Friday, October 15, 2010

Name By Committee (Part 3 of 3)

Bone Valley, Bearwallow Branch, Snake Den Ridge. Those are names that tickle the imagination, that have local, rural character. It would make a good writing assignment for school kids. Choose a name, then make up an imaginative story of how the name came to be.

Then there are the names with no charm, no imagination required: Mount LeConte, Mount Guyot, Clingmans Dome. How did these sites get their names? Explorers of the 1850s such as Arnold Guyot measured, mapped, and named many of these peaks, but ultimately a nomenclature committee sat down in the 1930s and decided to honor various people by renaming the most prominent features in the park. That’s it, a committee. No stories about cattle dying in a blizzard (Bone Valley). No descriptive names like Big Balsam or Black Top. No imagination. No sense of place. Just a motion, a second, and a vote of those in favor and those opposed.

The scientists and explorers of the mid 1800s measured and mapped these peaks, then named them after themselves and their friends, rather than the names given them by the Cherokee and the local white settlers. Some guys never even hiked up the mountains that are named after them. Granted, many major peaks had several names, so the geographers and committees did create some order out of the chaos, and some of the names do honor men who are worthy of being remembered, but those names diluted the local character that saturated the topography. White Rock and Big Balsam became Mt. Cammerer and Mt. LeConte.

A well-known Smokies mountain is Smoky Dome. The Cherokee called it kuwahi, meaning “place of the mulberries” or “mulberry mountain.” It is 6,643 feet above sea level, making it the highest peak in the park and the third highest point in the eastern US. I love those old names because they are simple and descriptive – the place where a lot of mulberries grow or where the mist lingers. Of course, you probably don’t recognize Smoky Dome because Smokies explorer Arnold Guyot and the nomenclature committee renamed it Clingmans Dome.

Thomas Clingman was a North Carolina politician, Confederate soldier, explorer, and businessman who explored the Smokies in the 1840s. He is sometimes described as a “regional promoter” and a “colorful character” who had a long-standing dispute with Elisha Mitchell about who had been the first to measure the tallest mountain in the eastern US. Because the highest mountain is now called Mount Mitchell, you probably know who finally won that argument. Clingman had to settle for the third highest being named after him. Maybe Mitchell and Clingman’s spat was a serious scientific dispute, but it sounds more like two kids fighting over a toy or the last cookie in the jar. Reading between the lines, Clingman seemed to be a conceited self-promoter who enjoyed being in the center of public attention. (Maybe there should be a Clingmans Cave somewhere.) Of course, maybe I’m just bitter because I prefer the old names that have a sense of place that “Clingman” just doesn’t have.

A later nomenclature commission finished the job with names like Charlies Bunion and Mt. Kephart. I’m thankful that these explorers and committees didn’t have more friends; otherwise, we’d have no Eagle Rocks or Defeat Ridges left. They’d all be named Smith Peak or Jones Ridge.

The actual Charlie on Charlies Bunion
(from NPS archives)

Harvey Broome once suggested that we not even name mountains and rivers because people would be less likely to go to places that had no names. Planes and trains couldn’t run without named destinations. Erasing all the names could solve the problem of over-visitation of our national parks. He extended the logic, suggesting war would be impossible because people could not fight a country which they could not name. Might be worth a try. Or, just keep the old names. Local character would survive, and wars would end. After all, who’d fight over a spot called Maggot Ridge or Devils Den?

To give credit where credit is due, there is one decision that I whole-heartedly endorse: dropping the apostrophes from all the park names. I don’t know exactly whose idea this was or when the change was made, but it’s a change that has simplified the lives of countless printers and writers. Clingman’s became Clingmans. Cade’s Cove became Cades Cove. Quick. Easy. Painless. So put a list on your refrigerator entitled, Wise Decisions by the Federal Government. Item 1 could be, Creating the national park system. Item 2 would be, Dropping the apostrophes in the Smokies. If they ever have a third good idea, you’ll have a list started and conveniently located.

For the website only:

A pretty good book on the origin of Smokies names is Place Names of the Smokies by Allen Coggins. It covers a lot of names, but doesn’t really go into much detail. For example, for Panther Branch he might tell you that it’s named after the mountain lions (which were also called panthers) that used to inhabit the park. Well, yeah, I could figure that out myself. I’d like to know why that particular creek rather than some other creek was named Panther Branch. Or, why this creek is called Panther Branch instead of, say, Rhododendron Branch. Nevertheless, there’s some good information in the book, so it’s probably worthy of a spot in the Smokies section of your bookshelf.

Also, there are several books on the history of the Smokies which include chapters on some of the explorers, including Arnold Guyot, for whom the second highest mountain in the park is named. The standard history text, written in the 1960s, is Strangers in High Places by Michael Frome. It is my personal favorite. Other valuable histories of the park are: The Wild East by Margaret Brown and The Great Smokies: From Natural Habitat to National Park by Dan Pierce. All are available at any of the visitor centers in or near the park. By the way, there is a visitors center outside of the park, about a mile and a half down Hwy 66 from I-40’s exit #407. Look for the brick building with a green roof on the right and a Chamber of Commerce sign out front.

My hope is that some day I'll publish a book drawn partly from these blogs. It will be called Hallowed Hills, Holy Waters.  Of course, you'll want to drop whatever you are doing and run out and buy it immediately!!