Origins of Idaho place names
Last week, we did a little research in our archives about place names in Idaho, which is already fun. Then we opened it up to the public on our Facebook page, and the response was fantastic. You asked about your town, and we found answers. So here are the name origins of 44 Idaho cities and towns, in alphabetical order. (Don’t see yours here? Then nobody asked! Just comment below and we’ll add it.)
Arco: Arco was once a stage station known as “Root Hog at Kennedy Crossing.” Early residents applied for a post office under the name “Junction,” but it was rejected because there were too many Junctions already. The name “Arco” was suggested by immigrants from a town of the same name in Georgia — probably Isaiah Smith, who bought the stage station in 1880.*
Bennington: This town was named by early local LDS Church leader Evan M. Greene after Bennington, Vermont, the town where LDS President Brigham Young grew up.
Blackfoot: A man named Donald McKenzie first gave the name to the Blackfoot River, after the Native Americans he met there, who allegedly referred to themselves as “black foot” in their own language (Siksika). The name of the river was later applied to the town.
Boise: It appears as though the city was named after the Boise River. The river was so named by French-Canadian explorers and trappers after the variety of trees growing along its banks. Allegedly, after traveling over a long stretch of arid land, they were excited to see the woods: “les bois!”
Bone: A town full of stories, but unfortunately this one isn’t anything special. Orlin (or Orion) Bone and his family settled in the area in 1910. He started the famous Bone Store and the now-defunct post office, and named it all after himself.
Challis: Named for Alvan P. Challis, the surveyor when the town site was laid out. (He must have been a pretty good surveyor to receive that honor.)
Chilly: You might have guessed it, but it’s true: Chilly was named after the extreme cold that can hit the valley in winter. Maybe calling it that was the town’s way of attracting/tricking settlers (like “Greenland”), since the truth is more like “deep freeze”, but calling it “chilly” is a lot more believable than calling it “Tropics”? Well played, Chilly.
Coeur d’Alene: Early 19th century French fur trappers and traders in the region called the local Native American tribe “Coeur d’Alene”, which means something like “heart of the awl”, because they were such shrewd traders. After the Civil War, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman ordered a fort named after them to be built on the lake. The fort’s name was later changed to Ft. Sherman, but the name stuck to the city and the lake.
Declo: The town was originally known as Marshfield, but settlers couldn’t get approval for a post office in that name because it was apparently too long. It became Declo by joining the names of two prominent local families: Dethles and Cloughly.
Dubois: Fred T. Dubois was among the settlers who came to the area in the 1880s. (He was a prominent figure in the Idaho territorial government, and later served two terms in the U.S. Senate, where he was known for some pretty radical views.) The town had been known as Dry Creek, but a local politician decided to rename it after Dubois.
Eden: This area was, in fact, named after the Biblical Garden of Eden, because of the picturesque valley surrounding the town.
Felt: Apparently, John Felt and his brother (name unknown) came to the area in 1889 and claimed land near Badger Creek. The town site itself was dedicated many years later, in 1911.
Filer: This town was named for Walter Filer, the general manager of the Twin Falls Canal Company. Also, there used to be a town very close to Filer called Eldridge, but Filer absorbed it in 1919.
Firth: Named for Lorenzo J. Firth, an English immigrant who helped with the decision to place a railroad station in the town in 1890. He then gave some of his land to the railroad, who named the station in his honor.
Geneva: This town was named by Henry Touvscher, a settler who immigrated from Geneva, Switzerland.
Georgetown: It was known as Twin Creeks for its first couple of years, but LDS Church President Brigham Young renamed it Georgetown in 1873 after his friend, George Q. Cannon, who visited the colony with him.
Hamer: Named for Colonel Thomas R. Hamer, who moved to Idaho in 1893 and served as a state legislator and member of Congress.
Hazelton: This town was named after Hazel Barlow, the daughter of Joe Barlow, who founded the town in 1911.
Howe: Another example of that powerful Postal Department. The area’s first settler was an E. R. Hawley, but the request for a post office named “Hawley” was rejected because it was too similar to Hailey, in Blaine County. The Post Office, which loved short names, suggested “Howe” instead.
Idaho Falls: Our dear home was known by many different names early on: the area was Flathead Crossing, then Taylor’s Bridge or Taylor’s Crossing. It became Eagle Rock after a boulder in the Snake River where bald eagles nested and remained that for many years until the growing town fell on hard times with the departure of railroad shops in the 1880s. Land developers felt a town called “Idaho Falls” would attract more settlers and tourists, so the city changed its name in 1891. There were always rapids in the river, but the falls didn’t become a respectable falls until the damming of the river to build the hydroelectric power plant in 1911.
Iona: According to the town’s own history book, Iona was named by LDS Church President John Taylor. He visited early settlers in the area, then known as Sand Creek, and apparently suggested the name “Iona”, claiming it was the name of a small town in Israel that meant “beautiful”.
Irwin: This town was allegedly named for Joseph B. Irwin, who settled the area in 1888 and prospected successfully on the Snake River.
Island Park: According to our research, local stagecoach drivers in the late 19th century used natural clearings in the timber as rest areas for horses and passengers. Small businesses began popping up in some of these areas, which the drivers called “parks”. One of these “parks” became known as “Island Park” because it was surrounded on all sides by rivers and streams.
Lago: We know it was originally named Trout Creek when it was settled by trappers, but the name Lago could have either come from the Italian word for “lake” or a Native American word.
Lanark: This place was originally called South Liberty (since it’s south of Liberty), then freedom-loving residents who wanted to have their own identity called it Freedom. In 1883, William Budge, an early homesteader, renamed it Lanark after his birthplace in Scotland.
Lyman: Theodore K. Lyman was the first settler there in 1879. The area was previously known as Lyon Creek.
Mackay: In 1901, an Irish immigrant named John Mackay, who had become a millionaire from the Comstock Lode mining in Nevada, bought the White Knob copper mine in the Lost River Valley and built a smelter and platted a town site just below it.
Macks Inn: Quite simply, a man from Rexburg named William “Doc” Mack founded the resort in 1921.
Marsing: Earl and Mark Marsing settled the area in 1913, bought land, and platted a town site there. They called the town Butte because of Lizard Butte nearby, but the Postal Department rejected that name because there were too many Buttes already. The town suggested Marsing, which stuck, but to add confusion, different people continued to refer to the town as Butte, Erb (the name of the railroad station), and Claytonia.
Milo: First, there was a small settlement named Leorin, as well as a Leorin School. An LDS ward was organized there in 1900 and called the Milo Ward after Milo Andrus, an LDS pioneer who led a company across the plains to the Intermountain West. It’s probable that the Milo name then just became a common way for Mormons to refer to the area, so it stuck.
Montpelier: LDS Church leader Brigham Young named this town after the capital of his home state of Vermont.
Moore: This town, which started out as a livestock area in the 1880s, was named for the first postmaster and the owner of the town site.
Moscow: An interesting one. First, the Nez Perce called the area Tat-Kin-Mah, which meant “place of the spotted deer”. It was later known as Hog Heaven (!) for the camas roots that provided good food for swine. Then it was changed to Paradise Valley for some reason. There is some dispute about how the name Moscow came to be, but it probably came from S. M. Neff, the town postmaster, who had strangely lived in both Moscow, Pennsylvania, and Moscow, Iowa, before moving to Idaho. Interestingly, the one thing you don’t see is a direct connection to Russia.
North Fork: Simply named because of its location where the North Fork of the Salmon River meets the main part of the river. Lewis and Clark originally called the North Fork “Fish Creek”.
Preston: The settlement was originally called Worm Creek, but renamed in honor of William B. Preston, a prominent LDS Church authority who was an early settler of Cache Valley.
Rigby: Your town was named by LDS Church President John Taylor after William F. Rigby, a Driggs resident who had assisted in the settlement and early organization of the LDS Church in the area.
Ririe: A cool story. David Ririe was an early settler. His letters back to family were originally postmarked Birch Creek, then Prospect, then Rudy, then Lorenzo, then Rigby. The area was suffering a lack of transportation around the turn of the century — farmers had no way to haul large crops to Idaho Falls or elsewhere to sell. David Ririe worked with the Oregon Short Line Railroad to come to the area, and convinced farmers (sometimes with some difficulty) to give a portion of their land so tracks could be laid for the benefit of all. He then, in 1914, gave some of his own land for a town site to be platted. In gratitude for his efforts, railroad officials insisted that the new town be named in his honor.
Salem: This area was originally known as Teton Island, since it sits between the North and South Forks of the Teton River. Founded in 1883 by LDS pioneers, the town was named by local church leader Thomas Ricks, probably after the Biblical city of Salem, home of Melchizedek.
Salmon: Salmon was named for the Salmon River, which was named for the salmon found there. William Clark had originally named the river the Lewis, after his traveling companion who first spotted it, but the name didn’t last.
Spencer: When the Utah and Northern Railroad came through in 1879, the station was named for Hiram H. Spencer, who was a local shipper.
Swan Valley: This gorgeous area was apparently once a haven for whistling swans.
Ucon: According to our research, the town was first known as Willow Creek, but the US Postal Department wanted something shorter, so they suggested “Ako”. Citizens didn’t like that, so they suggested “Elva”. They called it that for a while, but there was another town in southern Idaho called “Elba”, so the Post Office ordered another change. Citizens gathered in 1911 and submitted three options: Twain, Strong, and Yukon. The Postal Department chose the latter, albeit with a spelling change.
Tetonia: As you might expect, this was simply named after the Tetons. And we all know how those were named…
Twin Falls: It turns out the city was named not after Shoshone Falls, but after the two smaller waterfalls about two miles upstream. Apparently, the “twinnedness” was more substantial before one of the falls was taken over by a power company.
Victor: Another cool story. The town was previously known as Fox, then Raymond, after the first LDS Church bishop in the area, David Raymond Sinclair. It was later named in honor of George Victor Sherwood, a courageous mail carrier whose route took him on treacherous terrain between Raymond and Jackson, Wyoming. For a time, his route was made even more dangerous because of exceptionally poor relations between the settlers and local tribes.
Wallace: This town was initially called Cedar Swamp, because that’s apparently what it was, then Placer Center, after the mining. Then in 1888, it was named in honor of Colonel W. R. Wallace, prominent land owner and member of the town’s first city council.
Note: We drew upon books, newspapers, and various documents in our archives for these answers. The book Idaho Place Names: A Geographic Dictionary, by Lalia Boone, was particularly helpful. No source is infallible, though. If you think we got something wrong, let us know.
*The Arco listing has been updated upon receiving new information. The connection to German Count Georg von Arco, who was only a child when the Arco post office was founded, is probably coincidental.