Altoona, Natrona, Hike!
September 5, 1978
Illinois is not a distinctive-looking place but its towns bear some wonderfully distinctive names. This is one of two pieces I did on this topic; the other is here.
The Pyramids themselves, doting with age, have
forgotten the names of their founders.
— Thomas Fuller
Names fascinate me, especially the names of towns. Illinois was settled by messengers from all over the globe, and their far-flung origins are recorded on its maps. Often the founders gave their collection of cabins (some were not even that, only lines on a survey plat) the name of their homelands or some far off great city, as if the magic of its ancestor would attach itself by its name to its spawn.
By driving north and west from Springfield, for example, it is possible to perform a sort of linguistic circumnavigation of the globe, with stops at Greece (Athens), Iran (Teheran), England (Liverpool and Bath), Russia (Moscow, now abandoned), Germany (Berlin), even the Land of the Nile (Egypt Station. also abandoned). Fulton County is home to a magical stretch of Illinois Route 78, on which it is possible to journey from China (Canton) to Scotland (Dunfermline) in less than five minutes, the state police willing.
Few of these settlements are more than 150 years old. yet such is the inattention with which forward-looking Americans regard their past that already many of the details of their christenings have been forgotten. For instance, I have mused for years over why it is that three towns within twenty miles of one another in Mason and Fulton counties—Havana, Mantanzas Beach (on the Illinois), and Cuba—should bear Cuban names. The histories tell us only the obvious—for example, that Havana is named "in honor of the capital of the lsle of Cuba." The founder of Havana was a man named Ross, but what his Cuban connection was, if any, remains a mystery.
Some town names are the fruit of a marriage between whimsy and invention. Saidora in Mason County is said to have been named for two ladies, Sadie and Dora, who lived there. (Unexplained is why the town is not thus Sadora.) Sadie and Dora made up fully a sixth of the population; with a few more syllables, they might have gotten everybody in town into the name. And Natrona in that same county, whose name sounds vaguely Indian, was originally called Altoona, but had to be changed because there was already a village by that name up the road in Knox County. Astoria in Fulton County was first called Vienna and later changed to honor John Jacob Astor, though why is a secret buried with its founder.
The American Indian survives in many Illinois names. the most significant being that of the state itself. But the white man has treated the Indian languages with the perversity that ever characterized his relationship with his red brothers. For generations romantic Sangamon County residents insisted that Sangamon meant "land of plenty" in Potawatomie when in fact it has a much more prosaic meaning—river mouth. Other settlers, however, didn’t even do the local tribes the honor of borrowing their words, even to corrupt them, but stole words from tribes in other parts of the country to describe places in lllinois. Topeka in Mason County, for instance, bears the Siouan name for the Indian potato that flourishes there. and the nearby town of Manito bears the name of the Algonquin Great Spirit.
Quiver Creek in Mason County is not, as one might assume, named after the lndians' arrow quiver. As one , county historian explains, “‘Hunters in early days noticed that by standing a short distance from the water in some places and gently swaying the body, the ground for some distance around took on an undulating or quivering motion." The place might just as well been called "Delirium" or "Hangover Hollow."
Foreign language place names have long caused problems for native lllinoisans. whose tongues are seldom nimble enough to step around their strangely built syllables. Every first-time visitor, when safe with friends, laughs at the locals for pronouncing Vienna as "vye-enna," Athens as "aye-thens," Versailles as "ver-sales." In Mason County there is a hamlet called Snicarte. This construction, pronounced “snickerty,” is a corruption of the French for "remote channel," a local feature; the original reads "chenal ecarte." lf Americans slaughtered foreigners the way they slaughter foreign words, they would be reviled as the bloodiest of peoples.
San Jose is a village of 700 or so that straddles the Mason and Logan county lines. It was named after the city of that name in California. The name's been causing trouble for a hundred years. For example, an 1876 history of Mason County told of a town by the name of "Sangore." No one remembered there ever being such a town in the county; one man guessed that a mapmaker had stuck in a ficticious town bearing his name, according to the custom by which mapmakers guaranteed themselves a bit of eternity. It turned out that the phantom town was merely San Jose, mis-spelled.
Ruth Wallace Lynn, author of a sesquicentennial history of Mason County, tells the story of a further complication: "When the old Chicago and Alton laid its tracks, the troubles began. The head man on the railroad, a great one for details, sought the advice of four men visiting in the area from San Jose, California, about the correct pronunciation of the village’s name. The Californians answered, ‘San Hozay!’ When the Chicago and Alton rolled into San Jose, the properly trained conductor let go full lung with `San Hozay.'
"Nothing happened. Those bound for San Jose sat stony faced; when the train left, they went along. A few miles later several San Jose passengers tapped the conductor on the shoulder. , `You have carried us past San Jose,’ they said. They pronounced it J for joke, O for old, and Z for zebra, bearing down on the J. The conductor was informed that the law said he must back up and let them off; "Things became rather bitter at times. Delegations would call on the San Jose village board and complain. During the administration of William Hullinger as mayor, the board issued an edict to the railroad officials. ‘Pronounce it right,' the board said tersely.
"Among some of the interviews held with the senior citizens in San Jose, there is a school of thought that goes like this: ‘The San Jose passengers knew all the time that they were riding past their station. But most of them were German and downright stubborn about the thing. Anyway, the railroad was always backing up to let off a passenger for San Jose, or chucking him aboard a train bound vice versa. The railroad tired of this and finally pronounced the name right. And that is the way it is pronounced now—‘J for joke, O for old, and Z for zebra." ●