Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Tombstone to Toad Suck by Tom Rizzo

The names of some frontier towns are uniquely American, often romantic, and always visual --cowboy towns, cattle towns, gold rush towns, logging communities and, of course, ghost towns. 

Some of the names hold a certain fascination and bring to mind visions of cattle drives, and shootouts. 

The more popular ones are legend: Tombstone, Deadwood, Abilene, Bandera Pass, Dodge City, Cochise --names synonymous with the 19th century Old West.

But, there were others – not as notorious – equally visual, and often humorous.

The founders of these towns followed no particular pattern. Sometimes, names changes occurred because there were other towns with the same name. Forest City, Colorado, for example, got changed to St. Elmo. One of the founders based the new name on the title of a novel he was reading at the time.

Here are a few examples of towns with unusual names. Some are still inhabited. Others stand as dusty, out-of-the-way ghost towns.

  • Total Wreck, Arizona. Now a ghost town in Pima County, the site got its name when miners discovered silver. John Dillon, who owned the claim, gave the settlement the name because he thought the mine was on a ledge that looked like “a Total Wreck.”

  • Bridal Veil, Oregon. Establishing during the 1880s during a logging boom. According to legend, a steamboat passenger on the Columbia River spotted a waterfall that she said looked like a “delicate, misty bride’s veil.” The town took the name when its first post office opened.

  • Crowheart, Wyoming. In 1866, Chief Washakie of the Shoshones, and Chief Big Robber of the Crow tribe agreed to a duel with the winner claiming the rights to the Wind River hunting grounds. Chief Washakie won the fight and, according to legend, was so impressed with the courage of the Crow chief that, rather than scalping the fallen warrior, he cut out his heart. What a relief! A couple of miles from the mesa where the fight took place, settlers founded a town, and named it Crowheart.

  • Miner’s Delight, WyomingThis was one of the state’s first communities, founded during the mining boom in 1868. Also known as Hamilton City, the name Miners Delight came about after discovery of a golden lode – a miner’s delight – on a ridge above town. Today, the ghost town consists of 17 structures, salvaged through historic preservation, and provides a glimpse of early Wyoming life, and the gold mining culture.

  • Big Bug, Arizona. Prospector Theodore Boggs founded the town in 1862, during the Civil War, along Big Bug Creek. He named the town after the large, brown beetles that lived in the area. As a side note, his mother was the granddaughter of Daniel Boone, which made Boggs a descendant.

  • Cripple Creek, Colorado. The town got its name supposedly because of a series of accidents. One story says drovers named the town when a cattleman building a shelter near a creek accidentally discharged his gun. The bullet hit another man in the foot. The sound of the gunshot frightened a calf, which broke its leg trying to leap over the creek. Cripple Creek is the site of the richest gold mine ever discovered on earth. Between 1897 and 1916, it gave up $340 million in gold.

  • Ten Sleep, Wyoming. Located at the base of the Big Horn Mountains, Ten Sleep is a small ranching community that got its name because it was ten sleeps – nights – from Fort Laramie –a method Indians used to measure distance. Ten Sleep was also the site of the Spring Creek Raid, in 1909, one of the last feuds of the West’s Sheep and Cattlemen’s War.

  • Baby Head, Texas. One of the more grisly names for a town, it got its name based on an incident in which Indians killed an infant, decapitated her, and placed her head on a pole on Babyhead Mountain as a warning to settlers. Founded in the 1870s, settlers named it Baby Head to commemorate the event. Baby Head Cemetery stands as the last physical reminder of the settlement.

The “most unfortunate” name for a town in the U.S., according to a poll across seven English-speaking countries, is Toad Suck, Arkansas.

I don’t really know whether this qualifies as an “Old West” town. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact date of its founding. Nevertheless, the name intrigued me. Located in central Arkansas, the town got its name “long ago” when steamboats traveled the Arkansas River.

If the water wasn’t at the right depth, the captains, and their crews, tied up to wait, and refreshed themselves at the local tavern. Locals said these men “suck on the bottle ’till they swell up like toads.”

The tavern is gone. But, the legend lives on.

# # # 


  1. Love it. And I could name a good many more that I have been to.

    A thoroughly fun article, Tom. Thanks.

  2. Hi Frank-Glad you enjoyed. Fascinating origins for some of these names.

  3. Interesting stuff Tom. Some named places could lead to head scratching in wonderment. What the heck were the founders thinking? Localized history is fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Great point, Jerry. I wonder if TOAD SUCK was a group decision.

  5. Loved this, absolutely loved it. I will also point out, they are still bringing gold out of the Cripple Creek/Victor area. Check out the open pit mine from satellite. Stunning and huge.

    Also St. Elmo is a great place to visit and one of the easier towns to get to.

  6. Thanks, Doris, for the update of Cripple Creek and the info on St Elmo.

  7. LOL!! toad suck - Crow's heart is another good one, unfortunately for the warrior. Yeesh.

  8. Tom, I love these names! I'm sure every state has a few they could add. Here in Oklahoma, we have Bowlegs, named for Chief Billy Bowlegs. A lot of our names are Indian names though, so we just get a kick out of "greenhorns" that move in and try to pronounce them (like when the weathermen come from elsewhere...)But I think the worst of the ones you came up with was Baby's Head. I could not live somewhere that had that history. UGH. Great post!

  9. Cheryl--I can imagine any "foreigner" to Oklahoma would indeed face a challenge. And, I agree, Baby's Head is, to say the least, strange.