In Tuscaloosa County, Ala., this year, Mud Pond became Gallant Lake and no one blinked an eye.

In Indiana, the town of East Gary voted to change its name to Lake Station.

There wasn't even much controversy in Virginia last spring when 41 ditches in the Great Dismal Swamp were christened Paw-paw Ditch, South Martha Washington Ditch, and the like.

But now the Board on Geographic Names, an obscure federal agency which serves as a national arbiter of toponymic disputes, is embroiled in a bizarre wrangle over the renaming of Alaska's Mt. McKinley, the western hemisphere's highest peak.

Alaskan natives, the Secretary of the Interior, the Alaska legislature, the Sierra Club and the governor of Alaska all want the mountain to be called "Denali," its ancient Indian name meaning "The Great One."

Sen. Ted Stevens (R) and other members of Congress from Ohio, president McKinley's home state, oppose the change, as do the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce and an assortment of sourdoughs.

The mountain was named McKinley in 1896 when, according to Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond, a local prospector, William A. Dickey, "fell in with a trio of prospectors who were rabid champions of free silver. After listening to their arguments for many weary days, (Dickey) retaliated by naming the mountain after the Champion of the gold standards."

Yesterday, in a drafty auditorium at the Interior Department, the Geographic names board held a public hearing on the issue, which has inspired 6,000 letters from across the country, 62 per cent favoring Denali.

"Names are very emotional," explained Donald Orth, secretary to the board. "They're part of people's heritage.

Indeed, for Ralph Regula, Republican congressman from McKinley's Ohio district, the proposed change is a laughing matter. Every Jan. 29, Regula told the board, he distributes [WORD ILLEGIBLE] carnations to all members of the house of Representatives, commendating McKinley's birthday.

"It affects me personally," said Regula, who looked truly disturbed by the proposal. "The mountain was named after a martyred president . . . Changing it would be an insult to his members." Regula said the entire Ohio delegation opposes the change.

However, as Regula waxed eloquent [WORD ILLEGIBLE] McKinley's virtures ("A champion of the working man . . . A man of [WORD ILLEGIBLE]. Pamela Rich looked perfexed. "Wasn't McKinley rather, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] unremarkable?" she asked a [WORD ILLEGIBLE].

Rich, who testified in favor of the change for Friends of the EarthM a national evironmental group, said it would be "an insult to the mountain to name it after such a lackluster person . . . We feel it's much more appropriate for a mountain of the grandeur to have a name that expresses grandeur."

Celia Hunter, head of the Wilderness Society, also advocated "Denali." "It was most unfortunate," she said, that the name McKinley happened to be appended to the mountain. McKinley never set foot in Alaska.

However, a Canton attorney, William G. Williams, whose letter was read to the board thought "the redesignation would result in irreparable harm to President McKinley's reputation and the respect accorded to all American institutions."

The five board members, bespectacled geographers from an assortment of federal agencies, appeared unmoved by the testimony. Although the board changes 1,500 names a year, most are uncontroversial. "They've been sitting on this decision for two years," Orth said. "They've been stung before, so they don't want to be hasty."

The last controversy concerned Cape Canaversal, which was renamed Cape Kennedy shortly after the President's assassination. Floridians were so enraged at the abandonment of the historic Spanish name that the Florida legislature passed a law requiring all state documents to call it Canaveral.

In 1973, the board quietly changed the name of the cape back to Canaveral, although the space station is still called Kennedy. "They realized they'd been wrong," said Orth, a cautious man who is the author of a 1,000-page "Dictionary of Alaskan Place Names." (All eight pounds of it were published by the Government Printing Office in 1967 for $8.50. "Cheaper than toilet paper," Orth pointed out.)

In another famous controversy, residents of Tacoma, Wash., thought they could attract a western terminal of the transcontinental railroad in the late 1800s, if only Mt. Rainier were renamed Mt. Tacoma. Seattle got the terminal but Tacomans continued fighting for the renaming for 25 years, publishing scientific papers and accusing the the Rainier Brewery Company of influencing board members with a keg of beer shipped to Washington.

The board, which also rules on foreign, underseas and extraterrestrial names, is expected to make a decision on McKinley in January, after holding a public hearing in Alaska in November.