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Burlington's not the only Queen City on the Map

Published March 19, 2003 at 4:26 p.m.

While New York City tempts comers with the Big Apple and Boston gasses off about being Beantown, Burlington promises visitors the royal treatment by calling itself the Queen City. The name is designed to suggest that we're better than the rest, but it runs the risk of confusing Vermont's largest city with a score of other places, from Galveston, Texas, to Spearfish, South Dakota. For all their efforts to elevate themselves above the crowd, queen cities are actually awfully common.

Do queen cities have anything in common, other than our nickname? Where does the title come from? What does it mean, anyway? And who better to ask than the experts?

"It's the biggest city in the state," explains the man who answers the phone at Queen City Coins in Burlington. With absolute confidence he reasons, "Cincinnati's the Queen City. It's the biggest city in Ohio." In that case, I wonder, why aren't these places called the King City? "Maybe if we had some balls we would be," he shoots back. Maybe so. Case in point: The wise guy won't give his name.

Robert Gauthier, at Queen City Fire Equipment, offers a more precise theory. "It's because it's the largest city in the state but it's not the capital," he suggests. "Same reason Manchester, New Hampshire, is the Queen City of New Hampshire."

If Gauthier's theory were correct, Burlington would be known as the Queen City of Vermont. But a call to the Fletcher Free Library reference desk suggests that the city's first mayor had a grander vision. Reading off an index card that's been prepared in anticipation of my question, which is apparently frequently asked, librarian Barbara Shatara quotes Albert Catlin's 1865 inaugural speech. "We represent a young city which may in time be known and distinguished as the Queen City of New England," his honor declared.

Catlin wasn't the first person to connect the Q word to Burlington, Shatara notes. When the telegraph came to town in 1848, the people of Troy, New York, tapped out a congratulatory message addressed to "the people of the Queen City." A trip to the library's local history room further reveals that in 1850 a store called Queen City Hat, Cap, Fur & Clothing House opened its doors on College Street.

But Burlington's aristocratic ambitions didn't really become obvious until around 1870. Fueled by booming lumber and wood-products industries centered on the bustling commercial waterfront, Burlington was by then a thoroughly modern city of 14,387, "the center of apparent economic activity, probably in all of Vermont and certainly on the lake," says local historian Vince Feeney. He adds, "'Queen City' was used by any emerging city that saw itself as progressive or wanted to portray itself as progressive, especially by the business community. And they were obviously marketing."

Local pride was no doubt music to the ears of the long-established Burlington Cornet Band in 1870, when it trumpeted its hometown's rising fortunes by changing its name to the Queen City Cornet Band. Burlington-bolstering also set the tone of the 1871-2 Burlington City Directory. A gushing introduction describes the town from Lake Champlain, "seated queen-like on a gently rolling hillside." The essay concludes, "If our estimate of the Queen City of the Lake and her material and social advantages should be deemed by the stranger unduly high, considerable allowance will be made for local and personal affection."

At bottom, the "Queen City" designation is really all about boosterism. The 19th-century capitalists who popularized the phrase in cities across the country were promoting their locations as democratic alternatives to European royalty. It gave a place old-world legitimacy while simultaneously suggesting that the hard-working Americans who called it home were living like kings.

Named by strangers: One popular misconception is that some real female ruler once traveled the country bestowing her title on places that pleased her. In fact, only one Queen City seems to have any direct connection to an actual monarch. In 1768, when Charlotte, North Carolina, was incorporated, the local citizenry named it after Queen Charlotte, wife of the reigning English monarch, King George III.

Cincinnati, Ohio, is probably the only Queen City that got its name from someone with no vested interest in enhancing the city's reputation. In the early 1800s, when it was the biggest metropolis in the entire Midwest, the city was dubbed "The Queen City of the West" by the poet Henry Wadsworth Long-fellow - and the citizenry is damned proud of that. The title is still so prestigious that it's even used by organizations outside Cincinnati proper. "We're actually located in Woodlawn," confesses Polly Coler, registrar at the Queen City Dog Training Club.

Rearview mirror: Lots of queen cities are resting on their crowns. Their moniker has more to do with how they used to be than the way they are now. In the 1830s and early '40s, when Independence, Missouri, took the title "Queen City of the Trails," steamboat traffic at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers made Independence the number-one outfitting center for the Santa Fe Trail. When Cumberland, Maryland, acquired the "Queen City" title around 1880, it was that state's second-largest city.

Dickinson, North Dakota, crowned itself the "Queen City of the Prairies" around 1910. Laurie Vernon at the Chamber of Commerce describes the area as "a few hills and fewer trees... mostly wheat fields and rolling plains." When a cluster of flour mills, bottling works, warehouses, hotels and other businesses rose beside the railroad tracks, the burgeoning center came to resemble "a crown on the flat plains."

Virginia, Minnesota, sits 100 miles south of International Falls. This chilly home to 9600 crowned itself Queen City in 1920, when it ranked as the state's fifth-largest city. "There are many, many little towns all around and everyone came here to work," says native Judy Kauchick, who has worked at Queen City Federal Savings Bank for 39 years, and who speaks with a lilting Scandi-navian accent straight out of "Prairie Home Companion." "We have open pit iron ore mines and lumber."

Pie in the sky: For some towns, becoming a queen city was an exercise in wishful thinking. Nancy Piwowar, a trustee with the Plainfield, New Jersey, Historical Society, says that in the late 19th century, her hometown was the end of the line for commuter trains out of New York City. Compared to the dusty, congested city, Plainfield was a breath of fresh air. Hoping to build the town up as a destination for respiratory ailment sufferers, a local newspaper publisher began calling Plainfield - elevation 100-200 feet - the "Colorado of the East." Because Denver was known as the "Queen City of the Plains," Plainfield's nickname was eventually shortened to "Queen City."

The change robbed the slogan of its breathe-easy connotations, but retained its essential meaning: We're really great. Really. That message is still carried in Plainfield's welcoming signs, a Baptist church, a fuel oil company and the Queen City Homing Pigeon Club - which is technically located in the nearby town of Piscataway.

Appropriately, Denver also owes its regal moniker to an enterprising journalist. When William N. Byers founded the Rocky Moun-tain News in 1859, he used his newspaper to promote development on the high desert. The "Queen City" title was meant to tout the place as the new steamboat capital of the West. As it turned out, the shallow Platte River didn't float many boats, and Byers himself was eventually discredited in an adulterous scandal and shot in the middle of a downtown street. But the city's Queen City stature stuck, nonetheless, as the railroad - rather than steamboats - tripled Denver's population in the 1890s.

Physical evidence: Meridian, Mississippi, is the birthplace of former Red Sox pitcher Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd and the site of the restored Mississippi Grand Opera House. The concert hall's home page explains that the 35-foot high proscenium features an ornate portrait of a lady. "While a direct relation cannot be proven," the Web site suggests, "this is certainly consistent with Meridian's epithet, 'The Queen City.'" Boyd tried to start up a baseball franchise called the Queen City Bombers that capitalized on the town's nickname. But he failed to raise the needed capital.

Spearfish - population 8600 - prides itself on being the second-largest city in Western South Dakota. Located at the foot of the Black Hills, it was established in the late 1800s at the height of the Queen City craze. What makes Spearfish worthy of the name? "The story I've heard," says Laurie Evans, receptionist at Queen City Motors, "is that years back a traveling dignitary came to the city." The unnamed big shot noticed that three peaks rising above the town suggested a crown, the tale goes.

Mystery meat: It's hard to say what made Hazard, Kentucky, "Queen City of the Mountains." Maybe the city's title anticipated the Appalachian location's association with the '70s TV show "Dukes of Hazard." Perhaps it foreshadowed native Don McGuire's career with the Hilltoppers, whose "P.S. I Love You" dominated the 1952 Hit Parade. It probably didn't foresee Phil Ochs' 1963 union ballad, "Hazard, Kentucky," which opines, "Well, minin' is a hazard in Hazard, Kentucky/And if you ain't minin' there/Well, my friends, you're awful lucky."

And what about Queen City, Texas, which dispenses with a formal name altogether and goes straight for the self-aggrandizing nickname? Queen City isn't really a city, or even an incorporated town, for that matter. It's a settlement of less than 2000 residents established as a stop on the Texas and Pacific Railway at the junction of U.S. High-way 59 and Farm roads 74, 96, 251, 2327 and 2791. Dial its office of Tourism & Economic Development at 1-888-C-U-OFTEN and the voice on the answering machine drawls, "Thank you for your interest in Queen City, the best place to be."

Remix: The official Web site of Allentown, Pennsylvania, calls the iron-enriched city "Pennsylvania's Park Place." But one particular neighborhood is forging a mini-revival of the city's older nickname. "We have Queen City Airport across the street and Queen City Industrial Park behind us," reports George Draklellis. When he bought the Cascade Diner eight years ago, he renamed the restaurant the Queen City Diner. His specialty: prime rib. The "queen cut" goes for $11.95.

In Staunton, Virginia, self-described "one-person Chamber of Commerce" and chiropractor Joe Dockery calls his musical promotion company Queen City Acoustic. The name was used by towns that wanted to say, "'I'm really, really great,'" he relates. "Staunton had an attitude that we are the center of the Shenandoah Valley." Like Burlington, Staunton has won awards for restoring its old homes, burying its electric wires and putting in brick sidewalks and granite curbs. Dockery boasts, "My organization has given more life to this queen city thing."

Queer city: The "queen" in "queen city" doesn't necessarily mean what it used to. In Seattle, an organization called Queen City Development coordinates 60 nonprofit entities that serve the queer community. "Queen City used to be one of the city's informal nicknames. It didn't have to do with gender," Mike Santovec, a volunteer at the LGBT Community Center, carefully explains. "It was more like saying it's a royal city in the Northwest before it was really developed. I think it was a bit pretentious. We did a play on the name."

The same wordplay occurred to folks here five years ago at the community forum that led to the formation of R.U.1.2.?, Burling-ton's LGBTIQA center. "Everyone really loved the name Queen City Center," recalls organizer Mike Bensel. In the end, the name was rejected. "There were a few women there who objected because it made it sound like it was just geared towards gay men." Civic pride just ain't what it used to be.

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Ruth Horowitz


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