BOB'S HILL; or, How to Officially Name Your Favorite Landmark at the Lake

This information may make you famous. In the very least it may preserve a name of your choosing for centuries to come. No matter who you are, you have a chance to name something at the lake - a hill, a cove, a bluff, or any geographic feature - and have that name stick, courtesy of the U.S. Government. Stay with me on this.

Names of local geographic features are always intriguing. The origins of some are quite obvious. Take, for example, Horseshoe Bend. It's shaped like a horseshoe, so it wouldn't make much sense to call it Straight Arrow Bend. But what about Shawnee Bend? It, too, is horseshoe-shaped. So why is it called Shawnee Bend? Way back when, maybe two hundred years ago, a Shawnee Indian party may have traversed the area. But if they ever were here, they left no sign of their passing. So why bestow their name on a bend if they didn't stay around long enough to pitch their teepees? Wouldn't it be better to rename the bend after something more tangible and pertinent to today's lake? Why not name it Port Arrowhead Bend? Or Osage Beach Bend? Or - my personal favorite - Mike's Bend?

This is not so far fetched. You see, an agency of the federal government, known as the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, will consider your proposal to name any land or water feature at the lake. And if it already has an official name that you think is outmoded, outdated, or misleading, you can propose a new name.

According to information posted on their website, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) is a federal body created in 1890. In its present form the agency is tasked with maintaining uniform geographic name usage throughout the government. The board is made up of representatives from various federal agencies concerned with geographic information, population, ecology, and management of public lands.

The original program addressed the inconsistencies and contradictions among many names, spellings, and applications that began to crop up on maps in the latter half of the 1800s. President Benjamin Harrison signed an executive order establishing the Board and giving it authority to resolve unsettled geographic names questions. Decisions of the BGN are accepted as binding by all departments and agencies of the government.

So, for instance, if the BGN agrees to name that next hill over from your place "Bob's Hill," then that is the way it will appear on all government maps and documents. The neat thing about the process is that you don't have to be an elected official, a government employee, or even a land owner to propose a name. You simply have to devote a little time and put some thought into your proposal. You must be able to describe its location precisely by geographic coordinates, and be prepared to give a convincing reason for your proposed name. Among other things, the BGN will ask why your feature needs a name. It also wants to know if there is any local opposition to the name, and if the name is being used locally.

The entire proposal process can be done electronically on the internet. If your proposal is deemed to have merit, it then is posted on a quarterly review list for review and comments by interested parties. Once you've cleared that hurdle, your name is in!

You may be thinking that everything in the lake area has already been named. You'd be surprised at the number of features that don't have an official name. For example, Hurricane Deck - the original bluff at mile marker 37, not the town - does not have official sanction. Nor does Linn Creek Cove, or Indian Creek Cove, or Soap Creek Cove. In fact, of all the hundreds of coves at the lake only about ten percent have official titles. Many are tagged with local names known to the adjacent property owners, and sometimes those names are printed on lake area maps, but the names don't appear on government maps. Very few individual hills are named, though several ridge names are sanctioned. And of the seven islands at the lake, only Hawaiian Island and Twin Islands are official names. So if you've ever wanted to name that little spit of land at mile marker 7.7, go for it!

In an effort to cleanly categorize everything, the BGN classifies various landforms by "feature class." In their lingo, a cove falls under the feature class heading of "bay," a hill is a "summit," and a point is a "cape." That doesn't mean that something can't be called a cove, or hill, or point. It's just the government's way of getting a handle on it all. One fertile field is entitled "populated places," which can be any collection of houses outside of an incorporated area. Altogether, there are about twenty feature classes that apply to the lake area.

A quick way of determining if your pet hill or creek or whatever already has a name is to check with recent government maps - principally the USGS topographical maps known as quadrangle maps. Most libraries have those. You can also find them on the internet. A good and simple viewing program to use is called USA Photo Maps. It will allow you to toggle back and forth between aerial photos and topographical maps.

So how do you go about submitting a name? Start by visiting to the U.S. Geological Survey website. Once there, use their search engine to find "GNIS Online Database Query." That page will allow you to look for the official names of any feature in the lake area. The easiest way is to type in the state and county entries and then click on the box that asks for the feature class. There's a handy list of feature definitions available to help you decide what you're looking for. You can leave the rest of the boxes empty.

If you find that your feature does not have a name, or maybe you think it should be renamed, then click on the link to "U.S. Board on Geographic Names." Then follow the menus on each successive page until you get to the one called "Propose or Change a Name." You're on your own after that. Good luck.

© 2008 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.