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How 8 Iconic American Landmarks Got Their Names

Plenty of famous American landmarks' names are self-explanatory—the Grand Canyon is a canyon that's grand, after all. But some other landmarks have some pretty interesting stories behind their names.

Statue of LibertyMatej Hudovernik/Shutterstock

The Statue of Liberty

You might be surprised to know that you’ve probably been getting the name of this famous monument wrong—sort of. The full name of this symbol of friendship between the Americans and the French was “Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World,” per sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. So really, “statue” was just an identifier, with “Liberty Enlightening the World” being the actual name of what it was depicting (“enlightening” with the torch, and all). Instead of dropping the “Statue” part to leave the “proper” title, people dropped “Enlightening the World,” so today, “the Statue of Liberty” is Lady Liberty’s recognized name. And that’s not the only case of mistaken identity that the Statue of Liberty experiences—did you know that her original color actually wasn’t green? Plus, learn more facts you never knew about the Statue of Liberty.

Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota. spacaj/Shutterstock

Mount Rushmore

As American as apple pie, Mount Rushmore probably jumps to mind when you think about American icons. It’s obviously not named for any of the presidents on it, or for its sculptor, second-generation American Gutzon Borglum. You might just assume that that’s the name of the mountain that the carving is on, and it is—but the story of how it got that name is probably odder than anything you could’ve imagined. In 1884, long before carving had begun on the mountain, a New York attorney visited the area spot to verify some mining claims. The attorney’s name? Charles E. Rushmore. The lucky fellow asked a local guide what the mountain was called, and the guide reportedly said that it didn’t have one yet, so they’d call it Rushmore. We may never know whether the guide was actually serious, but Rushmore stuck as the mountain’s name. It remained when that mountain became the home of this famous monument. For some more little-known U.S. history, find out how each state got its name.

famous Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco at night, USAventdusud/Shutterstock

The Golden Gate Bridge

One of the most recognizable American monuments, the Golden Gate Bridge towers over the San Francisco Bay Area in that iconic orangey-red color. But…if it’s orangey-red, why’s it called the Golden Gate? You hear that name and expect to see a gold bridge! Well, the “Golden Gate” name actually existed before the bridge did. The explorer John C. Frémont coined that name when he first saw the strait connecting San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean. It reminded him of Istanbul’s Golden Horn estuary, and he dubbed it “Chrysopylae,” or “Golden Gate,” because it was a “gate” to the Pacific. So the bridge is called the “Golden Gate Bridge” not because of its color, but because of its location over the Golden Gate Strait.

Devils Tower National Monument located in Wyoming, USA.Steven Frame/Shutterstock

Devils Tower

This Wyoming monument has gone by many different names since several indigenous tribes in the area had names for it—and “Devils Tower” was not one of them. Its indigenous names included “Bear Peak,” “Bear Lodge,” and “Tree Rock.” In 1875, Army Colonel Richard Dodge reportedly received a faulty translation of one of those names and dubbed the structure “bad god’s tower,” which was then modified to “Devil’s Tower.” In recent years, though, there’s been a push to restore “Bear Lodge” as the name, with advocates saying that calling it “Devils Tower” is disrespectful to indigenous people and implies that they were devil worshippers.

Another puzzling aspect of the name is that it’s “Devils Tower,” not “Devil’s Tower.” If that seems like an error…that’s because it is! It originally was “Devil’s Tower.” But in 1906, the proclamation officially making the tower a national monument said “Devils Tower,” with no apostrophe. So when President Roosevelt signed the proclamation, that error became the official name. Oops! And that’s not the only time errors and mistakes have found their way into famous monuments.

Downtown St Louis, MO with the Old Courthouse and the Gateway Arch at sunrisephoto.ua/Shutterstock

The Saint Louis Arch

Here’s another case of mistaken monument identity. The “Saint Louis Arch” is technically not the name of this 630-foot-tall structure. It’s called the “Gateway Arch,” meant to represent the city of St. Louis’s role as a “Gateway to the West.” If you love American monuments and history, check out these incredible photos of famous landmarks (including the arch) under construction.

shutterstock_357290741Jeramey Lende/Shutterstock

The National Mall

Here’s another one that might seem like a puzzling misnomer. This large green expanse, surrounded by museums and monuments to famous figures, is not exactly a massive shopping center, so why call it a “mall”? Well, a shopping hub isn’t the only definition of the word “mall”—and it wasn’t the original one. In the 17th century, “mall” developed as a word describing a space where people played a croquet-like game called “pall-mall.” It evolved to mean an open, public space in general. That’s what it meant when the commissioners of the District of Columbia were selecting possible names for the National Mall, and that became its accepted name around the 20th century.

Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in PhiladelphiaSongquan Deng/Shutterstock

The Liberty Bell

If you’re an American history buff, you probably know that the Liberty Bell got its fame from ringing in July of 1776 to celebrate the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. (That, and, of course, its famous crack.) But there’s more to the name than that. The inscription on the bell reads “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,” from an Old Testament verse. Surprisingly, though, the name “Liberty Bell” itself actually didn’t appear until 1839, when an abolitionist pamphlet used that name.

turtix/Shutterstock

The White House

Despite having as self-explanatory a name as the Grand Canyon, the White House actually hasn’t always gone by that name. “The White House” was one of many nicknames for the president’s home for many years, but it became the official name much later than you might think. People called it everything from “the President’s Palace” to “the Executive Mansion,” and it didn’t have an official name until 1901. That was the year President Teddy Roosevelt issued an executive order officially dubbing it “the White House.” According to whitehousehistory.gov, he preferred that name to “Executive Mansion” because most of the individual states had “executive mansions” for their governors and Roosevelt wanted the president’s dwelling to stand out. Next, learn the surprising stories of iconic American landmarks that almost didn’t exist at all.

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.