Place names are the domain of an obscure U.S. board


One man wanted to name a stream in Glendale the Stream of Consciousness. An avid hiker proposed calling a rock formation in Utah the Golden Arches because it brought to mind McDonald’s. And a Girl Scout troop dug into the cookie jar to come up with a name for a Pennsylvania creek: Tagalong Run.

Anyone can propose a name for a feature of American geography. And hundreds do.

But whether the suggestions actually make it on the map is up to the obscure U.S. Board on Geographic Names, responsible for deciding the names of natural features, including glaciers, mountains, valleys, rivers and ponds.

Soon the naming authority will find its own name in the spotlight.

In an upcoming decision, the panel will take up a controversial request by a Bay Area man who wants to change Mt. Diablo in Contra Costa County to Mt. Reagan because he finds the name, Spanish for “the devil,” to be offensive.


His request touched off a flood of Internet opposition, and the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors voted against the idea and sent an opposition letter to the federal panel.

Mt. Diablo is not alone. The board will also consider naming mountains in New Hampshire after the 40th president. And in what may be the start of a broader effort, a movement is underway in Nevada to name a mountain after President Reagan in honor of his 2011 centennial birthday.

The Board on Geographic Names -- made up of representatives of federal agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey and the Library of Congress -- usually goes about its tasks without notice, acting on about 250 to 300 requests a year for new names or name changes.

One man sought to change the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of America.

“That went absolutely nowhere,” said Michael R. Fournier, a Census Bureau geographer on the board’s domestic names committee.

The panel is reluctant to change well-established names.

That is also why the board turned down a proposal to change Mt. St. Helens to St. Helens Volcano.

“It should be called what it is -- a volcano,” the petitioner argued.

“We take every proposal seriously,” said Jennifer Runyon, a U.S. Geological Survey geographer who is the board’s senior researcher.


During its monthly meeting last week in an Interior Department conference room, 10 members of the board’s domestic names committee sat around a table pondering: Should an unnamed California creek be named after a nearby resident’s dog, Shamus?

“We won’t name things for folks who are alive,” Fournier said. “Shouldn’t the same hold true for other mammals?”

The panel directed its staff to survey local officials about the name, a key factor in its decisions.

It also approved more than a dozen new names or name changes, including changing Squaw Creek in Montana to Hot Dance Creek, one of about 200 requests since 1995 to eliminate the name squaw, regarded by many as offensive.

What about Squaw Valley, Calif., site of the 1960 Winter Olympics? The board has no say over the privately owned ski resort.

It can, however, act on a name change for unincorporated land, such as Squaw Valley in Fresno County. But Heather Rozzo, a member of the community’s advisory council, said there had not been complaints about the name.


The board acts only in response to proposals.

“We don’t come up with the ideas on our own,” Runyon said.

The board was established in 1890 to prevent conflicting names from showing up on maps and creating confusion during westward expansion.

“I’ve seen name problems bring major projects to a halt,” said Roger Payne, a former board executive secretary whose retirement gift was Mt. Payne, a mountain in Antarctica named after him.

(The board has a policy against naming anything in the United States after someone who has been dead less than five years.)

Though the board operates with little notice, it does, after all, operate in Washington, where even the smallest issue can generate controversy.

Alaska’s effort to change the name of Mt. McKinley to Denali, an Athabascan name meaning “The High One” or “The Great One,” has been blocked for three decades by lawmakers from President McKinley’s home state of Ohio.

Only Congress and the president can override the board, but they rarely do. And they also have the power to name places without board approval.


An area in a Virginia river, for instance, was named the John W. Warner Rapids after the state’s retired senator.

The board can agonize over name changes, perhaps a response to one of its highest-profile decisions -- renaming Cape Canaveral to Cape Kennedy after the president’s assassination in 1963, and changing it back a decade later after protests from Florida.

Often, panel members weigh history against current sensitivities.

“Some board members feel strongly that names that were applied by the early pioneers should not be erased from the landscape,” Runyon said.

On the other hand, the board recently approved changing Negrohead Mountain in Los Angeles County to Ballard Mountain after John Ballard, the first black man to settle in the hills above Malibu.

Proponents of name changes offer a wide range of reasons: One man sought to change No Name Lake in Montana to Engagement Lake because he and his wife got engaged there. It was rejected.

Stream of Consciousness was rejected for lack of local support. Golden Arches was rejected as too commercial.


Spasticville, Kan., changed its name last fall to Trails View.

“In these times of political correctness, citizens were not happy to see all of our maps with the name Spasticville,” said Joel Pile, city administrator of Valley Center, which includes the community, once home to a mental institution.

“Nor did it help our economic development efforts to have our community appear on a map next to Spasticville.”

At its meeting last week, the board’s domestic names committee may have signaled what it thinks of the Bay Area man’s complaints about a mountain named after the devil.

It approved naming a mountain near Escondido Devils Anvil Peak.