Several years ago a Seattle man hiked into a lake in the North Cascades that had an unusual name: Coon Lake.
Jonathan Rosenblum thought that sounded racist. "This was a wrong that needed to be corrected," he told David Hyde on KUOW's The Record.
He convinced Washington state officials to change the name to Howard Lake after Wilson Howard, a miner who staked claims in the area and was one of only two black miners to stake claims in the North Cascades.
But at the federal level, the National Park Service refused to make the name changes. So the battle continues.
KUOW also contacted the National Park Service. They sent along minutes from a 2009 meeting where the U.S. Board on Geographic Names decided not to approve the name changes. The majority opinion states, "the origin of the existing names was not applied offensively, and that there is no compelling reason to change names in long-standing published use.”
They cited evidence that the term “coon” is apparently a way to cross a stream by walking on a log like a raccoon walks across logs.
As it turns out, Google Maps also still lists it as Coon Lake and Creek:
The Park Service also learned that an 1892 article published in The Chelan Leader referred to the lake as Vroman’s Lake, for miner Dan Vroman who had staked a claim in the area.
Washington’s history is full of place names that would be considered offensive today.
Perusing the book “Washington Place Names” finds several spots that once had a racial slur for African Americans. One, a creek west of Blewett in Chelan County, was renamed in 2009 to Etienne Creek for Antoine Etienne, a freed slave who lived there. (Here’s a list of approved names in the state code.)
Around the U.S., tribes have petitioned to remove derogatory terms from various place names
In 2007, the Board of Geographic Names renamed a Squaw Canyon in Whitman County to Awtskin Canyon. But in 1985, the board approved Squaw Canyon as the name for a feature in Lincoln County.
Closer to Seattle, many don’t know that state Route 99 was once called “Jefferson Davis Highway” – the United Daughters of the Confederacy pushed for the designation and erected stone markers at each end of the road in the state, in Vancouver and Lynden.
Before being president of the Confederacy, Davis had been responsible for some of the territory’s first roads as U.S. secretary of war. In 2002, there was a push in the Legislature to remove Davis’ name. Crosscut reports that the designation had never been made official, and the markers were removed.