Advocates for Maryland's Monocacy River are testing a theory. Are streams with names more likely to be loved?
Many place names in the United States, including rivers, can trace their origins back hundreds of years. In some cases, they can go back thousands of years to American Indian words. But despite this far-reaching heritage, followed by a growing surge of people across the landscape, many geographic features still have no official name.
That includes a number of tributaries to the Monocacy River in central Maryland. Even 300 years after the area was first mapped, many of its streams are unnamed.
Now, members of the Monocacy Scenic River Citizens Advisory Board are holding a public contest to name six of them. The selected names will be forwarded to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names for review and permanent recognition.
"We thought this would be a great idea to raise awareness of the river and get people thinking about the ways that land and water connect," said Tim Goodfellow, a water resources planner for the Frederick County government.
The Monocacy River is one of the Potomac River's northeast tributaries. Its name is believed to be from the American Indian word Monnockkesy, meaning "river with many bends."
The Monocacy forms near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border and flows south for 58 miles. The upper reaches weave through small towns and farmland, framed by the Catoctin Mountains to the west.
Subdivisions and city buildings join the backdrop as the river winds its way south through the historic city of Frederick. It passes through the Monocacy National Battlefield and flows under a large aqueduct for the C&O Canal before emptying into the Potomac River and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.
The Monocacy was named a state scenic river in 1974. The scenic river advisory board has been stepping up efforts to promote its recreational value, including the Monocacy River Water Trail, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.
The board is also trying to keep the river's needs in the public spotlight, as population pressures and land-use practices continue to harm water quality. Like the Chesapeake Bay and many of its tributaries, the river is under cleanup requirements for unacceptable levels of sediment and nutrients.
"People care about things with names," Goodfellow said. " 'The unknown tributary to so-and-so creek' — that's forgettable."
The board selected 3 streams in Frederick County and 3 streams in Carroll County for the contest. Each is a direct tributary to the mainstem of the river and has at least one road crossing, to help people make visual connections.
By late November, the advisory board had received approximately 24 submissions, including some from children. They will be judged for their community context, historical significance, extent of research and originality.
"Some have linked stream names to Civil War events and local folklore, where people's ancestry has been in one place for generations," Goodfellow said. "Others used some unique features of the stream channel. It's been interesting to read what people have done."
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, staffed by the U.S. Geological Survey, has the final say on place names for natural features in the landscape. The board receives approximately 275 proposals each year to register a new name or change an existing one.
The results are catalogued in the Geographic Names Information System, which currently contains 2.25 million names.
Peter Bergstrom worked on a naming project for Anne Arundel County from 2001 to 2005, while he was employed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of the work focused on the Magothy and Severn rivers. Bergstrom said it was a long process, but worthwhile.
"At the time, we didn't realize how much the online mapping services would take off. Those services use the official database, and the only way to get a name into the database is through the Board on Geographic Names," Bergstrom said. "Now that the names are approved, they show up on those mapping tools."
But the biggest driver was to help people understand river connections in the same way they understand connections between roads. Bergstrom's group printed watershed maps showing the new names, and many people have framed versions hanging on their walls.
"Now, I talk to people who live near those creeks and they know the names," Bergstrom said. "So it definitely helped reached people."
The deadline for submitting stream name suggestions to the Monocacy scenic river board is Dec. 31. For guidelines, forms, and background information, visit www.themonocacystartshere.org.