It’s all in the names

A look at some of the colorful old tags for local sites, neighborhoods

Bearskin Neck in Rockport.
Bearskin Neck in Rockport.

Not many people know that Rockport and Gloucester were once called Tragabigzanda. Or that Salem was Sholom Naumkeag, Winchester was Black Horse Village, and part of Wilmington was dubbed Land of Nod.

No one uses those terms anymore, of course. But a closer look at Massachusetts maps reveals plenty of places with unusual names from the past that have survived. In the suburbs north of Boston you’ll find Blubber Hollow in Salem, Bearskin Neck in Rockport, Dragon Corner in Reading, and Happy Valley in Lynn. There are intriguing brooks, streams, and watering holes, such as Labor in Vain Creek in Ipswich and Long Sought For Pond in Westford, both of which just beg for an explanation.

Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office keeps a lengthy list of names of neighborhoods and villages in Massachusetts. Some names are still used, while others are long forgotten.


Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Galvin’s office, said the state has maintained the alphabetized repository of place names for many years as a reference tool. If someone reading a text from centuries ago comes across a place they’ve never heard of, McNiff said, the repository is where they can find out more.

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The list includes villages and neighborhoods named after faraway lands: Little Canada in Lowell. Wyoming in Melrose. Klondike in Groveland. Guinea in Newburyport. Scotland in Andover. Dublin in Peabody. Portuguese Hill in Gloucester.

There are delicious destinations, such as Pudding Hill in Lynn, Peaches Point in Marblehead, and Artichoke in Newburyport.

Mosquito Village in Hamilton, Gallows Hill in Salem, Hungry Plain in Woburn, and Norman’s Woe in Gloucester are less appealing.

But few places on the list sound as unattractive as Misery Islands, off the coast of Salem.


The 83-acre Great Misery and 4-acre Little Misery are actually beautiful properties managed by the Trustees of Reservations. According to the Trustees website, the misnomer originated in the harrowing experience of shipbuilder Captain Robert Moulton, who was stranded there “for three miserable days during a winter storm” in the 1620s.

Salem has its share of other gloomy landmarks, many of which hark back to the infamous witchcraft trials of 1692. Gallows Hill was believed to be the site where the accused were executed. In the same vicinity you can find Witchcraft Heights Elementary School, and residential streets like Gallows Circle, Cauldron Court, and Witch Way.

A half-mile away is an industrial site near the North River called Blubber Hollow, named after the whale fat used in the leather tanning industry. Although Salem’s tanneries are long gone, the name has stuck around.

Twenty miles north in Rockport, Bearskin Neck, a small peninsula filled with cute shops and artist galleries, was named after “a bear caught by the tide and killed in 1700,” according to a sign erected by the Massachusetts Bay Colony Tercentenary Commission. That’s just part of the story. According to town lore, the bear attacked a local citizen who happened to be armed with a knife. The man fought and killed the animal, then proceeded to skin it and leave his well-earned trophy to dry on the rocks by the water. Harbor fishermen saw the fur on the rocks, and from that day on, referred to the spot as Bearskin Neck.

Rockport is also home to Folly Cove. According to the “History of the Town of Rockport,” published in 1888, it earned this distinction in the 18th century, after a log wharf built by a man by the name of Gallup washed away. After that debacle, everyone started calling it Gallup’s Folly. An earlier book, titled “History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann, Including the Town of Rockport,” published in 1860, relays a slightly different version of those events: It says the unlucky fellow’s name was spelled “Gallop” and he ran his vessel aground there. Either way, the misfortunes are memorialized to this day.


Industry served as inspiration for naming many places in the suburbs north of Boston. Such is the case with the Bleachery sections of Peabody, Lowell, and Somerville; Forge Village and Graniteville in Westford; Glue Hill in Peabody; and Dyehouse Village in Lynn.

Along Lynn Shore Drive is the historic Diamond District. According to Massachusetts Historical Commission records, the neighborhood was christened that in the 19th century when it attracted wealthy people who built luxury homes there.

Vinegar Hill in Saugus is believed to be so named because an early property owner who operated an apple orchard and cider mill there also produced vinegar, according to Marilyn Carlson, vice chairwoman of Saugus Historical Commission.

Even stranger, there’s a spot on Vinegar Hill called Pirate’s Glen. “That’s a real long story about pirates putting their treasures in there,” said Carlson. “There’s a lot of history on Vinegar Hill.”

In Reading, the intersection of West and Woburn streets has been known as Dragon Corner since the early 19th century. According to Massachusetts Historical Commission records, shoemaker Ephraim Weston put a painted dragon weathervane outside of his shop at 218 West St. in 1815, giving the corner its nickname.

All too often, time obscures the linguistic origins of place names. Take, for example, Long Sought For Pond in Westford. “It’s been called that forever . . . for as long as we have records for it,” said Penny Lacroix, museum director for the Westford Museum & Historical Society. Exactly why it was given that poignant title, no one knows.

Gloucester also boasts a bevy of quirky names, some more mysterious than others.

“I don’t think anyone is 100 percent certain where some names come from,” said Stephanie Buck, librarian and archivist at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester.

Twopenny Loaf refers to the small hill at the end of Coffins Beach. It is believed to have gotten its name because it is shaped like a loaf that at the time cost two pennies, said Buck.

Dogtown Common, located in the central area of Gloucester, was the site of a community in the 1700s. “Nobody really knows,” said Buck, “but one theory is that many of the women who lived there were widows who lost their husbands in the French and Indian Wars, and they kept dogs as protection, so it was called Dogtown.” The little village was abandoned, but its nickname endures.

On the Blynman Canal, there’s a spot where boaters would no longer have to push their vessels along with poles. “When you got to that point, you could stop ‘poling,’ or ‘fudging,’ ” said Buck. Where boaters were “done fudgin” eventually became known as Dunfudgin.

Norman’s Woe is a rocky reef off the Cape Ann coast that was immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Wreck of the Hesperus.”

“There were quite a few wrecks off it, and some people think it was named for the wrecks,” said Buck. “Where the ‘Norman’ came from, we’re not quite sure.”

Same deal with Rafe’s Chasm — an eponym shrouded in mystery.

“We’re not sure where the name Rafe comes from, but it is actually a chasm on the coast,” Buck said.

The fissure in the ledge has long been a landmark in the Magnolia section of Gloucester. “It was a popular tourist place,” she said. “People used to go there to watch the water surge up the chasm.”

But not any more. Access is limited because it’s surrounded by private property, she said.

What strange-sounding places are in your neighborhood? E-mail us at globenorth@globe.
. Emily Sweeney can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.