by Kathy Wolfe

Sit back and tour the country as Tidbits digs into the origins of the nicknames of some American cities.

Chicago may be known as “The Windy City,” but it’s far from the windiest city in America. In fact, it’s not even in the top ten. Three Texas cities, Amarillo, Corpus Christi, and Lubbock, all have higher average wind speeds, as do the cities of Boston, Dodge City, Kansas, Oklahoma City, Casper, Wyoming, and Great Falls, Montana. Although Chicago has some pretty nasty winds in winter, the nickname has its roots in the late 1800s when some of the city’s pompous, arrogant, boastful politicians were described by newspaper reporters as being “full of hot air.”

  It makes sense that Houston would be designated “Space City,” due to its important role in space exploration, with the Johnson Space Center and NASA’s center of activity there. One of the city’s first nicknames, in use since the 1870s, was “The Magnolia City” because of the abundance of natural Magnolia forests in the area, which, sadly, were wiped out during urban expansion in the early 1900s. Some call Houston the “Energy Capital of the World,” as it is home to more than 5,000 energy-related companies.

It’s easy to see why Denver, Colorado, is known as the “Mile High City,” as it sits at an elevation of 5,280 feet (1,609 m) above sea level. There are landmarks around the city marking the elevation, including at the state capitol, where the 18th step of the structure is designated at the exact level with a bronze marker. Coors Field, the home of baseball’s Colorado Rockies, has indicated the official mile-high line with a row of purple seats in the 20th row of the upper deck, contrasting with the 50,000 green seats in the rest of the stadium. The city, part of the Kansas territory in 1858, was named after the Kansas Territorial Governor James W. Denver.

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  Ask folks what the nickname of Seattle is and you may get a mixed response. Some call it “The Jewel of the Northwest,” while others use the name “The Emerald City.” Its first common nickname, “Queen City of the Pacific Northwest,” was devised by a Portland, Oregon real estate firm in 1869 as a means of promoting the city. With the advent of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1896, “Gateway to Alaska” became a popular moniker. During the 1950s, “Jet City” was a frequent tag for Seattle, due to the long-standing presence of the aircraft manufacturer Boeing. Many refer to Seattle as the “Coffee Capital of the World,” because of the founding of the Starbucks chain there in 1971. Others call it “Rain City” – the average number of rainy days in Seattle is 150 – 155. In 1981, the city’s Visitors Bureau introduced a contest for a slogan for the city’s ad campaign to promote tourism. The winning nickname was “The Emerald City,” based on the area’s lush evergreen forests, a name that was officially adopted in 1982.

The city of Pittsburgh was named after a British statesman William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham in 1758. But it was the business of Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie who earned it the nickname of “Steel City.” Carnegie constructed his first steel mill in 1872, and was soon producing rails for the railroad. Carnegie sold his company to U.S. Steel in 1901 for an astronomical $492 million (about $15 billion in today’s dollars), earning him the title of the richest man in America.    A noted philanthropist, during the last 18 years of his life, Carnegie gave away $350 million (roughly $5.5 billion today), including the construction of 3,000 public libraries and millions of dollars to establish universities. At the time of his death, $30 million remained, which was also donated to various charities.

• Another Pennsylvania city, Philadelphia, received its nickname, “City of Brotherly Love,” from a combination of two Greek words – “philos” meaning “love” and “adelphos,” translating “brother.” It was the hope of the city’s founder, English Quaker and religious writer William Penn, that the city would be known for its religious tolerance and for being “always wholesome.” Penn, who directed the founding of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, signed the city into existence with the Charter of 1701. He also was influential in the planning of the city’s streets, carefully planning a grid of streets that were easy to navigate, anchored around four public squares.

Hartford, Connecticut has nine times the percentage of insurance industry workers compared to the average American City, giving it the title of the “Insurance Capital of the World.” Hartford’s location on the Connecticut River and near the Atlantic Ocean was conducive to merchant and trade traffic. 

As trade thrived in Hartford, merchants became worried about the risk of fire at their warehouses. In 1810, a group of merchants set up the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, with the group contributing $15,000 toward the set-up. Policies were offered across the nation – Abraham Lincoln insured his Illinois home with the Hartford Fire Insurance company. The Aetna Company followed in 1819, with the name chosen in reference to Sicily’s volcanic mountain, which, “though surrounded by flame and smoke, is itself never consumed.” Beginning in 1820, life insurance policies were offered.   

  New Orleans is considered the birthplace of jazz and Dixieland music, which perhaps contributed to the city’s nickname “The Big Easy,” because early-20th-century musicians were able to find work very easily there. Some claim the label refers to NOLA’s lenient attitude toward alcohol consumption during Prohibition. New Orleans is also called “Crescent City,” referring to the course of the Mississippi River around and throughout the city. During the 1930s, it also became known as “The City that Care Forgot,” indicating the easy-going, carefree temperament of the locals.

  The Pilgrims were introduced to a favorite dish of the Native Americans in the 1600s. The Natives were cooking beans with maple syrup, venison, and corn, and the meal became a recurring one for the settlers. When merchants brought molasses to the Massachusetts area, the Pilgrims began baking beans for hours in the sweet, sticky syrup, a delicacy that came to be known as Boston baked beans, and leading to the city’s nickname of “Bean Town.” In the early 1900s, the tourism slogan was, “You don’t know beans until you come to Boston.” Even the city’s baseball team latched onto the name, calling themselves the Boston Beaneaters (although they later became the Braves.)