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January 21, 2010

The Falls of Chagrin

The Falls of Chagrin

by Nancy    Go to fullsize image


A month ago, a friend of mine blogged about her memories of growing up in Chagrin Falls, and I must admit I skimmed her winter memories of sledding and skating and whatnot because I got stuck on the name: Chagrin Falls.  Who named that town?  And why?  The watery falls of whose chagrin, I wonder?


How do towns get their names?


Where I grew up, we had places like Falls Creek, Big Run, Pine Creek, and Slippery Rock—so named because there are lots of little streams in that neck of the woods.  (They’re also why my brother grew up to be a trout fisherman.) Cool Spring, Boiling Spring, Roaring Spring. Specifically, I grew up in a town called Brookville—not because it was the confluence of our two creeks (the bucolically named Sandy Lick and more pedestrian Mill Creek) but because of all their little feeder streams--the brooks. In fact, if you live anywhere west of the Delaware watershed and east of the Mississippi, you are likely drinking the water that springs up around my hometown.  


I played in many of those Brookville streams as a child. Catching minnows, crawfish and frogs was big fun until we discovered hellbenders.  After that horrifying experience—Jurassic Park could have used hellbenders to make the movie even scarier--I stopped playing in creeks.

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Sugar Hill and Beechwoods are charming names for nearby towns. Brandy Camp was named because it was a place where immigrants lived so they could be near the coal mines where they worked.  I wonder if they named it for the liquor they drank?  Or if nearby, high-minded townsfolk assumed there was a lot of drinking going on in the coal camps and named the community appropriately?


Here in Pennsylvania, we have a lot of Native American names that hung on long past the time when indigenous people left.  Punxsutawney. Kittanning.  Sinnamahoning. Monongahela. We’re amused when strangers can’t pronounce them.


I wondered about the community of Blanket Hill so long that I finally stopped the minivan one day to read the historical marker.  Turns out, Blanket Hill was a place where settlers traded blankets with the Native Americans.  (The historical marker still calls them “white settlers” and “Indians.”  Budget restraints in the historical department, I think.)  And we have lots of towns named after their physical attributes: Cherry Tree, Brick Church, Bear Lake. And our early industry: Coal Run, Coal Port, Coal Valley. And I always been curious about three little towns:  Distant, Desire and Echo.  And what poor soul named Little Hope?


My county has a lot of villages and boroughs named after the people who first lived there and started their businesses. The Sprankle family’s grinding mill became Sprankle Mill. Cook Forest was named after the lumbering Cook family.


Names fascinate me.  Probably because I must choose them so carefully in my fiction.  A name establishes a character or a setting very quickly.  Readers bring along their own prejudices and experiences when they read names. I like that.--It brings an extra level of understanding and even visual appeal. 


    I try to be historically correct, too. (Which is why so many Blackbird characters had German and Quaker names—that’s who settled Philadelphia)  Lately I’ve been researching the names of Italian families that immigrated to Pittsburgh to work in the steel mills and to build our many beautiful stone bridges and churches. All those stonemasons came from the same region in Italy, so they tend to share only a few common names. You’d not likely find a person living in Pittsburgh, for example, who has the distinctive Venetian nose. Venice isn’t where Pittsburghers came from.


Readers bring certain pre-conceived ideas when they read the names of places.  You get a mental picture if you pick up a book set in London or Dallas or LA or New York.  Detroit comes with a reputation that’s hard to dispel.  You could practically taste Spenser’s Boston, couldn’t you? And Janet Evanovich does an equally vivid job conjuring up Trenton, New Jersey.


Pittsburgh has been a tricky sort of setting for me. I’ve avoided using it for years because I wasn’t sure how to portray it.  Readers tend to think of Pittsburgh as being an old city with a thick, low-hanging smog from the steel mills.  Thing is, most of the mills have been gone since 1972, so the reality is very different from the general perception. We are no longer "hell with the lid off." But I finally took the plunge.  My new book is set here in my adopted city.  I hope I’ve done it justice.


Where are you from?  How did that place get its name? I’ll bet there’s a story. 


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Chicago = "shikaakwa" (wild onion... makes NO sense to me)

Las Vegas = "The Meadows" (ironic, to say the least)

I'm originally from Syracuse, NY, named after Syracuse (Siracusa), Italy. Its nickname is the "Salt City" because there were marshy areas with salt there, and before 1900 most of the salt used in the US came from there.

It was originally the home of the Onondaga and Mohawk Indians, so there are many Indian names there too. Onondaga County, nearby Canandaigua, Chittenango (home of Frank Baum, of Wizard of Oz fame), Skaneateles (one of the finger lakes and its town), to name a few. The power company used to be named Niagara Mohawk, until it got bought out by a British company several years ago.

It's a smallish city (about 150,000), with a big University, and a lot of snow (averages about 120 inches a season). It's a tough place to live in the winter, and gorgeous in the summer. It has many lakes, and when I moved to PA it was hard to get used to the fact that there weren't lakes to swim in all around. Skaneateles Lake provides the water for Syracuse and its surrounding areas. It's a beautifully clear, spring-fed lake that's freezing even in August.

Laura, I am fascinated by the number of towns in western New York that have ancient Greek and Roman names---and even Greek revival architecture is prominent there. (And who named Horse Heads, NY and why??)

William, I had no idea Las Vegas meant meadows. That was one deluded pioneer, I think.

Here you go, Nancy - from Wikipedia:

"It was the first of September 1779. Under orders the forces of General Sullivan, burdened down with heavy military equipment, marched north in their 450-mile journey through a wooden wilderness from Easton, PA over to Wyoming, and on up the Susquehanna River Trail to Newtown (Elmira). They continued north through what is now known as Horseheads to the Finger Lakes Region and west to Genesee. They returned about three weeks later, having accomplished fully and completely the purpose for which they had set out. The larger portion of the army under the immediate command of General Sullivan returned by the way it went.

The journey had been particularly severe and wearing upon the animals and their food supply found insufficient. Arriving about six miles north of Fort Reid on September 24, 1779 they were obliged to dispose of a large number of sick and disabled horses. The number of horses was so great that they were quite noticeable, and the native Iroquois collected the skulls and arranged them in a line along the trail. That spot, from that time forward was referred to as the “valley of the horse’s heads” and is still known by the name given to it by the Iroquois."

And, can I just say, Ick.

Ditto on the ick. I assumed as much. But the mental image of skulls is better than multiples of the Godfather horse-head-in-the-bed!

Enon Valley: The old cast iron boundary signs provided by the state when the state highways were paved say that it means "valley of many waters". Old town historians said the name was from the Bible. I supposed that Enon is the misspelling by the the early settlers of Aenon, the spring in which John the Baptist baptized his followers. It's pronounced ee-nuhn. We didn't actually get the 'valley' part of our name until the borough broke away from Little Beaver township in 1899. We were known as the village of "Enon Station" at that point. (Railroad).

Can you tell I'm the unofficial town historian?

I live surrounded by a bonanza of Beavers. Little Beaver, Big Beaver, South Beaver, North Beaver, New Beaver, Beaver Falls, Beaver County, the borough of Beaver, the North Fork of the Little Beaver River, the Beaver River are all townships, boroughs, a city and rivers around my locale. Such imagination they had back in the early frontier days of Western Pennsylvania.

Didn't Rocky and Bullwinkle live in Chagrin Falls?

Oh--no, it was Frostbite Falls. !

Hank, I loved Rocky & Bullwinkle! And the Fractured Fairy Tales.

Peach, the beavers must have stayed in your neck of western PA, because we had no beaver-named places in Jefferson County.

I forgot Sugar Hill. One of my favorite names of a place.

I think Fats should have found his thrill there instead of Blueberry Hill.

CHARLIE'S FROM CHAGRIN FALLS!!! Moreover, because my parents had moved to Alaska by the time I was engaged (at age 25 - couldn't wait to move 4,000 miles away from their daughter), the wedding invites were sent to my mother in law's house in Chagrin Falls. So many funny responses....

I will ask Charlie to chime in. Another Chagrin Falls resident? The creator Calvin and Hobbes.

It's an absolutely lovely town.

Laura, do you pronounce Skateateles as "skinny atlas?" I'd heard it that way. Just wondering.

I am from University City, MO. Named for the Womens' University the city founder established next door to city hall. The Womens' University building now houses the police and fire department. Many of the streets in U. City are named for colleges and universities. I grew up on Cornell. Molly on Cambridge. We drive down Swathmore almost every day. A new subdivision was built in the '90's, Moorehouse and Bernard College.

St. Louis County is down to 87 municipalities (I think), many of them have populations under 10,000. We are blessed with a smattering of French inspired names (Florissant,Des Peres); Historic (Black Jack named for General Pershing, Bellefontaine Neighbors named for a French fort and listed as the longest city/state name in the country.); and more than a few nods to St. Louis' strong Catholic history; St. John, St. Ann, St. George.

Much of Florissant was built by a single developer. He was a good church going man. look up 63033 on Google maps. Florissant has about 50 streets named for saints.

From Novi; which turns out to be the Number 6 stop on the stagecoach line way back when.

Soooo....Beautiful Miami Springs (which looks more like Fern Gully theses days) was originally called Country Club Estates because it had a golf course smack dab in the middle which is still there and the poor man's Doral. Very popular when it was founded back in the early 1920's land boom by Glenn Hammond Curtiss aka the Father of Navel Aviation. He had the vision of a pueblo style village and all the original buildings including the historical society's nightmare, his "Mansion", are adobe type structures. There was a hotel that was turned into a sanitorium into what was The Palm Spa. It is now Fair Havens which is a retirement center/hospital.
The Miami Springs part came because well...it had and has natural springs and supplied Miami with drinking water until the mid 1990s.
I remember drinking well water on my grandparent's farm. I liked it. When they started fooling with it later on it tasted like nothing.
The lake I live on is spring fed. There's lots of lakes and canals.
It's a nice little secret located on top of the International Airport. Until Eastern and Pan Am went under it had a lot (like 3000 a day) of airport people in and out supporting the local businesses. Life was good! Wonderful quiet place to raise a family in the 50's.
The horror of horrors now is the fact that the west boundary belongs to the City of Miami and the railroad and they cut all the 100 year old Australian Pine trees down, get this, in case one blew into the canal in a hurricane.
I hope all the people who let this happen wake up with a dead tree in their bed.
Just saying.

Yes, Nancy - that's how we pronounce it with our Central NY accents. It's a lovely little town, and beautiful lake. The Clintons have vacationed there a couple times.

I think there should be a town called Lipstick Chronicles. Doesn't that sound nice? Lipstick Chronicles, Virginia. Or Kentucky. Not South Dakota, though. It doesn't have the right sound.

Grand Forks - named by French trappers "les Grandes Fourches" because it's at the junction of the Red and Red Lake rivers. It would not be inappropriate to call it Frostbite Falls. I now live in Grand Junction which is named for the junction of the Colorado (formerly Grand) and Gunnison rivers.

Well, I'm originally from Los Angeles, which is a shortened version of the original name which, if I recall, was El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora La Riena de los Angeles. And I learned that, not in school, but in reading what was probably a very early "fan fiction" book based on Disney's Zorro tv series. However, I scored points with my 7th grade social studies teacher for knowing it, regardless of the source. (So if I messed up the name a bit, apologies. That was a LONG time ago.)

I am originally from Dallas...not named for the tv show obviously. Growing up in southeastern PA, alot of names are celtic, I think.

Bala Cynwyd is one that really confuses people. A drive along route 30 is a riot with the uninitiated. LOL!

Here's one that I saw. My dad and I were involved in a car accident as we were going to Herndon to visit my brother's grave. We had been detoured, and got hit in a town called Pillow. The rescue people were a little slow on the uptake as I did my schpeel regarding the accident (one car went thru an intersection and hit a pickup which spun and hit us). Gave my name and number, exact location (ran to the intersection), number of cars and people who needed medics. They wanted to know where I was from...who cared..come here! LOL!

The one around here I had trouble figuring out how to pronounce is Uwchlan. And Conshohocken is the most fun to say, though people are tempted to say "bless you".

Laura (in PA), familiar names in PA. I attended Susquehanna University as an exchange student (many years ago).

Nancy, and I know pronounce with Indian name properly :)))

Wow, Paulina. That's really cool!

"Nancy, and I know pronounce with Indian name properly :)))"
Wrote too quickly. Sorry. It should have been: "I know to pronounce this Indian name properly"

Gee, I feel like the little brown wren saying I grew up in West Springfield, Mass. On one side of the Connecticut River was the "big city" - Springfield. On the other side, the town of West Springfield.

I'm originally from Amarillo, TX. Amarillo means yellow in Spanish and we have yellowish looking soil due to the caliche. I lived in Maine for a few years and there are lots of Native American names for towns there, too.

So far, I think the coolest place in Novi, named after a stagecoach stop. Fun!

Sarah, you must ask Charlie how Chagrin Falls got its name!

Born and raised in Indiana, PA.

Until recently, the college and high school mascots were Indians. In fact, I was the squaw my senior year, and I have the photo on Facebook to prove it.

This got me thinking about the city that I live in, Dearborn Heights. I don't really know too much about it. Now I know, it's because there isn't much history to have. It didn't become a city until 1960! It broke off from another city nearby, Inkster. Not Dearborn (MI). Then the name would make sense.

Hi to Novi!

Blue Island (a Chicago suburb) so named because in earlier days, so I'm told, it was actually an island that had a blue mist over it...not sure how much is legend and how much is fact, but most of the city sits on top of a hill...my house was at the bottom on one side of that hill :o)What's strange is that no one ever found the northern slope...we seemed to merge into Chicago at 119th Street without no much as a dip.

I was born in Marathon, Ontario. Can't find anything online about why it was named Marathon. It was well known when I was a kid, the pulp mill was right in town and when you got close to Marathon it was easily identifiable by the smell. Can't get much more romantic than than . . .

The trading of blankets to the Native Indians was the way that smallpox got released and a large portion of the native population died. Depends on who is writing the history as to whether the release of smallpox ridden blankets was intentional or not.

My first teaching job was in Blue Mound, IL known as "the town that adds color to IL". If I remember correctly the name was derived from a mound that had a blue hue. I just checked their web site and it has that slogan on it but no explanation of its derivation. I haven't been back there in many years so I don't know if the "mound" is still blue.

And what's under that Blue Mound, Diana? Curious, huh?

Grew up in Ottawa, Canada one of the prettiest cities on earth. Ottawa is based on Indian roots and was chosen by Queen Victoria to be Canada's capital. It was so pretty that I would sit along the banks of the Ottawa River and long for something else out there in the big world. Maybe I felt stifled..who knows. The best thing I did was move to Los Angeles California where history abounds. Many family trips were taken to Vermont and New York early on before coming west. Las Vegas was a frequent destination in the nineties and there is plenty of history there plus the nearby Grand Canyon. Obviously I am in love with the USA!

Ok, here goes...

I was born in Stockton, CA, which was named for Commodore Robert F. Stockton. It was the first community in California to not have a Spanish or Native American name.

I grew up way out in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, 4 miles outside the small village of Loma Rica, which means "rich land".

Loma Rica is about 20 miles from Marysville, which was named for Mary Murphy Covillaud, a survivor of the Donner Party.

I have lived in San Francisco, San Jose and San Diego, which were all named for Spanish missions.

Today, I live in Carmichael (named for Daniel Carmichael, who founded it), a suburb of Sacramento (named after the Sacramento River.

How did the Sacramento River get it's name? What does Sacre Mento mean In Spanish? Anyone know?

The Chicago name story was just on Story of the Week (I think) -- someone directed to the field of wild garlic (in that version) as a cure for scurvy. I looked back for details, but couldn't find it.
St. Charles, St. Peters, St. Louis -- you can see the pious French influence in the names . . ;-)

Here's a very short history of my hometown, Knoxville, TN. In 1786, James White settled near the head of the Tennessee River, and by 1791 the community was named Knoxville after the first Secretary of War, Henry Knox. A great number of towns and communities in East TN are adapted Cherokee names. I lived in a neighborhood called Sequoyah Hills, where the main road, Cherokee Boulevard, runs beside the Tennessee River (adapted from the Cherokee name Tanasi) and has a Mississippian Indian mound in the medium. My house was on Arrowhead Trail, and some of my friends grew up on streets named Talahi, Cheowa, and Agawela.

I currently live in Annapolis, MD, which was originally the home of the Algonguin and other Indian tribes. Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, offered the Puritans from the VA colony freedom of religion and land grants if they would settle on his land in Maryland. The community was established in 1649 as Providence, and soon following, Cecil Calvert named the surrounding area Anne Arundel County after his deceased wife.In 1694 the capital of Maryland was moved from St. Mary's City to the site then known as Anne Arundel Town. Royal Governor Francis Nicholson then named the town Annapolis after Princess Anne, who later became Queen of England.

Maryland's Cecil, Calvert, Howard, Carroll, Somerset, and Worchester Counties and Baltimore City are all named after important first families associated with Maryland. However we also have Wicomico County, named after it's main river.

From the City of St. Charles, MO website:

Since 1769, Saint. Charles, Missouri, a restored historic city on the Missouri River, has been welcoming visitors to its shores. Founded by French Canadian fur trader Louis Blanchette, the city was named Les Petites Cotes, ("The Little Hills"), which later evolved into Saint Charles. The town regularly welcomed guests from many nations and grew into an important trading center for countless pioneers. Because of its strategic location on the Missouri River and its entrance to the western territory known as the Louisiana Purchase, it was a critical destination for tens of thousands of travelers.

It was in Saint Charles in 1804 that William Clark and Meriwether Lewis departed up the Missouri River seeking the route to the Pacific Ocean by order of president Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had recently bought the Louisiana Purchase from the French and was eager to send these brave adventurers on their journey. Lewis and Clark’s presence in the region will forever be linked with Saint Charles.

My father's family settled in St. Charles in the 1840s from the Hanover Germany area. Although I was told by a high school boyfriend (who grew up in Germany) that my maiden name, Meers, is French (from the Alsace/Lorraine region), the "Original Meers" as we like to put it, came from Hannover. My family was one of the founding members of our church. There is a cross made out of a mantle timber from the house where the first service was conducted in 1849, I believe.

Here is the Wikipedia entry:


Chagrin Falls is named after a pair of falls on the Chagrin River. The word was a misspelling of Sha-ga-rin, an Erie Indian word for 'clear water.' Of course, when I was growing up (mid 60s to early 70s) and my grandparents took us to Chagrin Falls to get custard and pop corn at the locally famous Popcorn Shop, the water was not clear, but filled with gross suds from run-off and dumping of phosphates and other things. Now there's just trash from fools who want to see how far they can throw their popcorn containers and pop cans.

Actually the city really is very pretty, and has a great independent bookstore, Fireplace Books, and several other nice shops. It's worth a day of exploration, and relaxation. It gets a lot of people having fun at their annual Blossom Time Festival over Memorial Day, in case you're in the area.

Fireplace Books? Hmmm...I'm thinking field trip!

I also found that the French who lived in the area changed the name to St. Charles as a tribute to the Spanish king, Carlos. The Spanish controlled the "Upper Louisiana" territory at the time.

Fireplace Books - what a great name for a bookstore.

Sounds all warm and cozy, doesn't it?

Nancy, Sacramento means "sacrament" or "Lord's Supper"

I come from a town in Missouri called Springfield. It seems there is one in Illinois and several other states. Makes me wonder if they just ran out of names and started handing out Springfield?

Oh, Texans, where are you in the discussion? (with a nod to Amarillo, of course)
Bugtussle is one of my favorites, and I've always found some of the town names in East Texas to be quite charming: Humble, Harmony, Stout, Sulphur Springs, Mount Pleasant, Pecan Heights, Stamps, Love, Avenger, Harleton (!), and more. I once noted a string of tiny villages along the way to or from Sulphur Springs as bearing telling names such as Despair, New Hope, and something along the lines of Hearts Ease, but I can't find them on Google Maps just now without spending more time than I have.

We have Wakarusa, Mishawaka, Elkhart, and Foraker. Further south are Bean Blossom and French Lick.

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