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Gritzner points out that most town names in eastern South Dakota are closely linked to the railroad. Any place where the line went through was almost always named after someone in management or their close relatives and friends.

“In fact, they applied the names before anyone was there,” she said.

For example, Blunt was named for John E. Blunt, chief engineer of the North Western Railroad. Harrold got its name from Harrold R. McCullough, another official with the same company.

Alexander Mitchell, president of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad Company, came away as one of the big winners when it came to namesakes. Not only did he give Mitchell its identifier, but Aberdeen was designated for the Scottish city where he was born and Alexandria was named in his honor.

Citizens of Aberdeen will also recognize him as the namesake of the Alexander Mitchell Public Library.

Gritzner said, in her opinion, the less-populated West River, which wasn’t platted by the railroads, tends to have more organic and interesting names.

That’s where you find names such as Deadwood, so called because the gulch where it sits was full of fallen timber when settlers first arrived. Spearfish is named after the creek that runs through it, but accounts differ as to whether the Native American tribes actually went spear fishing there or whether an early settler said it would be a good place to spear some fish.

After a name was suggested, it was the U.S. Post Office Department that made a city designation official. If there were duplication or a name were found to be unsatisfactory, there would be a back and forth until an agreed upon name could be found, Gritzner said.

This is the case with Columbia, which was originally called Richmond after the city in Illinois when it was settled in 1879. However, there was already a Richmond in the Dakota Territory, so the post office gave a list of possible substitutes. The current town name was picked because of the popularity at the time of the patriotic song “Hail Columbia.”

The town of Arlington took a more convoluted road before arriving at its current name. It was founded in 1880 as Nordland, named by the Dakota Central Railroad for the high number of Norwegian settlers in the area. The Western Town Lot Company objected to the name because it gave the impression the town was a Norwegian settlement. So in 1884 the county commission selected the name Denver, which the city approved.

However, the Post Office Department rejected the name Denver and in 1885 substituted the named Arlington, after the city in Virginia. This led to a period of time when the city was named Arlington, but had the Nordland post office and Denver railroad station.

Then there were cities named almost by accident, such as the future state capital of Pierre. Its current name is derived from Fort Pierre, its sister city across the Missouri River. The oldest continuous white settlement in South Dakota, Fort Pierre is named for an actual fort established by the fur trader Pierre Chouteau Jr.

But Sneve claims Pierre originally was called “Mato,” the Lakota word for bear. However, when early settler John Hilger and his brother, Anson, consigned a load of goods to be sent there they put the destination as “Pierre - on the opposite side of the river from Fort Pierre.” The name apparently stuck.

In his 1914 memoirs, Hilger claimed the town was for some time called “East Pierre” because it was east of Fort Pierre and east of Whiskey Gulch.


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