Realistic Names for Your Model Railroad
Trains, Towns, and Industries

by John M Carr

Copyright (C) 2000

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Dreaming up original or authentic sounding names for all of your model railroad towns, trains and industries can be a frustrating process. This article should give you plenty of ideas and ease the mental overload. This is like a name your baby book. This article is divided into six separate but related parts. We will look at a little history for town names, the prefixes and suffixes that may be added, and then naming of industries and trains.

The idea for writing this article came while attending the 1988 Santa Fe Modelers National Convention in Flagstaff, AZ. I overheard a conversation between two modelers. They were discussing how hard it was to come up with realistic names for town and industries on their layouts. After returning to Dallas, I began to think about this conversation. I soon obtained a computerized zip code list of all the post offices in the US. Using some old DOS programs, I was able to sort the list both left to right and also right to left and come up with the frequency counts for the various city and town names. About this same time, I was taking a statistics class, and the big thing there was numbers. If you are not into numbers, disregard the frequency counts in the examples.

Naming of Towns

First a brief history, as our ancestors settled this country, the communities that sprang up sometimes took their names from town and cities in the old country, i.e., Spain, Germany, England, etc. Some places, like Fossil, WY, received their names from common features of the area. Others, such as Libby, MT and Bonners Ferry, ID, were named after the original settlers. As railroads pushed into these areas, some of the towns and sidings took on the names of railroad officials (Walong, CA) or members of their families (Rosamond, CA). Even names of fictional characters have been used. However, some places retained their Indian roots or had the Indian name modified (Tehachapi, CA). This gives a rich variety of sources for names. With careful selection, the names you pick can speak of the heritage and geographic features of the area you are modeling.

Tehachapi station sign

For a different perspective on the geographic place names, you may want to see Geographical Names in Chapter 10 of "The American Language." Clicking on the link will open a new window, so you will still have access to this site. Let me know if the link stops working as the sites may be removed or renamed.

Many towns took on the names of this country's founding fathers. The numbers following the names are the number of towns in the US using that name. There is Washington 44, Franklin 37, Madison 34, Monroe 29, Jefferson 26, and Lincoln 23 to name just a few.

Before we get too far, we need to take a step back and look at the entire US, primarily the lower 48 states. I am using a computerized zip code list for the frequency counts and other analysis. Most of the population and therefore most of the towns are concentrated east of the Mississippi. Pennsylvania, because of its many small towns, tends to lead in most frequency counts. The top twelve states for the number of towns and cities are: PA with 1769, NY 1616, TX 1478, IL 1249, CA 1107, KY 1097, OH 1052, WV 975, MO 952, IA 931, VA 880, and MI 856. Note that only three of these states are west of the Mississippi. Keep these things in mind as we look at other geographical data.