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Stranger in Paradise


Claim:   The town of Paradise, California, was named after the "Pair o' Dice" saloon.

LEGEND

Origins:   The abundance of place names in the U.S. (and other parts of the world) that incorporate the word "paradise" hardly needs explaning. One can well imagine settlers coming across new areas offering some combination of pleasantly temperate weather, bountifully fertile soil, and gorgeous natural scenery, and deciding that such places truly deserved names reflective of their appearances as little bits of heaven on Earth. (Upon occasion, the name "Paradise" has also been applied derisively to some strikingly inhospitable geographic locations.) In California alone, one can find a Paradise Craggy, Paradise Dam, Paradise Cay, and of course a town named Paradise.

Paradise, California — a town in Butte County, about 80 miles north of the state capital of Sacramento — lives up to its designation about as much as
any other similarly-named place. Located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, its altitude (about 1,700 feet) positions it high enough to escape the valley heat in the summer, yet low enough to stay below the heavy winter snowfalls that crest the mountain range. The climate and soil are agreeable for growing a variety of vegetables, fruits, and nuts crops, leading Paradise to once possess the title of "the apple center of California."

Despite the obvious appropriateness of its name, a legend nonetheless persists that Paradise, a Gold Rush-era town, was so named not because it resembled Eden, but because it was home to the Pair o' Dice saloon. This claim is bolstered by the fact that an official railroad map printed in 1900 rendered the town's name as 'Paradice.' Was the saloon really the origin of the name, or was the map entry simply a misspelling that in turn prompted a legend about a saloon?

The case for the Pair o' Dice tale is rather weak: No evidence documents the existence of a drinkery by that name in the area, much less explains how the town came to be named for such an establishment or how the unusual spelling came about. Gene Sylva, a former mayor of the nearby town of Oroville, California, and a past president of the Butte County Historical Society, has asserted that the "saloon" story is bunk and offered an alternate explanation:
[Sylva's] great-great-grandfather, William Pierce Leonard, named this popular retirement town on a summer day in 1864, after a hot and dusty ride up from the Sacramento Valley. The crew of his sawmill was outside taking a break when he arrived. Leonard, who was affectionately known as "Uncle Billy," dismounted his horse, took a deep breath of the cool, clean air, and exclaimed, "Boys, this is paradise."
The story about "Uncle Billy" might also be a bit of pleasingly inventive historical fiction, but lacking any more evidence either way, we'd have to agree with William of Occam that the simpler explanation should be preferred, and Paradise was probably so named merely because it was a pleasant place to live.

Last updated:   19 September 2013

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Sources:

    Gallant, Frank K.   A Place Called Peculiar: Stories About Unusual Place Names.
    Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1998.   ISBN 0-87779-619-X   (p. 29).

    Gudde, Erwin G.   California Place Names.
    University of California Press, 1998.   ISBN 0-520-24217-3   (p. 281).

    Quimby, Myron J.   Scratch Ankle, U.S.A. — American Place Names and Their Derivation.
    New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1969.   ISBN 0-498-06638-X   (p. 251).