What’s in a name?
Steamboat Springs — When the New Horizons spacecraft neared the dwarf planet Pluto last summer, NASA made public a list of names it had put together after soliciting ideas online several months earlier.
SOME ARE FUNNY
■ James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge: Perhaps Steamboat’s most elaborate joke, the name started as a lighthearted suggestion by former city employee Craig Poff. After the city council took it seriously, it turned into a major issue and eventually, a town vote. Both sides stuffed the ballot box, turning to a photocopier for help. There were nearly three times as many votes cast as people who lived in town, and Brown won, edging out its nearest competitor, “The New Stockbridge,” 7,717 to 7,459.
■ Skunk Creek: The far northwest Routt County creek earned its name after a cowboy, looking for a refreshing drink, discovered several moments too late a dead skunk upstream was spoiling the water.
■ Yahoo Mountain: The mountain earned its name when a cowboy lost in a snowstorm shouted, “Yahoo! Yahoo!” in an effort to be rescued.
■ Whiskey Gap: The pass earned its name from miners looking for a drink who would leave the dry outpost of International Camp and travel through the gap to wet Hahn’s Peak Village.
■ Lost Ranger Peak: It’s not as exciting as it seems: a group of rangers planned a rendezvous at the peak. One got lost en route.
■ Dinosaur Lake: Surveyor Van Alcar named the Buffalo Pass lake as a joke after finding a wealth of salamanders on its shores.
■ McAlpin Mountain: Len McAlpin ran a sawmill and was a gifted fighter on the side. He met his match in a tricky professional fighter who disguised himself as a simple sheepherder and won the bout.
■ J.C. Creek: The creek got its name when a rancher cursed “Jesus Christ!” when he couldn’t remember the original name.
■ Fly Creek: No insects here: the creek was named for Albert Fly, who settled in the area with his family.
■ Fly Gulch: There are still no insects involved, but rather another settler, this one named by Faunt Fly, in honor of his father.
■ Priest Creek: The creek and chairlift are named for Chester F. Priest, the first to settle on that stream.
SOME ARE TRAGIC
■ Dead Mexican Park: One possible story: A sheepherder murdered his Mexican co-workers in the area in 1915 after gambling away his and their wages in Columbine.
■ Battle Creek: In 1841, a pack of trappers and Indian allies held off 500 attacking Indians in the area in far northwest Routt County. After sustaining 10 causalities and inflicting 100, the trappers left as soon as possible.
■ Adams Creek: The creek was named for a hunter who got into an armed showdown with local settlers. Bad move. A lynch mob hung him. He lost his life, but gained a creek.
■ Scott’s Run: Scott, a trapper, wounded a grizzly bear. Oops. The bear got its revenge, and Scott’s body was found mauled on the banks of Hinman Creek.
■ Agner Mountain: Settler Joe Agner was killed when his horse drug him to death while he was roping a calf.
■ Calf Creek: After Agner’s death, his friends drowned the supposedly responsible calf in the nearby creek.
■ Meaden Creek and Peak: Marcy Meaden was a forest ranger later killed in World War I.
OTHERS ARE INTERESTING
■ Gilpin Lake: William Gilpin was the first territorial governor of Colorado.
■ Seedhouse: A project of the U.S. Forest Service in 1912, Seedhouse was meant to collect seeds and pine cones from the area, but proved too costly. In the 1930s and ’40s it served as a summer camp.
■ Clark: The small community, in its early days, was apparently a magnet for “Clarks.” It was potentially named after Worthington Clark, who helped run the stage stop, or Rufus Clark, the first postmaster.
■ Steamboat Springs: The area’s hot springs would shoot water up to the surface and create a sound reminiscent of a steamboat. There is debate about how the phenomenon ended. The common story blames railroad construction. Another story blames the Crawford children, who supposedly rolled boulders down the hill and into the springs. Most likely, the soft rock that caused the effect simply eroded away.
■ Twentymile: Steamboat founder James Crawford claimed he came up with the name because he estimated the area to be 20 miles wide when he crossed it in 1875.
■ Strawberry Park: L.R. Remington started growing strawberries in the park, sparking an economic boom. The environment ended up winning, freezing out crops in 1915 and 1916.
■ Diagon Alley: Alleys in Steamboat Springs didn’t always require names, at least until a house on them needed an address. That’s how a no-name alley in downtown Steamboat went from nothing to a Harry Potter tribute in the early 2000s. A splitting of lots left a new house on the alley, and Steamboat city employees Winnie Delliquadri and Susan Dellinger had the chance to pick the name. Harry Potter was all the rage at the time, so the choice was easy. Less than a month later, the city revised its alley naming practices, requiring that any new alleys be named for the streets they’re between. “It makes them easier to find,” Delliquadri said, “but it’s not terribly entertaining.”
■ Gore Pass: The pass and mountain range are named for Sir George Gore, a hunter who launched a major expedition into the area in the late 1800s.
■ Yahmonite Street: The downtown Steamboat street was named after a Ute Indian sub-chief who was friendly with many of the early settlers
■ Hayden: The town is named for Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, a surveyor and later, a Civil War physician for Union forces, who explored the region before and after the war. A valley at Yellowstone National Park, a snake, a snail and a building on the University of Pennsylvania campus are among other things named after Hayden.
■ Stagecoach: The stagecoach route essential to the growing communities came up from the south, over Yellow Jacket Pass, and through the area where the reservoir now sits.
■ Bar UE and WJW chairlifts: Both names were cattle brands for the Werner family.
The list proved to be a treasure trove of names beloved by both nerds and adventurers. It included spacecraft similar to Sputnik and Challenger, explorers similar to Tenzing Norgay and Leif Eriksson and pop culture stalwarts similar to Spock and Leia.
The names were to be bestowed upon Pluto’s geological features and its moons as the opportunities presented themselves. Today, three months later, Pluto’s Sputnik Planum spreads toward the Norgay Montes, and on the orbiting Charon — a moon, not a space station — craters named “Skywalker” and “Vader” circle.
One hundred and forty years ago, a force — one far more transformative than the New Horizons’ flyby proved to be for Pluto — was barreling toward northwest Colorado, and there was no organization similar to NASA to reach out across the Internet to solicit name suggestions from interested parties around the world.
Instead, settlers did it themselves, and now, their fingerprints are spread across the region in names for the land, the geographical features and even bars and restaurants, honoring people and places those pioneers hoped to remember and honoring those pioneers themselves.
Some of the names honor politicians of the day. Routt County itself is named after John Long Routt, last territorial governor and first state governor of Colorado. Others remark on a location’s resemblance to something else. It’s safe to say, for instance, South Routt’s Finger Rock isn’t named after John Finger.
Still more earned their names from a story, some funny, some not. Butcherknife Creek, for instance, was so named when an early settler found a knife on its banks.
There’s a name behind every street, every peak and every creek, and while it may not have its roots in a galaxy far, far away, there’s a story behind every name.
People behind names
Lincoln Avenue is an easy one.
No, it’s not named after a car brand and not even a Nebraska city, but rather for the 16th president of the United States.
It’s far from unique; Lincoln is the 26th most popular street name in the United States and the second most popular for streets named after a person.
No offense to Honest Abe, but many of Routt County’s other landmarks are much more interesting.
“A lot of the streams, mountains and different areas were named after the homesteaders or ranchers who lived in the area,” said Jim Stanko, a local historian and one of the authors of The Historical Guide to Routt County, a book that includes an extensive list of names and their meanings.
Hahn’s Peak was named for German immigrant Joseph Hahn, whose quest to find gold in the area eventually led to his death.
The South Routt County town of McCoy is named for Charles McCoy and his wife, Rebecca, who ran a nearby ferry essential for connecting the railroad trailhead in Wolcott with northwest Colorado communities.
The Burgess family was among the region’s first settlers, and today, that contribution is marked by a creek running in southeast Steamboat Springs, a chairlift and a ski run at Steamboat Ski Area.
James Crawford, meanwhile, with his family, was the town’s original white settler and has a street downtown named in his honor.
“The other common theme is that things were named after something that occurred there,” Stanko said.
The best example of that is Butcherknife Creek, so named because one of the Crawford children found a knife on its shores.
Cow Creek, too, earned its name from the Crawfords.
“They found some stray cows there along that creek one winter,” Stanko said.
Not everything is from that time period, either.
Mount Werner, Bud Werner Memorial Library and Buddy’s Run at the ski area are all named for Buddy Werner, the Steamboat-born American Alpine skiing superstar who was killed in a 1964 avalanche in St. Mortiz, Switzerland.
Try, try, try again
Before it was Mount Werner, it was Storm Mountain, and it took intervention by Congress to get the name changed. And the mountain is far from the only landmark named for a local.
Not every name sticks, a phenomenon that explains one of the weirder naming quirks in Steamboat Springs: Second Street doesn’t exactly fit well on the current downtown grid, and First Street doesn’t exist at all.
For about the first 20 years of the 20th century, Second Street was a main route into Steamboat Springs from the south valley, along what is today River Road through Brooklyn, and then across the Yampa on a bridge right through were Rabbit Ears Motel currently stands.
Nearly all of that eventually changed, of course. The Second Street bridge was torn down, and bridges at Fifth and 13th became the ways across the river in town. Second Street still exists, but only a few blocks of it connecting Pine and Amethyst streets, near Steamboat Springs High School.
First Street was a little stranger. Stanko said it ran along the north side river to the Sarvis Saw Mill and a grain elevator, located southeast of downtown where Iron Horse Inn now sits.
Today, Hill Street is an awkward, two-segmented road on the east end of downtown, a causality of the mismatched grids in downtown streets. It’s also one of the more boring street names in town, but it wasn’t always that way, not after preacher James Norvell moved into a house there.
“You’ll see on the old maps,” Stanko said. “Norvell, he was known as a cowboy preacher, and he built a lot of churches in Routt County, and that’s what he was famous for. He was a cattleman and also an avid Christian and preacher (and) named that street Hellfire Avenue.”
According to The Historical Guide of Routt County, early settlers and trappers knew what is today the Yampa River as the Bear River. The name, of course, makes sense, as it’s perfectly normal to see black bears in and around the river today, but the book says the name “Bear River” was the result of a miscommunication between Native Americans and earlier settlers. The latter thought “Yampa” was Ute for “Bear,” when, in fact, the word “Yampa” referred to a root vegetable similar to a carrot that grew in the area.
Old newspaper accounts seem to use both names for the river until the early part of the 20th century, when Bear River finally faded out.
Its current name seems to fit Oak Creek fine, as there’s a creek that runs through town, and scrub oaks dot the surrounding slopes. The town was originally named Belltown, for brothers Sam and Ed Bell, who founded it. That didn’t last long, however, and by the early 20th century, the coal mining community had assumed its current name.
Even names from the second half of the 20th Century underwent changes.
Bear Claw was the name given to the first significant peak on what would become Mount Werner by the original operators of Steamboat Ski Area, then called Storm Mountain Ski Area. Bill Fetcher, whose father was among those founders, said the name changed with a change in management.
Christie Peak, as it’s now known, doesn’t refer to someone’s girlfriend, but a common type of turning skiers use, Christie turning, which slips somewhere between wedge turning and parallel turning. The term relates back through Scandinavia to Kristiania, which, keeping with the theme of changing names, is an old name for Oslo, Norway.
“Thunderhead,” Fetcher said, “they may have pulled out of a hat.”
Debate about it
Whether they’ve changed or not, most name-worthy Routt County sites do, in fact, have a name, and one that everyone agrees.
That’s not true for every location, however.
The name for Elk Mountain, for instance, shifts depending on where you’re standing. From downtown Steamboat Springs, it’s a hugely recognizable landmark, the backdrop of countless Lincoln Avenue photos: Sleeping Giant, with his head to the south and his feet on the north.
The mountain is as visible from many other parts of the valley, but its “giant” interpretation is not.
“I think both names will carry on,” Fetcher said. “Up in Clark, it doesn’t look like a giant, and Elk Mountain is used, mostly by rural folk.”
Even some of the region’s most beloved terrain is inconsistently named. Consult a map, and Quarry Mountain overlooks downtown Steamboat Springs. According to Stanko’s Historical Guide to Routt County, asking early settlers may have brought forth the name Onyx Mountain, named for a mineral mined on its lower slopes. A quarry midway up gave it its on-the-map name of Quarry Mountain, and by the 1930s, the name Emerald Mountain had taken hold. Within 20 years, a ski lift was strung up the side, and “Emerald Mountain” was advertised across the country as a top-tier skiing destination.
Little baffles those who’ve studied area naming more than Sarvis Creek, or maybe it’s Service Creek.
The area is rife with the bright-red serviceberries, and presumably, that’s how the area, now a U.S. Wilderness Area, was named. Except it’s not. It’s known as the Sarvis Creek Wilderness.
To add to the fun, Stanko said the Sarvis Creek Lumber Company had a mill on the east end of Steamboat Springs, and it got its logs from the Service Creek area, floating them down the creek, then the Yampa River, wrecking farmers’ irrigation infrastructure along the way.
What accounts for the change? No one’s quite sure. Maybe it was the mix of Service and Sarvis thanks to that early-Steamboat sawmill? Maybe it was the thick accents of early settlers, who intended to say Service all along, but inadvertently changed it to Sarvis?
“It’s the same thing,” Stanko said. “Over the years, people have intermingled the two.”
Lessons in naming
Gretchen and Marc Sehler have spent decades serving as often-unofficial stewards of Emerald Mountain and its trails, all of which lie right outside their Fairview backdoor, and in all those years of work building and maintaining trails, they’ve earned the chance, or earned the right, to name plenty of them.
In fact, they may have named more things in and across Steamboat than anyone since the town’s settlers and the Steamboat Ski Area pioneers.
Through the years, they’ve learned a series of lessons about finding a good name.
■ Lesson 1: Keep it interesting to
keep it around
The name of the Blair Witch trail on Emerald Mountain still annoys Gretchen, even roughly 15 years later.
She’d tried to name it “Forest Connector,” but, perhaps inspired by the wooded scenes from the 1999 movie “The Blair Witch Project,” riders had taken to calling it Blair Witch, and that’s what stuck.
“I hate that name,” she said a moment before finding a way to rationalize it. “It is pretty unique. There’s a Blair Witch at Breckenridge, too, but ours is more fun.”
■ Lesson 2: Spur of the moment can work
The Sehlers were biking with a friend one day, trying to explain a route near the top of the mountain. His response: “Oh, the rooty one, the root canal one?” Root Canal stuck and made perfect sense for the rough, tree-lined climb.
The story was similar for “Lane of Pain,” a name prompted by local Marc Bennett. Stairway to Heaven started as a half-joke scrawled on a way-marking sign at a Town Challenge Mountain Bike race pointing to a steep climb near the top of the mountain. It stuck, too.
Lupin wasn’t named with an entirely different premise. Steamboat Community Youth Corps volunteers built the trail and picked the name because they saw the flowers along the route every day when they worked.
“Sometimes, names just happen,” Gretchen said. “They stick, and it’s perfect.”
■ Lesson 3: A bit of history goes a long way
Larry Johnson was the man who introduced the Sehler’s to Lyman Orton, and that relationship is one that helped pave the way first for the Sehler’s overseeing maintenance on the trails on Orton’s Emerald Mountain property, and later, for the city’s purchase of a swath of that land.
When Johnson died in 2005 at 60 — “Way too young,” Gretchen said — naming a trail after him seemed right. Now, “Larry’s” is a 1.2-mile trail that zig-zags its way up Emerald Mountain.
“We needed to do something,” Gretchen said. “Without that introduction, who knows what would have happened up there.”
Morning Gloria honors Gloria Gossard, a long-time local who donated 120 acres on Emerald.
Beall Trail is named after Ben Beall Sr., a Routt County commissioner from 1993 to 2000, who helped arrange the land swaps that made the trail, on the back side of Emerald Mountain, possible. Initially, the Bureau of Land Management balked at the name, but Gretchen said after a change in management there, the name sailed through.
Wild Rose is the newest trail on Emerald Mountain, completed late in the summer, and it, too, has historic roots, named after a ranch that used to exist in the same area.
“I like to look in the history books for names,” Gretchen said. “I saw Wild Rose and thought it was perfect. When it was first proposed to BLM, it already had a name.”
■ Lesson 4: Personal can work, too
Unbeknownst to many who pedal or hike there, parts of Emerald Mountain serve as tributes to the four-legged companions that accompanied the Sehlers on many trail building days.
MGM stands for Mica (one of their dogs), Gretchen and Marc. Abbie’s, meanwhile, honors the Australian shepherd that helped them sniff that trail out 25 years ago.
“She would run that way every time,” Gretchen said. “I would follow her, and that was her trail. That’s where she wanted to go.
“She was an awesome dog, one of my best ever, just a good, loving dog.”
Their most recent dog exhibits an opposite effect. “Emmy” is named after Emerald Mountain itself.
All about story
Even to those who’ve spent time studying them, the stories are spotty, and Stanko acknowledges as much.
Why was there a knife on the shore of a creek?
The Burgess family homesteaded on the west end of town, near the airport, but the creek named in their honor runs through Steamboat Ski Area. What gives?
And seriously, Sarvis?
Some of the stories came from the diaries of those early settlers. Others were recorded in old newspapers, and many, many more were handed down, retelling after retelling, through the generations.
“I was lucky enough to get to talk to a lot of the old timers,” Stanko said. “I guess I’m getting to be one of the old timers now.”
He’s as committed as anyone to passing along those stories, and one he tells is about the Woolery Ditch.
The Woolery Ditch is not a significant Routt County landmark.
Stanko said the Woolery brothers were early homesteaders in the Steamboat Springs area, and once they were here, they split up, one brother staking a claim on the north side of the Yampa River and the other on the south.
The brother who ended up on the south had trouble one winter when his wife became ill. There was better medical treatment available across the river in Steamboat, so she traveled there and stayed with the in-laws.
Still, the trip didn’t help, and when spring came, she died, just as the Yampa River was nearing its peak for the season.
There was no way for her husband and children on the south side of the river to attend the funeral, so instead, it took place on the banks of the roaring river, the family close enough to see what was happening, but too far for a proper goodbye.
Today, the Woolery ranch south of town is long split up, but the name lives on and not with a mountain peak, an important road or even a ski trail.
It lives on with one irrigation ditch along Stanko’s farm southwest of town and with his story about the family that gave the ditch its name.
Unlike the story behind the Skywalker Crater on Pluto’s moon Charon, this story actually happened.
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