Bill Russo is a retired Editor of several newspapers in the Boston area, as well as a former radio news writer and reporter.
5. Swilling's Mills
The first city on the list that had its name tarred, feathered, and run out of town was a prosperous little village in the American West of the late 1800s. If you had been living in the town at the time, you probably would have joined forces with those demanding that the inelegant name be changed to anything but Swilling’s Mills.
“There’s nothing wrong with our town’s name," said one of the men at a meeting called for the purpose of instituting a more fitting and proper appellation for the community. “Our village was not named for the four dance halls and 16 saloons on Main Street, or for the drunken swilling of cheap whiskey—but for Major Jack Swilling, hero of the Indian Wars, the Civil War, and the great canal builder who founded this town.”
“He’s right,” added a shopkeeper, “Jack Swilling was a stalwart of the first rank. He was our first postmaster and justice of the peace. And even if he was one of the most eager patrons of the 16 saloons and four dance halls, he should never be dishonored by disowning ‘Swilling’ as our name.”
The town’s sheriff was not so sure. “I know that Swilling was a visionary. When he saw this area he felt that it would be the center of a booming farming community except that it lacked water. His canal building is what made our town wet and prosperous. But what about his involvement in the infamous “Favorite Killing?”
A few newcomers to the West were unfamiliar with the story, so he explained…..
“A few years after he started the town in 1871, President U.S. Grant gave Swilling a land patent for the area and it was decided to hold an election for the first sheriff. Major Swilling did not run and may not have been involved – but the race was tainted. There were three candidates; Jim Favorite, Tom Barnum, and John A. Chenworth. Favorite and Chenworth were the leading contenders for the job. One of the two heard that the other was saying that if he lost, he had been guaranteed the job of deputy. This led to a falling out and a sunlit gunfight at dawn between them. Favorite fell dead and Chenworth fell out of the race. His withdrawal left Tom Barnum as the only candidate and the first sheriff of our town.”
The debate on the fate of the town’s moniker continued for some years. The village grew quickly into a city and the city bloomed into a megalopolis – today it is one of the largest in the United States.
Its new name? Many sources say that one of Jack Swilling’s old pals, ‘Lord’ Darrell Dupa came up with it. He suggested the name “Phoenix”
Phoenix, Arizona today is the sixth-largest city in all of the 48 contiguous states. It is also the largest U.S. state capital, and with 1.4 million people it is the only one with a population over a million.
Though Phoenix may have acquired a genteel name through debate and perhaps voting, there was no choice for the residents of Pile-Of-Bones. The name was quickly and summarily changed shortly before the year 1900.
Pile-Of-Bones sprouted from an 1882 map showing that the route of the great and powerful Canadian Pacific Railroad would pass by a certain parcel of arid and featureless grassland; which had but one distinguishing characteristic—a mountain of buffalo bones that glistened when the sun shined. The Lieutenant Governor of the North-West territories just happened to own that land which quickly birthed a sleepy village. In a national scandal, the collection of shacks and shanties therein was designated as the seat of the territorial government. By the middle of the 20th century, the ragged little town mushroomed into a major city.
Today it is the capital city and the seventh-largest metropolitan area in Canada. What about the name Pile-of-Bones? Apparently, that handle didn’t sit well with Princess Louise, the Dutchess of Argyll. She told her hubby, the Governor-General of Canada, that she wanted to name the community after her Mother, Queen Victoria of England. And thus was born the city of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.
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3. Sing Sing
“Sing Sing” is a perfectly fine name for a town in that it conjures up images of The New Seekers (“I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”) or perhaps Gale Garnett ("We’ll Sing in the Sunshine").
Either song will do for an anthem of fun and happiness. As for city names, there must be at least 57 thousand that are worse.
But then there’s that damn prison! It’s a maximum-security facility on the east bank of the Hudson River about 30 miles north of New York City in the village of Sing Sing.
The town of Sing Sing was born in 1813—unluckily 13 years later Sing Sing Prison was built.
The residents of Sing Sing the town were nice, hard-working people.
The residents of Sing Sing the prison were not.
Among those who lived behind its sturdy walls were The Brooklyn Vampire and serial killer, Albert Fish. He was also known as the Moon Maniac, the Cannibal Killer, and The Boogey Man.
David Berkowicz—the Son of Sam Killer.
Bank Robber and master of disguise, Willie Sutton.
The Rosenbergs—A married couple executed as spies.
Those prisoners and many thousands more lived and died alongside the quiet streets of a city whose residents sometimes felt shame at their town’s name.
There was also another problem. Consider the plight of the local manufacturing community. They had to stamp “Made In Sing Sing” on their products and people in the rest of the 48 states (this was well ahead of Alaska and Hawaii becoming part of the U.S.) were unable to tell whether the products were made by the good citizens of Sing Sing the town or the bad criminals of Sing Sing the prison!
Clearly, the name had to change. In 1901 it did. From the Native American community, a suggestion came for a change to the name Ossinsing—a variation of the name Sing Sing. The name was adopted with a minor change. The last ‘s’ was dropped so that it would be easier to pronounce.
Today the 38,000 good folks of Ossining exist in peaceful anonymity alongside the infamous Sing Sing Prison.
2. Hot Springs
Unlike the other locales listed, Hot Springs had no pressing reason to change its name. The town is the site of many hot springs which are said to have healing properties. In the early days of its settlement around 1916, the village quickly developed into a spa resort town with a robust economy.
What changed? Why would the good citizens of Hot Springs take such a fine name and run it out of town?
It was radio. That new fangled radio set in the living room did it. In 1950 there was a highly rated radio show that wanted to celebrate its tenth anniversary on the airwaves in a big way. It was announced that the first city in the 48 United States to change its name to the name of the show would be honored by having the program broadcast from its town.
In truth, to us in the years of the 21st century, this does not seem like much of a prize. But to the simpler folks of a simpler time like 1950, a live radio show coming from your town was a huge deal.
The 4755 residents of Hot Springs, after listening to the broadcast, quickly voted to rename the town in honor of the radio program.
And the very next night some 30 million listeners tuned into radio’s number one program, on the CBS radio network, and heard the announcer say, “This is Ralph Edwards bringing you your Saturday night radio party Truth or Consequences, live from the city of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico."
Truth or Consequences was always in radio’s top ten during the years from 1940 to 1950 and it continued on radio until 1956. It also had a healthy run on television. It was a skit program in which the host, the slick-talking Ralph Edwards, asked specially selected contestants to answer a question—usually a silly question. When they failed to say the truth and gave an incorrect answer they had to pay a consequence which was generally an interesting and funny stunt.
One consequence in 1944 involved Edwards giving a man half of a thousand dollar bill. He said the other half could be found in a book. The program then had 18,000 books sent to the poor fellow. He had to thumb through each one to find the other half of the bill. Luckily it was found and the books were donated to servicemen and veterans' hospitals.
During the seven war bond drives held by the United States during the Second World War, Truth or Consequences went on personal appearance tours and sold over $259 million worth of bonds—an all-time record verified by the U. S. Treasury.
So Truth or Consequences was a big deal in 1950 when Ralph Edwards broadcast the show live from the newly named community of Truth or Consequences.
The program visited its namesake city several more times during its run and Mr. Edwards himself visited Truth or Consequences in the first week of May every single year from 1950 to the year 2000. He passed away at the age of 92 in 2005 leaving behind a legacy of having the only radio show with a city named for it.
If ever a place needed a name change it is Intercourse, named innocently enough for its central location at a crossroads. So why didn’t they call it Crossroads? I don’t know the answer but I do know that the name was changed to ‘Siloan’—but it didn’t take! There must be some sort of a map makers conspiracy in play because even though the residents have requested the change, each new map keeps coming up with Intercourse!
One story about the tiny town, which may or may not be true, is as follows. There’s a general store at the crossroads and a meeting hall nearby. A notice was posted promoting the local ladies' sewing club. The notice said, “Intercourse Lessons Wednesday Night”. Following a number of car crashes in front of the town’s meeting hall, the ladies were requested to remove their sign.
Whether that story is true is doubtful but it is true that the map makers still call the town Intercourse instead of the preferred ‘Siloan’.
It’s true. You could look it up in Wikipedia—Intercourse in Alabama.