Ever been to Seldom Seen Pond in Canaan, Connecticut? Since you probably haven’t, you know how it got named. Every name tells a story. In a place as long and thickly settled as the Constitution State, just about all natural features—hills, lakes, ravines, rock outcrops and watercourses included—have at least one if not multiple names. They appear on signs and maps, and we hear them roll off the tongues of our neighbors and colleagues. Nevertheless, their meanings often remain mysterious.
Many places have fascinating and musical Indian names, often with multiple and uncertain meanings. Among them are Minnechaug (“huckleberry”) Mountain in Glastonbury, Waubeeka (“crossing place”) Lake in Danbury, and Mashamoquet (“great fishing place”) Brook in Pomfret. Our devout colonial forebears honored biblical places like Mt. Ararat in East Lyme, Meriden’s Sodom Brook, and Mt. Nebo in Manchester. They frequently left surnames such as Hubbard, Baldwin, Clark, Burnham and Whitcomb etched on our landscape. All are meaningful markers of our past, sometimes the only evidence of a bygone culture.
Once abundant and sometimes still existing animals and plants have lent their names to places such as Salisbury’s Bear Mountain, Alewife Cove in Waterford, Pine Knob in New Milford and Lebanon’s Red Cedar Lake. Lime Kiln Brook in Bethel is an epitaph for a long gone industry as are Roxbury’s Mine Hill, Bridgewater’s Sawmill Pond, and Enfield’s Powder Hollow. Some names tell you what to expect when you arrive, like Glastonbury’s Garnet Ledge, Milford’s Bayview Beach, and Salisbury’s Bald Peak. Others require more imagination such as Bible Rock in Haddam which looks like an open book, Granby’s Barndoor Hills which resembled open barn doors to early settlers, and Lantern Hill in North Stonington where a large rock is said to shine when illuminated by sunlight at certain times.
Some places are states of mind. It’s reassuring that despite the moniker “misery” in several places, as in Southington’s Misery Brook, there are many fewer current and historical uses of that term compared with “pleasant,” which is found from Pleasant Point in Branford to Mt. Pleasant in Norwich, according to Connecticut Place Names, a 1976 Connecticut Historical Society publication.
Many place names “intrigue the imagination” observed the 1938 WPA Connecticut Guide, but even back then the authors lamented about many cases where “the stories of their origin seems to have died with the early settlers.” Some names have disappeared altogether, though they can be found on old maps, in books and through local knowledge. Among them are Hard Bargain in Rocky Hill and Hoof and Horn Creek in Norwalk. Over time, they fade from our collective memory. But sometimes names change suddenly. It’s no secret why Cherry Pond in Avon became Secret Lake. Originally named for an Indian allegedly fond of cherry brandy, it was given a more enticing name in 1932, a local historian noted, presumably to facilitate development.
Despite the passage of centuries, it’s surprising how many old stories still have currency. East Lyme’s Bride Brook was once a political boundary. Due to jurisdictional disputes, a marriage was performed with the officiant on one bank and the happy couple on the other. Witch Meadow Brook in Salem is supposedly named for a man who moved to the area after his wife was hanged for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Crump’s Oven in Canton is a rock shelter once home to a Native American called Crump, and a British cannon supposedly became mired during the Revolution in Danbury’s Miry Brook.
Regardless of their stories, some names are wonderful just for their sound. Huzzle Guzzle Brook in Madison makes the noise of a rushing watercourse, and who is not delighted at the mention of Cussgutter Brook, which flows past Lake Compounce Amusement Park on the Bristol and Southington border. Unfortunately, it’s probably a corruption of an Indian appellation and has nothing to do with scandalous cussing in the gutter.
Just like the biblical Adam in Eden, we create whole worlds with the names we bestow on the natural things around us and thereby give shape to places we live. If you think such naming is pointless, you might want to visit Point No Point on Long Island Sound in Stratford. Maybe then, you’ll get the point.