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As It Was: Beautiful Oregon Hills and Rivers Given Devilish Names

Many of the beautiful hills and rivers in Oregon have devilish names, among them “Hellgate Canyon” on the Rogue River and the “Devil’s Backbone” at Crater Lake.  The idea proved upsetting to one early Oregon minister, the Right Rev. William H. Gross, Archbishop of Oregon from 1885-1898.

He once remarked, “I cannot but often get vexed at the mean names that our people will persist in giving to locations.”

The “Devil’s Backbone” in Crater Lake National Park is a jagged outcropping of volcanic rock that stretches from the lake to the rim of the Crater Lake caldera.

Hellgate Canyon is the deepest gorge in the Rogue River, located about 10 miles west of the town of Merlin.  Although spectacular, its name may derive more from being the gateway to two very devilish spots on the Rogue, Rainie Falls and Blossom Bar.  In 1994 it was the setting for a suspense thriller “The River Wild” starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon.

The Rev. Gross said, in his own words, “It is customary to name favorite sites after a country’s heroes – what a hero, then, must the devil be to the people of Oregon.”

Sources: "Devil's Backbone - Prominent Geological Features of Crater Lake National Park." Crater Lake Institute, Crater Lake Institute, www.craterlakeinstitute.com/natural-history/geology-devils-backbone.htm. Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.           

"Names in Oregon." The New York Times, 25 June 1887, p. 4. 

Atzet, Tom. "Hellgate on the Rogue River." Southern Oregon Land Conservancy, Southern Oregon Land Conservancy, www.landconserve.org/news/2017/2/24/the-rogue-rivers-hells-gate. Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.

Sharon Bywater of Ashland, Oregon grew up in Southern California. She taught English literature and writing at Syracuse University in New York, where she also wrote and edited adult literacy books and published freelance articles in local media. Later, she lived in Washington, D.C., where she worked as an international telecommunications policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Commerce. She has Master’s degrees in English and Communications Management.