A place by any other name …
Most locals have long since adjusted to the area’s frequently folksy place names. Some, like Aspen or Marble, are self-explanatory. Others likely leave visitors wondering.
Many of them, whether mundane or outlandish, have their roots in the first days of American frontier expansion, exploration and settlement in the region. Often, sources differ or repeat the same story, leaving many local legends unsubstantiated or contradictory.
It’s no surprise that the lower Roaring Fork Valley’s most significant landmarks is named after one of the first Europeans to visit the area. Capt. Richard Sopris first saw the peak the Utes called Mother Mountain in summer 1860, when he climbed a pass from the Eagle Valley as part of a prospecting expedition.
A survey led by Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden in the 1870s is generally credited with naming assigning Rifle its name, as well as a broad array of other local landmarks. Sources differ, however, on whether they marked the location of some of their own weapons to find later, or encountered a rusty old firearm left by someone else and marked it down.
If the latter, it belongs in a category with Coffee Pot Road and the Fryingpan River, which both reportedly took their name from artifacts. Either way, Rifle holds the distinction of being the only town by that name in the country, according to a 1962 report by the Rifle Telegram.
Silt, also unique but somewhat less poetic, was named by the railroad company due to its light soil. Its residents seem undaunted by the occasional “Silt Happens” bumper sticker, and have resisted occasional attempts to change the name.
The railroad is also one origin theory for Dotsero, which marks the dot zero point of a cutoff line between the Colorado River and the Denver Salt Lake Railroad. The inversion “Orestod” on other end of the cutoff certainly owes its name to the railroad, but the Dotsero predates construction and may come from a zero point on an older line.
In the 1934, the Glenwood Post suggested that Dotsero may take its name from the Ute word for “something new,” which would have referred to volcanic activity in the caldera just above the highway there.
A similar debate surrounds Parachute. The prevailing theory is that the creek was named for the pattern of drainages coming off the Roan, which somewhat resemble parachute cords. Sources differ on whether the comparison was drawn by the Hayden survey or early settler John Halbert.
Others assert that it’s an anglicization of “pahchouc” a Ute word meaning “twins,” which refers to the mountains on either side of the stream. Yet another tale imagines a group of hunters coming to the top of the plateau above and asserting that a parachute would be necessary to descend to the valley below.
In any case, the town was actually named Grand Valley when it was incorporated in 1908.
At the time, the branch of the Colorado River that flows through western Colorado was known as the Grand River and was not considered the main stem. It wasn’t until 1921 that one of Colorado’s congressmen petitioned the government to assign the headwaters of the Colorado to the Grand, which has a greater flow and actually flows through the state of Colorado, rather than the Green, which is longer above the confluence and likely gave the river it’s ruddy colored name in the first place.
On July 4, 1980, decades after the change, the citizens of Grand Valley voted to change the town’s name back to Parachute, perhaps to avoid confusion with the area around Grand Junction.
The Roaring Fork River, meanwhile, hails back to the Ute name “Thunder River.”
Three Mile and Four Mile creeks, which are often the subject of confusion for being longer than their title, flow into the Roaring Fork 3 miles and 4 miles above the river’s confluence with the Colorado, respectively. Local historian Len Shoemaker wrote that Cattle Creek gained its name when the first homesteaders in the area encountered grazing cattle from the Eagle Valley.
No Name creek, and the associated settlement, was originally supposed to be named “Cobblehurst,” former Post Independent editor Heather McGregor wrote in “A Guide to Glenwood Canyon.” There appears to have been some debate when it was time to send in the papers, however, and the field was filled out “no name,” at which point the state apparently took settlers at their word.
Other names are more straightforward. Most of the early settlers on Missouri Heights were from Missouri. New Castle, originally called Grand Butte, was ultimately incorporated in honor of New Castle on Tyne in England, and Cardiff was named for the capital city of Wales.
Although Len Shoemaker indicates that “Dinkels” was originally considered as a name for Carbondale, after William Dinkel, it was ultimately named after several settlers’ hometown of Carbondale, Pennsylvania. Dinkel’s name stuck to the building where he ran his store and has been applied to a lake near the base of Sopris.
The earliest settlers to Glenwood Springs called it Defiance, after Fort Defiance on the Flat Tops. Isaac Cooper, a significant figure in the town’s founding, liked the name, but his wife, Sarah, convinced him it was unsuited to such a pretty area. Instead, it was named after their hometown of Glenwood, Iowa. The springs themselves officially retain the name Yampah, a Ute word that means “big medicine.”
Cooper later went on to settle most of his family near Carbondale in a town which initially bore his name – Cooperton. The name didn’t stick, however, and it ultimately became known as Satank, after Kiowa Chief Set Angya, or Sitting Bear.
Cooper still gives his name to a street in Glenwood, putting him in the company of John Blake, another early settler whose common-law wife, Gussie, reportedly ran a brothel built onto the side of the courthouse.
Pitkin Avenue is presumably named for Frederick Walker Pitkin, the second governor of Colorado, who also gives his name to Pitkin County.
Garfield County takes its name not from a cartoon cat, but from James Garfield, the 20th president of the United States. He took office in 1881, two years before Garfield County was carved out of Summit County. Garfield was shot just four months into the job. Alexander Graham Bell devised a metal detector in an effort to find the bullet, but was unsuccessful due to the metal springs of Garfield’s sick bed. The president developed blood poisoning and pneumonia, prompting the development of a primitive air conditioner to cool his room, but he ultimately died in September 1881.
In the end, it’s hard to say how much of an impact a name makes. Perhaps Glenwood Springs would attract a different sort of tourist were it still called Defiance, and Shooters Grill might not have created quite as much stir were it not located in Rifle. For the rest, the names are just a lingering connection to a not so distant past, when the land seemed new.
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