illustration by Mark Wilson
Mount Matumbla, a couple of miles outside of Tupper Lake, is the highest peak in St. Lawrence County. It’s only half the size of Mount Marcy, but its name implies exoticism and grandiosity. Same goes for Mount Arab, the second highest peak in that county. Truth is, Matumbla and Arab come from our North Country ancestors’ mangled pronunciations of the French montagne bleu, or blue mountain, and érable, or maple.
And Gore Mountain? It rises in the town of Johnsburg, named for John Thurman, who settled there in the 1780s. Thurman was gored to death by a bull, but that’s irrelevant. In surveyor-speak a gore is a spear of land; when Verplanck Colvin finally measured the mountain in the late 19th century, he kept its placeholder name.
At Adirondack Life we have stacks of maps that we use for reference when we write or fact-check magazine articles. I’m not alone in sometimes falling into a cartographical rabbit hole, fascinated by the names of our park’s physical features, particularly the ones that point to the sky. There’s usually a history lesson in these self-guided geography tours: consider the numerous Potash, Orebed and Iron mountains, tagged in a time when pioneers swung axes and dug deep, struggling to survive this wild country. Imagine enough mountain lions stalking this land to inspire so many Cat, Catamount and Panther peaks.
Roostercomb, Sawteeth and the Balds, Sugarloafs and Haystacks—and Nippletop, of course—have obvious names. Just as assumptions can be made about Dead Horse Mountain, in Arietta, and the Blueberries, Bucks, Bears, Beeches, Mooses, Spruces, Rattlesnakes and Easts and Wests.
Mount Defiance, overlooking Fort Ticonderoga, got its title when the American colonies declared independence from Britain. The naming of Esther Mountain, in Wilmington, also involved defiance—that of 15-year-old Esther McComb who, 176 years ago, ignored her parents’ warnings, hiked the mountain alone and ended up lost.
Leaders John Jay, William Learned Marcy, Horatio Seymour and Alexander Macomb are honored with prominent Adirondack peaks, as are scientists Asa Gray, Franklin B. Hough and William C. Redfield. While other worthy men—yes, almost entirely men—were memorialized this way across the region, Russell M. L. Carson, in his 1927 Peaks and People of the Adirondacks, wrote, “Sins both of omission and commission occurred in naming the high Adirondack peaks.” He believed it “a misfortune, amounting almost to an injustice” that legendary guide Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps—who named Skylight, Saddleback and Basin—was relegated to a trailless, unpopular hill far from his beloved Keene Valley base.
On an online hikers’ forum, someone mentioned bushwhacking Hamilton County’s Steve Bigle Mountain—whose namesake is a mystery—which led to an entertaining thread about renaming it. After all, landmarks’ names aren’t necessarily permanent.
Last year East Dix became Grace Peak, for Forty-Sixer Grace Hudowal-ski. And more recently, on the national stage, Mount McKinley—named for a president who never set foot in Alaska—reverted to its original, native Denali. Is it possible that our Mount Seward, dedicated to statesman William Henry Seward, could someday switch back to what Carson claimed was its previous, Mohawk name, Ou-kor-lah, or “great eye”? Beyond Couchsachraga and the generic Algonquin and Iroquois, few of our peaks pay respect to those who came first.
Names matter. More than tiny letters on a topo or labels painted on a trailhead sign, what we call our loftiest terrain—the parts of this place that are permanent—helps tell the story of the Adirondacks, of how it came to be.