Have you ever been driving through Colorado, or even looking at a map, and hit upon a location that made you think, "Huh, I wonder how that place got its name"? Colorado has a rich array of place names drawn from several languages, cultures, and aspects of history, and there are some great resources out there for learning what put the cripple in Cripple Creek or who came up with a name like Mount Sneffels.
Of course there's always Google to get the basics, but sometimes you want more substantial information or to find the details behind names even Google doesn't know. The Hart Research Library houses published and unpublished works that zero in on place name origins. Some of our favorites:
Maxine Benson's 1001 Colorado Place Names and Annotations and Bibliography for 1001 Colorado Place Names (1994) are fun, informative resources for history and naming details of many Colorado locations. William Bright's Colorado Place Names (2004) is a similar resource and a great companion to Benson.
Donald Elliott's Place Names of Colorado (1999) is an invaluable resource for tracking down locations that no longer exist or finding "vital statistics" for towns, camps, and settlements. This book doesn't give details on name origins, but is fantastic for chasing down locations and basic details, especially for hard-to-find points.
Phil Goodstein's Denver Streets: Names, Numbers, Locations, Logic (1994) is an exhaustive look at the history and layout of Denver's street name system. This work is a fantastic reference for anyone interested specifically in Denver and its streets.
The WPA Thousand Town File and the Hart Research Library's CWA index are New Deal-era reference works that provide nitty-gritty details on location history and name origins. These are available only on site here in our library.
Armed with these great sources, let's dive into some of the Centennial State's more unusual names!
Many towns and locations are named in honor of a person, whether the town founder, postmaster, or other notable individual. Peetz, Colorado, for example, is simply named for local homesteader Peter Peetz, although the settlement was originally dubbed "Mercer" by the Burlington Railroad. Sometimes, though, honorifics don't turn out as planned, as was the case with the town of Breckenridge. Settlers in 1859 named their town in honor of then-U.S. Vice President John C. Breckinridge. However, in 1861 Breckinridge abandoned his seat in the U.S. Senate to join the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War. Angry Unionists in Breckinridge's Colorado namesake resolved to change the town's name to its current spelling of Breckenridge in protest of the politician's defection. No word on whether Breckinridge ever learned of Breckenridge's retaliatory spelling change.
One of Colorado's fourteeners has an odd name that's inspired by literature. The title of Mount Sneffels, in Ouray County, arose after a member of the 1874 Hayden Survey thought that the mountain's Blue Lakes Basin resembled the all-important crater in Jules Verne's A Journey to the Center of the Earth. In the novel, the cratered mountain is called "Snaefells," inspired by Iceland's Snæfellsjökull mountain. The Hayden Survey's geologist christened Colorado's mountain "Sneffels," and the name's been there ever since.
Colorado boasts plenty of place names that are more or less descriptive of their surroundings. Pieplant, Colorado, in Gunnison County, was named for the wild rhubarb that grew near this early twentieth-century mining town. Gunbarrel, in Boulder County, hearkens back to a now-extinct road through the area that was "as straight as a gunbarrel." And Coffeepot Pass, in Gunnison and Pitkin Counties, was so named by a group of prospectors in the 1870s who found an abandoned coffeepot while trekking over this route.
Other places have more unusual stories to back up their names. Last Chance, in Washington County, is named for a 1926 service station and store on the site that advertised itself as the "last chance" for gasoline and supplies for at least 35 miles in any direction. Dearfield, the African American agricultural colony in Weld County, was named by colony organizer J.H. Westbrook, who explained, "[The fields] will be very dear to us, so why not incorporate that sentiment into the name we select and call our colony Dearfield?" Punkin Center, Colorado, in Lincoln County, began as a store and service station that had been painted a bright orange for visibility. According to Benson, the store owner's daughter once exclaimed "It looks just like a big pumpkin!" and the name stuck.
And then there's Cripple Creek, which has multiple colorful stories about its naming. Maxine Benson sums them up best:
"One account described the misfortunes of a cowboy chasing a cow over the creek. The cow stumbled, the horse fell over the cow, and the rider was thrown to the ground. Both animals had broken legs, the cowboy a broken arm. In another version, early rancher Alonzo Welty said that when he and his brother George were building a log cabin in the 1870s, George tumbled from the roof. Not long afterward, a hired hand fell from a horse and broke his leg. 'Cripple Creek,' another hand suggested, was an apt name for the stream."
If you'd like to delve further into place names in Colorado, visit our Hart Research Library anytime during open hours, Wednesday-Saturday 10am-3pm, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. You can also check your local public library for available copies of the books named above. Happy researching!