Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Adirondack Name Game: Grass or Grasse River?

My recent story on the Adirondack pearl fishery in the Russell area of St. Lawrence County elicited a comment stating that two names, Plumb Brook and Grass River, had been misspelled, and that the correct terms were Plum Brook and Grasse River.

Local names for topographical features often become distorted over time, especially when usage is passed on by word of mouth, but it’s important to know place-name origins. In many cases, there are records giving the officially recognized names of streams, populated places, mountains, and the like.

While writing the piece on pearl fishing, due diligence led me to the United States Board on Geographic Names. There you can opt for state specificity when searching features by name. It revealed that New York State’s official names for those two bodies of water are Plumb Brook and Grass River. Source information for USBGN entries is often provided, tracking the efforts of researchers who, sometimes a century or more ago, sought input from local residents, written sources, and old maps.

While the official-names list was a start, there were other sources to utilize for a rounded view: Google Maps, current and past topographical maps, and old regional maps that include the names of residents near each marked structure. People who made maps long ago took their work seriously; they were inquisitive and meticulous in probing for details. (But it’s important to remember that any mistakes made early on could sometimes be carried forward in future documentation.)

Even on 100-year-old maps, the spellings were Plumb Brook and Grass River. For locals in the vicinity of Russell, it’s easy to imagine how folks perhaps heard the name Plumb Brook and assumed it was spelled exactly how it sounded … Plum Brook.

But for the Grass River, there’s additional information provided by the USBGN’s Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), which includes a Decision Card that was approved in 1905 (click on the image above for a larger version). It lists the sources used back then, including input from the town clerks of Louisville and Madrid more than a century ago, and the county clerk as well. They were among several sources cited by investigators who came to the conclusion that Grass River should be the official spelling. To further support their decision, they cited the Mohawk term for the river, “Tsi iohontakwáhtha Stream,” along with its translation: “Where the grass is picked.”

As their website says, “The US Geological Survey developed the GNIS in support of the US Board on Geographic Names…. GNIS is the federal and national standard for geographic nomenclature.” And, by the way, name decisions they have made can be (and have been) revisited whenever research provides further clarification or options.

While the debate might continue as to whether it’s truly Grass or Grasse River, it’s important to know that others who came before us had the same curiosity, and at least for the purposes of writers and researchers, there are official place names for just about everything around us.

But for those who love to argue such things, the Grass/Grasse River is a great choice, with solid support and multiple sources for both sides of the debate. Even a pair of pre-1850 gazetteers disagree on the spelling. And while New York State settled on Grass, signs in St. Lawrence County say Grasse. At Canton, a sign near a bridge says Grasse River — and just three miles down the road is a state boat launch marked Grass River. And we wonder how Congress could be so divided!

If you enjoy maps, the USBGN website will add to your pleasure. Older USGS topographical maps can be found here, and also has more 10 historic Adirondack maps from 1804 to 1959. 

Photos: The USBGN Decision Card addressing the Grass River (1905); two signs just three miles apart near Canton (Google Maps images)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

10 Responses

  1. Tony Goodwin says:

    One example of a place name that was revisited is of Slip Mt. in the Jay Range. Jim Bailey, retired City Historian of the City of Plattsburgh, called attention to a map produced by Colvin that names the peak “McDonough Mt.” after the American admiral who was victorious at the Battle of Plattsburgh in the war of 1812.

    The USBGN checked and could not find any proper citation for “Slip” and so the name has been officially changed.

    The 1953 Ausable Forks 15-minute quadrangle has many, many names that were not on the 1902 map. It thus appears that whichever surveyor was in charge of the 1953 mapping effort spent a lot of time talking to local residents and coming up with names for nearly every bump on the map. “Slip” was one that was for some reason in local use, but could be pushed aside by an earlier authoritative map.

  2. drdirt says:

    thanks for this information, as well as all your fine stories. We love maps and knowing the correct names, but have always preferred to paddle the ‘Grasse”.

    • Larry says:

      Yes … it was a bit strange writing about the “correct” name. I’ve always known it as the Grasse River as well.

      • drdirt says:

        Paul Jamieson, in his book ‘Adk canoe waters; north flow’, goes into detail about the correct name of the Grass river and agrees w/ you and the USGBN. The mouth of the river is all grass meadows that the Indians reaped for hay.

  3. Tom Murray says:

    the Grasse river was named after the Comte de Grasse, a French admiral who fought with his fleet against the Brits during the American Revolution. This was also the case with Andre’ de Massena, a French general for whom Massena is named. It’s too bad we tend to forget our history.

  4. SwilliAm says:

    My father always unwaveringly insisted the “Raquette” River was actually spelled Racket River. I see on the 1865 D.G. Beers map it was spelled such.

  5. Phil Brown says:

    Coincidentally, I wrote a story on paddling the Grass for the current (May/June) issue of the Adirondack Explorer and in researching the name discovered the same decision card that Larry found. “Grass” also is the spelling found on National Geographic’s map of the region. However, the Adirondack Park Agency uses “Grasse” as in “Grasse River Wild Forest.”

  6. I know I am quite late to this party, but it’s probably still worth noting that the pronunciation and spelling “Grasse” was also well documented through tons of iron.

    From 1915 through 1957 there was a heavy duty railroad formally named and spelled the Adirondack way—the “Grasse River Railroad”.

    The railroad was built by the Emporium Logging Company to support their extensive Adirondack lumbering and milling operations, and it also connected their sawmill at Cranberry Lake (on Mill Street) to their company town/sawmill/shipping center at Conifer, NY. The line also connected to the nearby New York Central Mohawk and Malone Railroad just east of Conifer.

    (That former intersection point with the NY Central railroad is quite close to the current trailhead parking lot for Mt. Arab.)

    Along with almost 250 photos of the Emporium Logging operations from the collections at the Adirondack Experience museum at Blue Mountain Lake, a photo of a “Grasse River Railroad” passenger car is posted at

    (Many thanks for keeping these articles and conversations online John.)

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