By Sue Freeman
A question has been festering in my mind. As I researched hiking trails in Central & Western New York for my guidebooks, I found two trails with a curiously common name: Monkey Run Trail in Victor and Monkey Run Preserve in Ithaca.
In both cases, the name traces back to the name of a road near the trail. In Victor, Valentown Road used to be called Monkey Run Road. In Ithaca, Monkey Run Road still exists, although it’s a shadow of its former self. In the 19th century it was the site of a thriving community clustered around a grist mill on Fall Creek. The community disappeared in the 20th century. And, it doesn’t end there. There is also a Monkey Run Road roughly between Naples and Harriett Hollister Park between County Road 36 and Dutch Hollow. Another can be found just south of Elmira across the PA line.
But still, from where does this name “Monkey Run” come? Some records say the Monkey Run Road in Victor was a winding road that reminded residents of a jungle vine wrapping around one tree after another, possibly providing a means of transport for an imaginary troupe of monkeys. That sounds a bit fanciful to me.
An internet search of the term brings up many current uses. There are towns named Monkey Run in Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri. There’s a Monkey Run coal mine in Arkansas, and roads in New York, Pennsylvania and Missouri. Companies and groups use the term, including real estate companies, internet service providers, music bands, and animal shelters. And, it’s often used to name running races.
Historically, a “run” was a term used to name streams. Streams in Arcade, New York and Rockville, Maryland bear this name. Maybe, so did the ones near Monkey Run Trails in Victor and Ithaca.
There’s the possibility that the term was associated with a racial slur. Howard Cosell famously got in trouble for commenting “run, monkey, run” about a black baseball player. A black ghetto in Rockville, Maryland, settled by freed slaves, was called Monkey Run by area white folks, but not the black folks themselves.
It may be just whimsical. “Animal-verb” combinations are common as place names, as evidenced by other odd sounding places such as Turkey Scratch, Possum Trot, Hog Jaw, Bug Scuffle, and Grub Springs. These actually exist.
I’d prefer to believe that the term dates back to a 1920s term used in England. There, monkey parades, monkey runs, or monkey walks all referred to young men, donning their finest clothes and strutting down Main Street on Sunday evening, trying to meet girls.
Maybe you should dress up the next time you head to Monkey Run Trail (in Victor or Ithaca). You never know who you might meet.
Both trails can be found in the guidebook: Take A Hike – Family Walks in new York’s Finger Lakes Region.