Takoma and Mount Rainier are the pride of Maryland?

Feb 10, 2023, 7:38 AM | Updated: 9:34 am
Cover of a promotional brochure for Takoma Park, Maryland from circa 1890. (Courtesy Historic Takoma) Takoma Park, Maryland is a suburb of Washington, DC, as seen on this detail from a USGS map from 1961. (USGS Archives) Mount Rainier, Maryland is a few miles south of Takoma Park, Maryland. (USGS Archives) Detail of 1965 USGS map shows location of both Takoma Park, Maryland and Mount Rainier, Maryland. (USGS Archives)

Though they are thousands of miles from the Pacific Northwest, there’s something familiar sounding about the communities called Takoma Park and Mount Rainier.

“Hello,” says the voicemail greeting when you dial city hall for a small town near Washington, D.C., in the state of Maryland. “Thank you for calling the City of Mount Rainier. Our hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.”

Yes, you read that correctly: Mount Rainier is a city in Maryland, and the local government is open for business every weekday. We’ll come back to this part of the story in a moment.

The other Maryland city that has a familiar ring to it is Takoma Park. Takoma Park dates to the 1880s. It was a planned city created by a developer and real estate investor from New York named Benjamin Franklin Gilbert. The idea was to build a community where government workers could live since it was just a few miles away from Washington, D.C., and was conveniently already located on a rail line.

The nearby train station was originally called Brightwood, but since the area was actually a hundred feet or so higher than the swampy land of the nation’s capital, it gave the setting a mildly mountainous quality. That might be a slight exaggeration.

Jim Douglas is a volunteer archivist with a group called Historic Takoma. Douglas says that this elevated feeling provided some naming inspiration in the community’s earliest days.

“This friend of Gilbert’s named Ida Summy is said to have suggested to Gilbert at dinner one night, ‘Why don’t you call your new place, ‘Tahoma?’” Douglas told KIRO Newsradio earlier this week. “This being an Indian word meaning ‘high up,’ ‘heavenly place’ kind of thing.”

As recent debates about the name of the Cascade volcano have often highlighted, ‘Tahoma’ and ‘Tacoma’ are variations on what’s generally believed to be the Indigenous word for Mount Rainier – which was likely in use for millennia prior to the arrival of name-bestowing Captain George Vancouver in 1792.

And though the “high up” and “heavenly place” definitions might be somewhat apocryphal, our own city of Tacoma was on the rise as real estate development of the Northern Pacific Railroad around the same time that Ida Summy made her suggestion. If there is a direct connection between Gilbert’s friend and the Pacific Northwest, Jim Douglas of Historic Takoma doesn’t know what it is.

Douglas also says Benjamin Franklin Gilbert spelled ‘Takoma’ with a ‘k’ instead of a ‘c’ – perhaps to distinguish it, postally speaking, from Tacoma. Gilbert also added “Park” to make the community sound like a more desirable place to live.

Douglas – who’s originally from the eastern Washington community of Cheney, by the way – says regardless of the specific origins, not many people nowadays know about the Tacoma/Tahoma/Takoma Park backstory.

Even though, Douglas says, there is at least one visual clue still in plain sight.

“Well, yes, the city seal,” Douglas said. “If you go to, for example, the City of Takoma Park website, you’ll see there that seal with the color of the orange mountain and the sun rays that dates back to 1890 when this town was first formed.”

“In one of the first or second council meetings, they adopted that format for the city seal,” Douglas said. “And it stayed that way ever since.”

Just five miles southeast of Takoma Park is the city of Mount Rainier, Maryland. Unfortunately, there’s no organization there devoted to community history and no one like Jim Douglas who is able to share the origin story.

However, with help from Micah Connor, an employee of the statewide Maryland Center for History and Culture, one tantalizing clue emerged as to why a Washington, D.C., suburb is named for a Cascade volcano.

“I can provide some context to these places names you requested,” Connor wrote in an email. “According to Marion J. Kaminkow’s Maryland A to Z: A Topographical Dictionary, the entry for Mount Rainier reads: ‘The land in the area had once belonged to some army officers from Seattle who gave the estate its name. Land was purchased to found the town in 1902.’”

Another staffer shared a scan of a page from another book about the origins of Maryland place names – believed to be Hamill Kenny’s The Place Names of Maryland: Their Origin and Meaning.

The author writes, “Many years ago, several army officers from Seattle subdivided 100 acres here and named them Mount Rainier for the 14,000-foot mountain in their home state. A syndicate of six men bought the tract in 1902; upon incorporation in 1910, the name became official.”

It sure would be interesting to know more about who those “army officers from Seattle” were, their names, their Seattle history, and what they did next, but the trail is pretty cold. And, as it turns out, the trail is pretty muddy, too. That same source, Hamill Kenny, writes that in the early years of the Maryland town, the unpaved streets meant that in the rainy season, its nickname was “Mud Rainier.”

One last fact: various sources (old newspaper clippings, plus some contemporary reports from Maryland) report that the pronunciation of the town in Maryland – “Mount RAY-neer” – might be slightly different than how the name of the mountain is pronounced around here – “Mount ray-NEER.”

No matter how you might say it, one stark difference between Mount Rainier, Md., and Mount Rainier, Wash., we can all be grateful for is those regular business hours. At last check, views of our homegrown Cascade volcano are available whenever the sun is up, and the mountain is out.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Takoma and Mount Rainier are the pride of Maryland?