Anyone who has road-tripped around Washington state might have noticed a depressing trend: Cape Disappointment. Point No Point. Deception Pass. Foulweather Bluff. Useless Bay. Point Defiance. Obstruction Island. Massacre Bay. Destruction Island. Dismal Nitch.
Geez, Washington. Way to be a downer.
KUOW Local Wonder listener Jessica Goecke wanted to know the stories behind some of these names: “What's up with all of the ominous names of places in the region?” she asked.
We consulted experts, perused historical accounts and referenced a few reputable books, and here’s the bottom line: It seems that exploring expeditions in the 18th and 19th centuries weren't much fun at all. They were frustrating and often downright dangerous. That’s why explorers may not have felt the love when it came time to name places.
If you're thinking, why not keep the earlier names?! Well, that's why there's a movement to return to Native place names. Meantime, here are four stories behind the names.
Deception Pass, the narrow strait between Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands, is striking and, in the fog, haunting. Its picturesque double bridges feature prominently in moody Instagram posts.
Edmond S. Meany, author of “Origin of Washington Geographic Names,” wrote that Captain George Vancouver originally named this waterway Port Gardner in 1772. But after his crew took a small boat to explore the area, they learned it was a mere narrow passage.
“Vancouver, feeling that he had been ‘deceived’ as to the nature of his Port Gardner, wrote on his chart ‘Deception Pass,’” Meany wrote.
It wouldn’t be the last time the captain showed his frustration by giving a place a bummer name.
Still, Vancouver’s evident grudges against bodies of water didn’t stop him from being generous with his crew. He named the separated mass of land, Whidbey Island, after Joseph Whidbey, who led the expedition that discovered Deception Pass.
Cape Disappointment at the mouth of the Columbia River stands on one of the most treacherous channels in the world, where a dizzying 260,000 cubic-feet-per-second of water rushes out to the Pacific Ocean during a high-water year. Spanish explorers noted that there was likely a river behind the churning waters, but early sailing expeditions failed to cross a massive sandbar to confirm the hunch.
The name Cape Disappointment comes from one of those failed attempts, Meany wrote. English explorer John Mears rounded the cape in 1788 looking for the river, but he couldn’t navigate past the sandbar and raging currents. His expedition sailed on after changing the cape’s name from San Roque (the name given by Spanish explorers 13 years earlier) to Cape Disappointment. And, perhaps channeling the future Captain Vancouver, he named the surrounding bay Deception Bay.
Today, Point Defiance is a park in Tacoma, perhaps most commonly associated with the zoo and aquarium that share its name. But when U.S. Navy Commander Charles Wilkes first saw the outcropping of land in 1841, he wasn’t thinking about a home for polar bears and tigers.
He was thinking military. Wilkes believed the Tacoma Narrows waterway off Point Defiance would be the ideal place to launch a military defense.
“This narrow pass seems as if intended by nature to afford every means for the defense of Puget’s Sound,” Wilkes wrote. “Point Defiance, on the east, commands all the approaches. … The Narrows, if strongly fortified, would bid defiance to any attack, and guard its entrance against any force.”
Because of Wilkes’ account, President Andrew Johnson reserved the 640-acre area for military use. And later, after no military operation materialized, the land was given to the City of Tacoma to be used for a park.
This 30-acre island off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula has an ominous-sounding name — for equally ominous reasons. The experts at HistoryLink.org tell us the island, a hub for early exploring expeditions, earned its name after a group of fur traders was killed in 1787 by Native Americans while attempting to reach the mainland to gather wood and water.
The island had been named Isla de Dolores (Island of Sorrows) by Spanish explorers 12 years earlier after a similar massacre. The name “Destruction” had been applied to the river where the group of fur traders were killed (now known as the Hoh River). But Captain Vancouver decided to expand that name to the island during an expedition in 1782.
Adding to the island’s lore: It is estimated that at least a dozen shipwrecks happened near Destruction Island, according to HistoryLink.org.
Okay, so what about the others?
Washington has loads of other dismal place names, and most don’t leave much doubt about what their namers were thinking. Obstruction Island got in the way of large boats. Massacre Bay showed evidence of bloodshed. Foulweather Bluff didn’t have the nicest weather. Useless Bay is notably shallow. Point No Point was too muddy and shallow to anchor a ship. And as for Dismal Nitch, well, that’s what Captain William Clark thought of it.
But, hey — we’re not alone when it comes to downer names. Our neighbors to the north in Vancouver, B.C., have a bleak collection of names left over from pioneer days, too. For starters, there are the Sorrow Islands, Doom Mountain and Leg-in-Boot Square.
Want to guess about the story behind that last one? You get one try.