Since receiving a map of Maryland in the third grade 37 years ago, I have been puzzled why a town has two names, one the reverse of the other. Follow Route 40 west of Cumberland to Exit 34. Follow Route 36 south to Route 935. Near the intersection is "Pekin" and/or "Nikep P.O." Why the two names? Why the reversal? Does P.O. stand for Post Office? If so, must letters to Pekin be addressed as Nikep? How are they pronounced?
David Devlin, Crofton
Whenever Answer Man finds himself growing grim about the mouth, whenever it is a hot, boring August in his soul, whenever he finds himself involuntarily shopping for a 42-inch plasma screen TV (knowing full well that it won't assuage the ennui in his heart), he accounts it high time to go on a road trip as soon as he can.
Road trip! Why, the very words conjure freedom and escape: tunes on the radio, a caffeine-free Diet Coke in the cup holder, a ribbon of asphalt unspooling beneath the wheels at a nicely reimbursable rate of 38 cents per mile.
And so it was that last week I gassed up the Answer Vehicle and pointed it northwest. My destination: Pekin. Or Nikep. Or whatever the heck it's called.
The town in question is about 150 miles from Washington, in Allegany County. On the official state map of Maryland, it is a tiny circle marked with the odd appellation "Pekin (Nikep P.O.)."
My first stop was in Cumberland, at the Allegany Historical Society. There I was directed to the Land Records Office in the Circuit Courthouse, to which I immediately hied. (I find I do not often hie in the city but enjoy doing so when on a road trip.) Clerks Kimberly Burgess and Michelle Strietbeck unearthed references to the "village of Pekin," the earliest being from 1872.
Kim and Michelle knew that the town went by two names, but neither knew the exact story. They thought Louise Hott, who worked one office over, might know.
Louise in turn picked up the phone and dialed Dave Warnick, who works over at the District Court and whose mother was from Pekin. And when I spoke to Dave, he said I really should just talk to his mother.
Which is how I ended up on the phone with Helen Ann Warnick, a retired teacher.
"What I've always been told is that during the war, so many men were drafted into military service that they weren't able to keep all the post offices open," she said. The post office in Pekin closed.
After the war (World War I, as it turns out), the residents wanted it reopened. There was a problem: There were several other Pekins in the United States -- in Indiana, in Illinois -- and in those pre-Zip code days, the mail often was misdelivered.
"Because Pekin, Md., was smaller than Pekin, Ind., Maryland had to change its name," said Helen Ann. "They just decided they would spell it backwards." (This was a not-uncommon practice. A tiny town in Oklahoma whose residents wanted to honor the Hero of Manila Bay ended up being called Yewed, "Dewey" having been taken.)
Pekin is pronounced PEE-kihn. Most people pronounce Nikep to rhyme with "hiccup." Although the signs on Route 36 point motorists toward "Nikep," most townsfolk prefer the original name. Nikep was just an accommodation town leaders made in 1919 to get P.O.'d, so to speak.
(Why "Pekin" in the first place? No one's positive. It appears to be the name of a coal mine that was there.)
Angela McCabe has lived in Pekin all her life. Gladys McCabe, her sister-in-law, lives next door now but is from Moscow, a tiny town just down the road. They're each 89.
"They were always getting the mail mixed up," said Gladys, by way of confirmation.
The octogenarians said Pekin used to have three or four stores, a church, a school and a Sunday school. That's all gone now.
And in 1996, heavy rains turned Georges Creek, a normally placid brook that runs through the town, into a raging torrent that destroyed several houses and rendered others uninhabitable.
Much of Pekin is now derelict, its houses bought up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Fewer than 50 households receive mail there now, at a stand of cluster boxes that will soon move, although no one knows quite where yet.
And if a town stays alive by the simple act of having its name inscribed on envelopes and packages, then perhaps Pekin/Nikep has ceased to exist. Some time in the past 10 or 20 years, the Postal Service took away its Zip code, 21546.
To the outside world, the few dozen Pekinese/Nikepolitans appear to live in the nearby town of Lonaconing, Zip code 21539.
Researcher Alex McCallum contributed to this report. Have a question about some oddity of the Washington area? Send it to another oddity of the Washington area: Answer Man. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or write John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include your name and the town you live in.