Woe be Washington: In place names we tell it like it is
Taking history into account, the real wonder is not that so many place names have dreary connotations, but that more of them do not.
WHATEVER THEY'RE paying Carol Zahorsky to lure the world's tourists to the Long Beach Peninsula might not be enough.
Not that Long Beach itself is a bad place. It's just that, when she sits down to type a tourism brochure, the publicist for the Pacific County coastal tourist mecca starts with a serious handicap: a plethora of place names that seem to come straight out of "The Gloomy Gus Roadside Guide to America."
Imagine, if you will, the travel package the woman who contributes to the local visitors bureau website, funbeach.com, could throw together just by pulling in points of interest within a half-hour of the town:
Moms and Dads: Kids all primed for summer-vacation adventure? What better way to reward that anticipation than an unforgettable week at ... Cape Disappointment!
Thrill to the experience of climbing aboard this big, rocky bluff, its sheer, perilous cliffs often battered by rain and hurricane-force winds! From the top, hang onto your hat and drink in the view of Deadman's Cove, right next door!
Have a second day? Road trip! Take a short trek down Highway 401 — and 200 years back in time — to a fun-filled picnic lunch at Dismal Nitch! Lewis and Clark's last campsite on their way west was its own little hell, with expedition members experiencing weeks of driving rain so incessant it rotted the clothing right off their backs!
Day three: A trek across the Megler Bridge to Astoria's Maritime Museum, a place permeated with the stench of death emanating from relics of ships that went down in the Graveyard of the Pacific, the violent waters at the mouth of the Columbia River...
You get the point: Take that, Never Never Land. Nonstop fun for the whole family.
Zahorsky has no choice but to laugh it all off. The entirety of Washington state, it turns out, is rife with woe-is-moi place names. She tries to use her area's unusual concentration of them as a sales tool.
"I think our interesting place names are actually an advantage," she says with a laugh.
She notes that Washington State Parks, in conjunction with the 2005 bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, changed the name of former Fort Canby State Park to Cape Disappointment for a reason: It was a bow to history, replacing the moniker of a former military base at the site with the cape's traditional name. But it also has a more memorable ring to it — a bit of marketing reverse cachet.
Sure enough, the inherent gloom in Pacific County place names rarely escapes tourists' notice, says Jon Schmidt, interpretive consultant at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, which sits atop the cape.
"I get asked why they named it Cape Disappointment at least once a day," he says. "In the summer months, it's once an hour."
He uses it as an entree for a history lesson.
The cape, stunningly beautiful in foul weather or fair, still managed to prove disappointing to white explorers long before Lewis and Clark clambered upon it in 1805. By then, it was already on maps sketched by captains of dozens of trade ships that had visited the place since the Spanish arrived in 1775. Explorer Bruno de Heceta christened the cape, "Cabo de San Rogue," and the bay "Ensenada de Heceta."
Three years later, British fur-trader John Meares, hoping the Spaniard's landmark was, in fact, the mouth of the fabled River of the West, renamed the features "Deception Bay" and "Cape Disappointment," both to denote the stupendous bummer it was to discover (mistakenly, of course, adding to the irony) that the waters there were a bay, not the mouth of the fabled river.
What would become Washington's southwest tip was renamed "Cape Hancock" in 1792 by American Capt. Robert Gray, who was the first to finally confirm that the point did mark the mouth of the Columbia River. Gray's "Columbia" moniker for the river, taken from the name of his ship, Columbia Rediviva, stuck, but his new name for the cape did not.
Disappointment it was, Disappointment it is.
Lewis and Clark, however, get full credit — or blame — for conjuring the name of nearby "Dismal Nitch," which they applied to their dreary final camp along the great river as they neared the Pacific Ocean in November 1805. That autumn, like the next couple hundred to follow, produced memorably atrocious weather at the Columbia River Bar, with weeks-long deluges of rain accompanied by tidal surges carrying killer old-growth drift logs and even rocks plummeting from the cliffs above the group's impromptu campsite.
Capt. William Clark's journals referred to the camp as "that dismal little nitch" where the group was stranded for six full days and "every man as wet as water could make them."
The name stuck and has recently been resurrected, in a way. There's still not much to see at the site of the former Megler Rest Area along Highway 401, but it's now a National Parks historic site.
"Dismal Nitch" also lives on in bold letters on a commemorative poster sold at local interpretive centers. It's an artist's rendering of a beach with crashing surf logs, classic Northwest (sideways) rain and foreboding charcoal skies.
The striking poster, which also can be purchased online, is quite popular, Schmidt notes — often as gag gifts intended to adorn office cubicles, "or for the door to teenagers' bedrooms."
EACH OF these dank, dark, depressing names bestowed during the early years of the Euro invasion could be dismissed as a rookie mistake — just another goof by a newbie dumb enough to show up at the start of winter — if not for one troubling fact: They're all entirely apropos.
Disappointment, it turns out, extended far beyond Pacific County for our forebears, who, to put it mildly, had a rough time of it. Back then, the quaint man-vs.-nature war some of us now willfully enlist in on weekends, just for kicks, was a real battle for survival — one that could have gone either way, and often did.
Given that, the real wonder is not that so many place names have dreary connotations, but that more of them do not.
Any iPad historian searching through a fascinating Tacoma Public Library place-names database for the origin of the name of Misery Point, near Seabeck on Hood Canal, will find an explanatory note repeated for dozens of other local place names:
"The present name is one of many such names in the state which reflect pioneer hardships."
These are legend, and long have provided fertile ground for writers such as Annie Dillard, who lived in the Northwest while researching her historical novel, "The Living," a tale of early settlers in present-day Whatcom County who had viscerally memorable arrivals:
"It was the rough edge of the world, where the trees came smack down to the stones. The shore looked to Ada as if the corner of the continent had got torn off right here, sometime near yesterday, and the dark trees kept on growing like nothing happened ... "
Our early place-namers, in other words, had a good excuse for failing to acknowledge a bright side they rarely saw. Sinking roots in the mud or hardscrabble is no picnic.
Also worth remembering is that many of those map charters were sailors, notably the crew of Capt. George Vancouver and, later, the Charles Wilkes Expedition of the U.S. government.
To them, a derogatory name usually was associated with challenges for marine navigation. Hence: Obstruction Island and Obstruction Pass, Foulweather Bluff, Destruction Island, False Bay and a slew of others.
Most famous among these is Deception Pass, the spectacular natural cut between Fidalgo and Whidbey islands in north Puget Sound. It was named Port Gardner in 1792 by Vancouver, who didn't know that the roiling channel cut all the way through to what we now know as the upper reaches of Skagit Bay. He later renamed it "Deception Passage" after one of his crew, Joseph Whidbey, found the other end. The name stuck forever when it was placed on an early map by the Wilkes expedition in 1841.
Similarly, Wilkes named southwest Whidbey's "Useless Bay" because its waters, which at first glance promised good anchorage, proved useless because it was exposed to prevailing winds. The name lives on, a source of irony to residents of a stunning locale.
"The name is totally geographically incorrect," says one local resident, Des Rock. "It's totally beautiful. But when it gets big tides, it's a sand flat. From a sailor's perspective, it's bad moorage."
Thus, one of the few local establishments using the name, the Useless Bay Golf & Country Club, has a logo that depicts an old tall-masted sailing vessel keeled over in the mud.
Rock six years ago adopted the name for his own fledgling company, Useless Bay Coffee, which operates out of Langley.
If nothing else, an event from a couple years ago forever legitimized his name choice, Rock says. A team of employees entered the Whidbey Triathlon and wound up winning the mixed-relay division over a competitor called Team Awesome, providing a headline-writer's dream.
"It's always a good day," he says, "when Useless tops Awesome."
MANY STATE place names that seem to carry a downer message in today's parlance probably were never intended to do so.
Point No Point is not the site of an annual existentialist salmon-fishing derby, but a lighthouse-adorned sand spit in Kitsap County that, legend has it, was named by Wilkes in honor of another Point No Point on the Hudson River, which often disappeared from the view of passing ships.
The name for Louse Rocks in Willapa Bay, according to the Tacoma library database, comes from a native legend of a chief and his wife who were turned to stone after they introduced lice to members of the local tribe.
Termination Point, near the Hood Canal floating bridge, was named by Wilkes not to commemorate an execution, but to mark the west side of the north end of Hood Canal. Opposite the point is Foulweather Bluff, named by Vancouver for apparent reasons.
Depression Lake, near Baker Lake Reservoir, probably was a nod to its low-lying physical location, not a mental condition. And the Dark Divide, a roadless area near Mount St. Helens, gets its name from the black stone of local peaks.
The Wasp Islands in the San Juans were named by Wilkes for a ship called Wasp, rather than swarms of them — although visitors in summertime might swear otherwise.
Still other places are construed as negative because that was the precise intent.
Settlers named the town of Dusty, in Whitman County, because it was. And still is. Same with Rainy Pass, in the North Cascades, and many dozens of other why-am-I-here places, including Damnation Peak, so labeled by exasperated prospectors. Mosquito Pass, separating San Juan and Henry islands, was named for the swarms that emanated from a salt marsh there.
Mount Misery, a 6,309-foot peak in southeast Washington, was so named by cattlemen who were regularly blasted there by howling autumn winds. The cowpokes named another mountain in Asotin County Mount Horrible for the same reason.
Other times, the rule of unintended consequences applies.
Even though its name wasn't meant to describe the feelings of RVers from Nebraska, Cape Disappointment, too, sometimes lives up to its name: Fog blankets the place more than 100 days of the year, making it one of the foggiest places in the entire country.
"It makes things look mysterious," Schmidt insists. "And kind of romantic."
THAT'S A CLASSIC Northwest-native reaction: Laugh at the rain, or go insane. But many a newcomer will insist that our long list of depressing titles says something — something unflattering — about our collective psyche. Does it?
In fairness, it's worth noting that our place-name angst is tempered by at least small doses of optimism. The state's longest-living place name, at least one assigned by European settlers, is positively glowing. Cape Flattery, the rocky bluff marking the line between the Pacific and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, was named by British Capt. James Cook in 1778, allegedly because it "flattered" him with hope of a fabled water passage inland. The name gives Washington bookend northwest and southwest points named Flattery and Disappointment — a fitting memorial, perhaps, to the highs and lows of early coastal exploration.
Other state happy-place names tip the scale a bit toward the upbeat: Discovery Bay, Enchanted Valley, Elk Lick Creek (OK, that one could go either way), Hee Haw and Hee Hee Creek, Pleasant Harbor and Right Smart Cove among them.
And just for the record, we're far from alone in letting our woe-is-us ethos spill onto local maps, as a cruise through the USGS national place-names database illustrates.
"Disappointment" appears in seven Washington place names. But we don't even lead the nation in the category. Colorado has 13.
Of the 995 U.S. place names containing the word "Hell," Washington's 28 pales in comparison with Montana's 90-plus and Utah's 56. (Somewhat surprisingly, only three are found in New Jersey.)
Or consider the national "Misery" index: Of the 107 U.S. place names bearing the word, Washington claims eight. But Maine has 15, Michigan 10 and Massachusetts nine, proving that misery does, in fact, love company.
More than 120 other "Dismal" names exist in the U.S. But Washington claims the only Dismal Nitch.
Most of these place names, it's clear, came about when times were tough. But the fact that we've kept them all — even restoring and celebrating them in some prominent places — perhaps does give away something about us: We kind of embrace them and the associated gloom.
Nobody, in fact, has ever come to the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names requesting a place-name change simply because the current one was bumming them out, says Caleb Maki, the group's executive secretary.
On some level, we clearly enjoy wallowing in our own atmospheric misery. Survival of visits to rough-sounding places can be worn like a badge, making us feel as hale and hearty as our undeniably hard-core ancestors.
Even if we're not.
Ron Judd is a Pacific NW magazine writer. Fred Birchman is a Seattle freelance artist.
Information in this article, originally published July 20, was corrected July 24. A previous version of this story listed Highway 410 instead of Highway 401.