Pennsylvania’s quirky towns: Unraveling the histories behind oddball names

Pennsylvania's quirky towns: Unraveling the histories behind oddball names

Photo courtesy of NASA HQ

By Kalena Thomhave

October 19, 2023

If you’ve ever wondered how Forty Fort, Bird-in-Hand, and Jersey Shore got their names, have we got a story for you.

With more than 2,500 municipalities including boroughs, townships, and cities, as well as countless unincorporated hamlets and villages, Pennsylvania is chock full of town names that sound a little bizarre.

We’ve previously covered the origins of some of the more suggestive town names. This time around, we’re writing about Pa. towns and other communities with funny, head scratching, or otherwise interesting names that are a little more family friendly.

Read on to expand your knowledge of fun Pa. trivia to share at your next party.

Forty Fort

Pennsylvania's quirky towns: Unraveling the histories behind oddball names

Photo courtesy of formulanone

Forty Fort was not named because it was the most fortlike of all forts in the land, but instead for a fort and the original 40 settlers who made Forty Fort their home. In 1770, these settlers built a fort along the Susquehanna River in what is now Luzerne County. The fort was a central site in the Yankee-Pennamite War between settlers over control of the greater region.

Burnt Cabins

Pennsylvania's quirky towns: Unraveling the histories behind oddball names

Photo courtesy of withvengeance86

If you think the Fulton County town of Burnt Cabins in south-central Pa. might have something to do with cabins on fire, you’re right. In 1750, back when Pennsylvania was mostly rugged frontier and still primarily the home of Native Americans, the provincial government of the commonwealth burned settler cabins to pacify some Native American grievances. This was possibly the last time the Pennsylvania government did anything to satisfy Native Americans, who were largely exiled, often violently, from the state throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century.

Friendsville

We feel for the poor folks of Friendsville who have to give a tight smile and nod when a new acquaintance asks, ‘Oh, you’re from Friendsville — is everyone friends there?’ The history of the Susquehanna County town’s name, however, is rather logical. Friendsville, like Pennsylvania on the whole, was founded by Quakers, who are otherwise known as the Society of Friends. Hence the town’s friendly name.

Versailles

It’s not pronounced Ver-sigh, like the opulent palace in France. It’s pronounced Ver-sails, as in ‘North Versailles is the home of one of the Walmart supercenters nearest to Pittsburgh.’ Versailles was first founded in 1788 and was indeed named for the French Versailles, in thanks to France for its allyship during the Revolutionary War.

Jersey Shore

Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino of MTV’s reality show “Jersey Shore” has likely never stepped foot in this Lycoming County town. Jersey Shore, Pa. is so named because a family had relocated from New Jersey to live in the town, which was previously called Waynesburg. Residents from a rival town mockingly began referring to Waynesburg as “Jersey Shore.” Eventually, the nickname stuck, and the town officially changed its name in 1826.

Zelienople

Pennsylvania's quirky towns: Unraveling the histories behind oddball names

Photo courtesy of Jon Dawson

Zelienople is a zany name with a heartwarming history. The Butler County town was founded in 1802 by a German baron who named the village after his eldest daughter Fredricka, whose nickname was “Zelie.” The suffix “-ople” comes from the Greek word for city (“polis”), used in cities like the former Constantinople. In 1807, Zelie herself came to the US to live in Zelienople. Some of her descendants still live there today.

Townville

Reminiscent of the tautological home of Cartoon Network’s “Powerpuff Girls” (which is actually Townsville), this Crawford County town name makes it very clear what sort of place you’ve entered. However, the intention was not to name the town what in effect amounts to “town-town.” It was named after Noah Town, who founded the community in 1824.

Bird-in-Hand

Pennsylvania's quirky towns: Unraveling the histories behind oddball names

Photo courtesy of Doug Kerr

Bird-in-Hand is located in Lancaster County’s Amish Country and welcomes tourists eager to learn about and experience the simple living associated with the Amish. The town was founded in 1734, and as the story goes, the name comes from one visitor recommending a stay in the community’s inn by reciting the idiom “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” which suggests that an opportunity one has now is superior to something better that might come along later. Supposedly, the name stuck, and the inn became known as the “Bird-in-Hand Inn,” complete with a picture of a man holding a bird in his hand on the sign. By 1873, the town had officially changed its name to Bird-in-Hand.

Yellow House

Yellow House was named for — you guessed it — a yellow house. The yellow house in this Berks County village was actually a hotel founded in 1801. The Yellow House Hotel, officially in Douglassville, is still standing and operates as a restaurant and five-bedroom inn.

Nanty Glo

This borough was given a name inspired by the Welsh immigrants who made the area their home at the turn of the twentieth century. “Nant Y Glo” means “the stream of coal” in Welsh. Nanty Glo is indeed located in a valley in Cambria County, a hotbed of bituminous coal activity, especially in the early 1900s.

Pillow

Pillow was founded in 1818, and unfortunately was not named after a local pillow factory. This tiny town in Dauphin County, incorporated in 1864, was supposedly named after Gideon J. Pillow, a general in the Mexican-American War who later fought for the confederacy and possibly never entered Pennsylvania. In an ironic twist given General Pillow’s resume, the name “Pillow” replaced the town name of “Uniontown,” as there was already a Uniontown in the commonwealth.

Eighty Four

Pennsylvania's quirky towns: Unraveling the histories behind oddball names

Jeff Swensen via Getty Images

Famous because of the building materials company 84 Lumber, Washington County’s Eighty Four was named because the post office was established in the town in 1884. Obviously!

Slippery Rock

Pennsylvania's quirky towns: Unraveling the histories behind oddball names

Photo courtesy of Jimmy Emerson, DVM

Numerous legends say that Butler County’s Slippery Rock was actually named after a slippery rock or slippery rocks. Most likely, the name comes from the fact that Native Americans in the area as well as settlers called a section of what is now Slippery Rock Creek “slippery rock” because some crossing the creek could easily slip — possibly because of an oil slick in the water that made the rocks quite slippery.

Mars

Mars, a small suburb of Pittsburgh, received its name in 1882. Some people say that the town was named in honor of Samuel Marshall, who helped found the town’s post office. Others think that it was named Mars because the wife of the person who established the post office in his home liked astronomy. Perhaps it was both.

Rough and Ready

Stay with us here: This little Schuylkill County community was named after another Rough and Ready, a gold mining town in California. That Rough and Ready was named after the Rough and Ready Mining Company, which was named after President Zachary Taylor, who was known as “Old Rough and Ready” because of his military prowess in the Second Seminole War in Florida. Makes sense.

 

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