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Making great communities happen

The strange, fun, and fascinating stories behind Bay Area city names

By Katie Dowd, SFGate, January 9, 2022

Four selections from a full tour of Bay Area cities from Alameda to Walnut Creek:


“There’s some debate over land ownership and property acquisition, but the provenance of Burlingame undoubtedly comes from Anson Burlingame. Burlingame was a lawyer and politician, serving as President Lincoln’s minister to the Qing Empire in China. It’s speculated that the politician bought a large estate in the Bay Area after visiting friend William C. Ralston’s manor in Belmont.


“Hercules’ name is — excuse the pun — quite explosive. In 1881, the California Powder Works company starting producing dynamite and black powder. It was sold as Hercules Powder, a marketing ploy meant to show off the dynamite’s potency. When the town was incorporated in 1900, the community leaders, who also worked as the plant managers, chose Hercules as the city name.


“If you guessed Milpitas is a Spanish word, you’re almost right. The city’s name comes from ‘milpa,’ a Nahuatl word that means ‘place where corn grows.’ Mexican settlers adopted the word and made it into a diminutive (milpitas) to refer to Native American gardens. They also named a large land grant Rancho Milpitas, which then became modern day Milpitas.

Union City

“This one sounds Civil War-related, but it’s not. Union City got its name from ‘The Union,’ a steamboat owned by settlers John and William Horner. The Horners built up the settlement in the wake of the Gold Rush. John Horner also went on to found today’s Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco.”

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