Origins of Idaho place names

Last week, we did a little research in our archives about place names in Idaho, which is already fun. Then we opened it up to the public on our Facebook page, and the response was fantastic. You asked about your town, and we found answers. So here are the name origins of 41 Idaho cities and towns, in alphabetical order. (Don’t see yours here? Then nobody asked! Just send us an email and we’ll add it.)

Arco: Arco was once a stage station known as “Root Hog at Kennedy Crossing”. Early residents applied for a post office under the name “Junction”, but it was rejected because there were too many Junctions already. The US Post Office Department suggested “Arco” in honor of German physicist/inventor Count Georg von Arco, who was visiting the US at the time, and citizens agreed because of the “arc” in the Big Lost River nearby.

Bennington: This town was named by early local LDS Church leader Evan M. Greene after Bennington, Vermont, the town where LDS President Brigham Young grew up.

Blackfoot: A man named Donald McKenzie first gave the name to the Blackfoot River, after the Native Americans he met there, who allegedly referred to themselves as “black foot” in their own language (Siksika). The name of the river was later applied to the town.

Boise: It appears as though the city was named after the Boise River. The river was so named by French-Canadian explorers and trappers after the variety of trees growing along its banks. Allegedly, after traveling over a long stretch of arid land, they were excited to see the woods: “les bois!”

Bone: A town full of stories, but unfortunately this one isn’t anything special. Orlin (or Orion) Bone and his family settled in the area in 1910. He started the famous Bone Store and the now-defunct post office, and named it all after himself.
Challis: Named for Alvan P. Challis, the surveyor when the town site was laid out. (He must have been a pretty good surveyor to receive that honor.)

Chilly: You might have guessed it, but it’s true: Chilly was named after the extreme cold that can hit the valley in winter. Maybe calling it that was the town’s way of attracting/tricking settlers (like “Greenland”), since the truth is more like “deep freeze”, but calling it “chilly” is a lot more believable than calling it “Tropics”? Well played, Chilly.

Coeur d’Alene: Early 19th century French fur trappers and traders in the region called the local Native American tribe “Coeur d’Alene”, which means something like “heart of the awl”, because they were such shrewd traders. After the Civil War, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman ordered a fort named after them to be built on the lake. The fort’s name was later changed to Ft. Sherman, but the name stuck to the city and the lake.

Declo: The town was originally known as Marshfield, but settlers couldn’t get approval for a post office in that name because it was apparently too long. It became Declo by joining the names of two prominent local families: Dethles and Cloughly.
Dubois: Fred T. Dubois was among the settlers who came to the area in the 1880s. (He was a prominent figure in the Idaho territorial government, and later served two terms in the U.S. Senate, where he was known for some pretty radical views.) The town had been known as Dry Creek, but a local politician decided to rename it after Dubois.

Eden: This area was, in fact, named after the Biblical Garden of Eden, because of the picturesque valley surrounding the town.

Felt: Apparently, John Felt and his brother (name unknown) came to the area in 1889 and claimed land near Badger Creek. The town site itself was dedicated many years later, in 1911.

Filer: This town was named for Walter Filer, the general manager of the Twin Falls Canal Company. Also, there used to be a town very close to Filer called Eldridge, but Filer absorbed it in 1919.

Firth: Named for Lorenzo J. Firth, an English immigrant who helped with the decision to place a railroad station in the town in 1890. He then gave some of his land to the railroad, who named the station in his honor.

Geneva: This town was named by Henry Touvscher, a settler who immigrated from Geneva, Switzerland.

Georgetown: It was known as Twin Creeks for its first couple of years, but LDS Church President Brigham Young renamed it Georgetown in 1873 after his friend, George Q. Cannon, who visited the colony with him.

Hamer: Named for Colonel Thomas R. Hamer, who moved to Idaho in 1893 and served as a state legislator and member of Congress.

Hazelton: This town was named after Hazel Barlow, the daughter of Joe Barlow, who founded the town in 1911.

Howe: Another example of that powerful Postal Department. The area’s first settler was an E. R. Hawley, but the request for a post office named “Hawley” was rejected because it was too similar to Hailey, in Blaine County. The Post Office, which loved short names, suggested “Howe” instead.

Idaho Falls: Our dear home was known by many different names early on: the area was Flathead Crossing, then Taylor’s Bridge or Taylor’s Crossing. It became Eagle Rock after a boulder in the Snake River where bald eagles nested and remained that for many years until the growing town fell on hard times with the departure of railroad shops in the 1880s. Land developers felt a town called “Idaho Falls” would attract more settlers and tourists, so the city changed its name in 1891. There were always rapids in the river, but the falls didn’t become a respectable falls until the damming of the river to build the hydroelectric power plant in 1911.

Iona: According to the town’s own history book, Iona was named by LDS Church President John Taylor. He visited early settlers in the area, then known as Sand Creek, and apparently suggested the name “Iona”, claiming it was the name of a small town in Israel that meant “beautiful”.

Irwin: This town was allegedly named for Joseph B. Irwin, who settled the area in 1888 and prospected successfully on the Snake River.

Island Park: According to our research, local stagecoach drivers in the late 19th century used natural clearings in the timber as rest areas for horses and passengers. Small businesses began popping up in some of these areas, which the drivers called “parks”. One of these “parks” became known as “Island Park” because it was surrounded on all sides by rivers and streams.

Lago: We know it was originally named Trout Creek when it was settled by trappers, but the name Lago could have either come from the Italian word for “lake” or a Native American word.

Lyman: Theodore K. Lyman was the first settler there in 1879. The area was previously known as Lyon Creek.

Mackay: In 1901, an Irish immigrant named John Mackay, who had become a millionaire from the Comstock Lode mining in Nevada, bought the White Knob copper mine in the Lost River Valley and built a smelter and platted a town site just below it.

Macks Inn: Quite simply, a man from Rexburg named William “Doc” Mack founded the resort in 1921.

Marsing: Earl and Mark Marsing settled the area in 1913, bought land, and platted a town site there. They called the town Butte because of Lizard Butte nearby, but the Postal Department rejected that name because there were too many Buttes already. The town suggested Marsing, which stuck, but to add confusion, different people continued to refer to the town as Butte, Erb (the name of the railroad station), and Claytonia.

Milo: First, there was a small settlement named Leorin, as well as a Leorin School. An LDS ward was organized there in 1900 and called the Milo Ward after Milo Andrus, an LDS pioneer who led a company across the plains to the Intermountain West. It’s probable that the Milo name then just became a common way for Mormons to refer to the area, so it stuck.

Montpelier: LDS Church leader Brigham Young named this town after the capital of his home state of Vermont.
Moore: This town, which started out as a livestock area in the 1880s, was named for the first postmaster and the owner of the town site.

Moscow: An interesting one. First, the Nez Perce called the area Tat-Kin-Mah, which meant “place of the spotted deer”. It was later known as Hog Heaven (!) for the camas roots that provided good food for swine. Then it was changed to Paradise Valley for some reason. There is some dispute about how the name Moscow came to be, but it probably came from S. M. Neff, the town postmaster, who had strangely lived in both Moscow, Pennsylvania, and Moscow, Iowa, before moving to Idaho. Interestingly, the one thing you don’t see is a direct connection to Russia.

North Fork: Simply named because of its location where the North Fork of the Salmon River meets the main part of the river. Lewis and Clark originally called the North Fork “Fish Creek”.

Preston: The settlement was originally called Worm Creek, but renamed in honor of William B. Preston, a prominent LDS Church authority who was an early settler of Cache Valley.

Rigby: Your town was named by LDS Church President John Taylor after William F. Rigby, a Driggs resident who had assisted in the settlement and early organization of the LDS Church in the area.

Ririe: A cool story. David Ririe was an early settler. His letters back to family were originally postmarked Birch Creek, then, Prospect, then Rudy, then Lorenzo, then Rigby. The area was suffering a lack of transportation around the turn of the century — farmers had no way to haul large crops to Idaho Falls or elsewhere to sell. David Ririe worked with the Oregon Short Line Railroad to come to the area, and convinced farmers (sometimes with some difficulty) to give a portion of their land so tracks could be laid for the benefit of all. He then, in 1914, gave some of his own land for a town site to be platted. In gratitude for his efforts, railroad officials insisted that the new town be named in his honor.

Salmon: Salmon was named for the Salmon River, which was named for the salmon found there. William Clark had originally named the river the Lewis, after his traveling companion who first spotted it, but the name didn’t last.

Spencer: When the Utah and Northern Railroad came through in 1879, the station was named for Hiram H. Spencer, who was a local shipper.

Swan Valley: This gorgeous area was apparently once a haven for whistling swans.

Ucon: According to our research, the town was first known as Willow Creek, but the US Postal Department wanted something shorter, so they suggested “Ako”. Citizens didn’t like that, so they suggested “Elva”. They called it that for a while, but there was another town in southern Idaho called “Elba”, so the Post Office ordered another change. Citizens gathered in 1911 and submitted three options: Twain, Strong, and Yukon. The Postal Department chose the latter, albeit with a spelling change.

Tetonia: As you might expect, this was simply named after the Tetons. And we all know how those were named…

Twin Falls: It turns out the city was named not after Shoshone Falls, but after the two smaller waterfalls about two miles upstream. Apparently, the “twinnedness” was more substantial before one of the falls was taken over by a power company.

Victor: Another cool story. The town was previously known as Fox, then Raymond, after the first LDS Church bishop in the area, David Raymond Sinclair. It was later named in honor of George Victor Sherwood, a courageous mail carrier whose route took him on treacherous terrain between Raymond and Jackson, Wyoming. For a time, his route was made even more dangerous because of exceptionally poor relations between the settlers and local tribes.

Wallace: This town was initially called Cedar Swamp, because that’s apparently what it was, then Placer Center, after the mining. Then in 1888, it was named in honor of Colonel W. R. Wallace, prominent land owner and member of the town’s first city council.

Note: We drew upon books, newspapers, and various documents in our archives for these answers. The book Idaho Place Names: A Geographic Dictionary, by Lalia Boone, was particularly helpful. No source is infallible, though. If you think we got something wrong, let us know.

NASA and Craters of the Moon (Idaho)

Don’t get mad at us for calling Craters of the Moon “weird”. President Coolidge said so himself when he designated it a National Monument in 1924.

Craters of the Moon is a weird national monument, and it shall remain that way, at least for now. In recent months, some have lobbied to upgrade it to a national park, while others pushed to reduce its size. In fact, it is easy to miss its grandeur and importance. From the highway, it’s just a forbidding, black mass that confuses children and tourists on the drive between Idaho Falls and Sun Valley. But it is important, and not just for the spelunking or the hidden flora and fauna.

You probably know that the main feature of the park – the lava fields – came about when a series of volcanos erupted between 2000 and 15,000 years ago. You may also know the two major classifications of lava rock there: the jagged aa (ask a Scrabble player), and the smoother, slabbier pahoehoe (ask Alexander Graham Bell or Mr. Burns). You may even know that NASA sent astronauts there to train for lunar missions back when lunar missions existed. In August 1969, just a month after Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, four astronauts landed in Arco. Three of them – Eugene Cernan, Edgar Mitchell, and Alan Shepard – did make it to the Moon, and Joe Engle almost did. At Craters, the astronauts traversed the lava beds and studied volcanic geology so they could describe what they saw 238,900 miles from home. The four eventually discovered that the actual lunar surface wasn’t terribly similar to Craters, although they still said their experience in Idaho was helpful.

What you may not have known is that Craters of the Moon’s role in space exploration did not end there. NASA still performs multi-disciplinary research at Craters to better understand rocky planets and moons, how to detect life there, and how autonomous robots can better explore their surfaces. This excellent 5-minute video from the National Parks Service sums up some of the research nicely.

Craters may not technically be another world, but it could help us get there. And, by the way, it can help you see other worlds as well. Earlier this month, Craters was designated Idaho’s first International Dark Sky Park.

“It has a stark beauty all its own. It’s like much of the high desert of the United States. It’s different, but it’s very pretty out here.”                                 — Neil Armstrong on the Moon, soon after his “one small step” speech.

Order your Moon rock today!

When we talk about Moon rocks, what do we mean? Not a lunar meteorite. That’s a piece of the Moon that has fallen to earth by natural processes. About 29 such meteorites have been found, including a big one that landed in the Libyan desert in 1999. The fragment now on display in the museum came from that one. Mind you, it didn’t leave the Moon in 1999. In all likelihood, it broke off from the Moon around 4.5 billion years ago, floated around for a while in the vastness of space, got bored and thought, “so what’s Libya’s deal?”

By the way, we know it’s from the Moon because it’s made of the same stuff as Moon rocks. If you think about it, that means we’ve only been able to identify lunar meteorites for a couple of decades, because before the Apollo missions, we actually didn’t know what the Moon was made of. Not completely, anyway.

The only actual Moon rocks humans have are from six Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972, and then trace amounts from unmanned Soviet probes in the ‘70s. We have 842 lbs. in all.

Our rock came from Apollo 15. Astronauts David Scott and James Irwin spent three days on the Moon, rode around in the first lunar rover, and picked up this piece of basalt at a place called Dune Crater. (By the way, you can actually listen to the audio and read the transcripts of Scott and Irwin talking to each other – and Houston – at Dune Crater here.) Astronauts usually photographed rocks in context, using a gnomon for size and color reference, picked them up with tongs, numbered them, and bagged them up.

After the first Moon missions, NASA quarantined rocks (and astronauts) until they could reasonably prove they were safe. This requirement was dropped for Apollo 15, though, since nobody from the earlier missions caught moon madness. Most Moon rocks remain at Johnson Space Center in Houston, where scientists continue to study them. The center’s website offers a virtual tour of its facilities, including cool-sounding places like the Pristine Sample Vault and the Experiment Lab. A few rocks are also held in a remote location in case of a natural disaster in Houston (like that ever happens).

Moon rocks have yielded some important discoveries. We now know the moon and earth are related, having formed from a common reservoir of materials. We know the moon once had a magma ocean. The lack of atmosphere on the moon also means its crust changes very, very little over time. That means we can study Moon rocks to learn about the early evolution of solar system.

Final note: there is a place on JSC’s website where you can request lunar samples for “both destructive and non-destructive analysis in pursuit of new scientific knowledge”. You can also request samples of meteorites, stardust, and cosmic dust, among other things. Good luck on the application, though.

The Big Blowup, Pulaski, and wildfire ecology

How about a little Idaho wildfire history to soothe your lungs on this glorious, smoky day?

Hurricane-force winds swept through the Idaho panhandle on August 20, 1910. “The wind was so strong,” said US Forest Service Ranger Ed Pulaski, “that it almost lifted men out of their saddles.” In what became known as “The Big Blowup,” the wind fanned a series of manageable forest fires into a towering behemoth that eventually swallowed 3 million acres, several small towns, and at least 85 people across Idaho, Montana, and Washington. By some accounts, the Great Fire of 1910 remains the largest wildfire in US history.

The entrance to the mine shaft used by Pulaski in the 1910 fire. Pulaski said he was unconscious when he heard one of his men remark that the boss was dead. In true legend form, Pulaski woke up, said “like hell he is”, and began crawling out.

The Big Blowup left a lasting impact on firefighting. For one, Ranger Pulaski, from Wallace, became a legend. When flames southwest of the town became too great to contain, he rounded up 43 firefighters and led them into a mine shaft under low visibility. He then hung blankets across the entrance and used his hat to scoop water from the mine and onto the blankets. The men eventually fell unconscious, but all except five survived the night and later crawled blindly to safety. The common firefighting tool combining an axe and an adze is named the Pulaski in his honor.

The museum’s fire bell, which rang from the Idaho Falls Fire Department’s downtown station starting in 1906.

1910 also had a major impact on how wildfires were fought – and not necessarily for the better. The US Forest Service (USFS) was a shaky, five-year-old organization then, and it won acclaim for its efforts to fight the fire and prevent it from spreading further. However, USFS leaders soon thereafter instituted a policy of immediate suppression of all fire — if possible, by 10am on the day one was discovered — believing they needed to completely vanquish all fire to survive as an organization. The service began working to discredit and suppress academics who argued that fire plays an important role in forest ecology. Of course, we now know those academics were right. Without occasional smaller, natural fires,  which trees can often survive, too much fuel can accumulate in forested areas. Fires under those conditions can grow larger and be more destructive to trees and soil. The USFS eventually reversed its position and now focuses on prevention and careful containment, even sometimes using fire to achieve certain objectives. But they probably could have saved much more of our land by just letting nature take its course all along.

So as you cough and wheeze your way to your car this evening and squint through tears up at the ominous blood moon bearing down, just know that it could be a lot worse. I guess that’s the lesson.

Why can’t I explain the total eclipse?

Having a hard time explaining your total eclipse experience to friends who missed totality? You’re not alone. Dr. Kate Russo witnessed her first total solar eclipse in Europe in 1999 and was enthralled. “I felt time stop,” she says, but she couldn’t figure out why. After traveling to Madagascar in 2001 to see another, she felt the same euphoria, even though she knew what to expect in the sky.

Russo, a trained clinical psychologist, decided then that she had experienced a powerful human event that deserved further study. She began conducting research, talking to people all over the world who had seen multiple eclipses, assuming that they would be better equipped to process the emotions they felt. Gratifyingly to Russo, the responses she received turned out to have real consistencies. She sums up the key common feelings in an acronym: SPACED.

  • Sense of wrongness. Russo says this often begins about five minutes before totality, when light and shadows truly begin acting in ways they don’t normally.
  • Primal fear. Just before totality, we know intellectually what’s coming, but it still feels ominous.
  • Awe. A sense of deference or insignificance in the presence of something greater.
  • Connection. Feeling tied to that something bigger, whether it’s the vastness of the universe, nature, or deity.
  • Euphoria. This is especially present in the final moments of totality.
  • Desire to repeat.

So there’s your answer – there just aren’t many other human experiences that carry all of these emotions. Russo says the best analogy might be – as heavy as it sounds – becoming a parent, simply because it’s a profound natural experience that causes people to forever see things from a different perspective. Other, more modest comparisons include sharing a great rock concert with thousands of fans (you just had to be there) or taking LSD. Russo says those don’t quite cut it, though, because they’re man-made experiences, so the primal-ness can be harder to come by. She’s also quick to note that those who get high hoping to enhance the eclipse experience typically find the opposite to be true, and they have trouble recalling details afterward.

Russo spoke at the Museum of Idaho on August 30. She has now seen 11 total solar eclipses, although two of them – in China and the Faroe Islands – were clouded over. She watched this last one atop a ski hill in Teton Village. She has authored three books on the human eclipse experience and still enjoys collecting others’ stories. You can reach her at