will Become Colorado Apparently, Send Help, Creek.” Both of which would be endlessly better.
LOOK AT ME ANOTHER ODD TOWN NAME BLOG
In any case, our No Name Creek flows the stupid into a town whose name is also “No Name.”
Look, I know there have been enough virtual-ink to flood the earth with silly town name blogs. So I guess I should just board my own virtual ark of STFU and float my way out on No Name.
But those same historical rat-bastards at the BGN had a chance to give “No Name” an actual name when they realized someone would soon be ordering a sign that would sit on the highway flagging itself as the “No Name” town to all travelers.
All of those parents traveling the country in their station wagons with their children sitting unrestrained in the cargo area pumping their fists at truckers to get a honk. “Wouldja’ look at that silly named, Colorado town, pa!”
I HOPE YOU GET INTO ACCIDENT
Maybe they would eventually make it as far east as Accident, Maryland. Local Accidentals could tell this station wagon of unrestrained children the history of their town that actually stemmed from an accident. And hopefully, for the kid’s sake, they wouldn’t get into an actual accident on the highway.
Basically, the same folks who drove us around the country without seatbelts in the 70s and 80s are the children of the people who made the silly names of the geography around us official.
So, when our parents claim they know better, we need to remind them that they were the same folks that concocted a bunk system in our minivan for sleeping on long trips. Where two kids get the seats, and a cot is placed overtop both for the final kid. A highway accident would have meant a headbutt to the driver before sliding out the front windshield into oblivion. Great idea, dad!
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
In the 90s, a river ran through mine and all of the rest of our lives around us. We lived just below the Savanah near Augusta, Georgia. And the whims of that pleasantly named river were always on our collective minds.
We frolicked in the waters of the Savanah made reservoir, Clarks Hill Lake. Kiss my ass, Thurmond! And btw good luck on renaming it, Sean from Evans (as we’ll see below).
Come to think of it, most of the river names in the south were pleasant. But really, that could just have been my youthful ignorance and childhood magic clouding my thinking today.
It was more likely the juxtaposition of the river names I was introduced to when my parents moved us from the gentile south to upstate New York.
There, a new prominent river ran through my life, to the east of our Albany area home, the Hudson.
I remember driving the roadways in the northeast. And I would openly remark to whomever, “what the hell is wrong with all the rivers up here?”
NEW YORK MURDER RIVERS
The rivers go hard in New York. Stories of bodies floating in the East River are cliché outside of the Empire State.
And yet the “I Love New York” crowd can’t be happy that someone in New York’s past named all the rivers some flavor of murder.
“Kill” seems to be part of every Tom, Dick, and Norman waterway in the area. Literally, there is a Normans Kill. Wallkill, Batten Kill, Fishkill, or my favorite the internet villain name generator candidate, the Kill Van Kull. How are rivers named? In New York with a butcher knife it seems.
And that’s just a sample. I’ve left out all of the other assorted homicide waterways.
Speaking of manslaughter, I remember going on a date in the 90s to the Robert Redford film, A River Runs Through It. It was playing at Crossgates Mall, and the date wasn’t actually a date. I was out with my sister and her friend, whom I was hoping to date.
DATES THAT AREN’T DATES AT RIVER MOVIES
The semi-autobiographical film is about two brothers in Montana who like to fly fish the crap out of a river with their dad while speaking earnestly, a whole lot.
It was boring as shit.
Granted, the hypnotic fly fishing scenes are well worth the admission price – I was 16 and would have preferred to be next door for the screen showing Under Seige. I could just make out the muffled screams of slaughtered bad guys booming from the speakers in the auditorium to my right.
In A River Runs Through It, Brad Pitt plays Paul Maclean, who unfortunately was unsolved murdered.
Even at 16, and not an expert on acting, I remember thinking, wow, this dude is a good actor, and this movie is boring as shit.
Muffled bang! Another mercenary dropped by Steven Segal, who plays a Navy Seal, relegated to personal cook of the captain on the USS Missouri. It gives the movie a running gag of how easily he is murdering all these mercenaries when “he’s just a cook!”
Did you know the Missouri is the largest river in the United States and the fourth-longest river in the world? The name ‘Missouri’ is derived from the Missouri tribe name, meaning ‘people with wooden canoes.’
“He’s so hot, right?” my not really date, date asks me during a hypnotic fly fishing scene. “Even as a guy, you should be able to admit that he is hot.”
“No, I don’t need to admit that.” It was all a bit emasculating for a 16-year-old to admit that the dreamy river movie actor was, in fact, dreamy. “He’s handsome, for sure,” I allowed.
“He’s hot,” she reiterated.
SO, YOU WANT TO CHANGE HOW RIVERS ARE NAMED LIKE CHANGING THE SUBJECT
As easy as it must have been for our forefathers to name a geographic feature something silly, and I’m looking at you Wateree River in South Carolina… Which, now that I look online, it appears that the river wasn’t named for its wetness but a now extinct tribe (yeesh, history with its landmines).
I bet it is a bitch to have any of these names change now. The BGN openly “discourages name changes unless necessary” and “there must be a compelling reason and evidence of support for the change.”
BGN has an information packet and proposal form for you to download if you feel brave. Try renaming your local creek, Battlestar Galacticreek.
And speaking of historical landmines, at one point in Washington state, there existed an N-word Creek. Which, among other N-Word named geography across the USA, was renamed “Negro” to be less offensive. Great job, 1960s bureaucrats!
Recently, Vice told the story of a geologist who tried to unracism that Washington creek even after being warned that it would be a laborious process. And it took a whole year for his proposal to find success.
YOU WANT TO CALL THAT MOUNTAIN WHAT?!
Or take Negro Ben Mountain, just one state below. “Negro Ben Mountain” also was the less offensive name iteration for that mountain. It appears to have taken a very long time to remove the “Negro” and add the gentleman’s actual last name to the mountain.
So, a geologist needs a year to convince a bunch of other geologists to rename slur creek. And apparently, it took forever to finally get to Ben Johnson Mountain.
But at least those changes were successful. Vice also notes a former head of the Texas NAACP whose attempts to rename “Dead Negro Draw,” “Negro Bend,” and “Negro Gully” weren’t so successful.
MAYBE WE’RE ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION
I feel like we give all of the fun of naming shit over to people who at best probably didn’t know what a tomato was. We’re handing the keys of christening to people who didn’t love pizza (the way I do).
Oh, but these creeks and crevices have had these names since, forever, we can’t change them now. Think of the history!
Let’s not give too much weight to our forebears. These were the same folks that at best drove us, newborns, home from the hospital while sitting in their passenger seat unrestrained, holding us in one arm while smoking a cigarette. It is a miracle any of us made it out of the 70s and 80s alive.
How are rivers named? Maybe the operative terms should be when and who. When were these rivers named? And was it an asshole that named it?
Suppose no one had bothered naming the Susquehanna River until 1980. In that case, it might have been the “YOU ASSHOLE SCIENTISTS ALMOST BLEW UP PENNSYLVANIA River.”
Nope. Instead, we somehow have many cringe-worthy place-names, and to top that off, more than one “Negro Creek” still officially making its way through our country. Looking at you Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, North Carolina, South Dakota.
Battlestar Galacticreek sounds waaaay better now, doesn’t it?
And suddenly, the wandering traveler in North Carolina baptizing a town forever in lizard lore doesn’t seem like such a silly or bad thing. A lost river is not such a sad thing. And No Name is a perfectly swell name.
TERMINAR EL RÍO
I must also point out that while my father put me in some precarious spots on road trips, he would be just as flummoxed with how rivers are named. And not have been cool with grossly named creeks.
Do you have any crazy road trip memories from the 80s, or have you tried renaming something using the BGN’s proposal forms? Did you love A River Runs Through It? Let me know below.
Oh and 2022 update here, looks like a task force has been set up to rename 660 geographic features across the country to remove some of the slurs from our maps. Maybe I can eventually update the title of my blog to “how dumb asses used to name rivers.”