What's in a Name: The mystery of how the "Gators" got their name...


    Below are the two theories I posted originally, along with a third that was suggested by Eric Knapp. These are based on the premise that a team was actually named after an animal that may have existed in the area. When I invited others to comment, many wrote in with their ideas and remembrances. Some of their ideas don't involve an animal at all. I have posted their comments below. Check them out and if you want to comment, or can shed further light on the mystery, please send it in:





Theory #1: The name came from a species of snapping turtle called the Alligator Snapping Turtle. These are the largest freshwater turtles in the world. Though not native to PA, they have been found in Indiana which is equally as far north. They can grow to 200 lbs in mass and have massive hooked jaws capable of removing a casually misplaced human limb. It would not be hard to imagine this species existing in Port's early Allegheny River ecosystem (before dams, serious clear cutting, and over-fishing). Something that impressive would incite awe and fear and might naturally become an unusual mascot for the ferocious local sports teams. Over time, the memory of the turtle would have faded along with its physical existence in the river. The name then assumed the more familiar connotation it has now.


Theory #2: Similar to Theory #1 but with a different beastie. The largest freshwater gar in the US is called the Alligator Gar. It can grow to 7 to 8 feet in length and weigh 300 lbs. The fish has an elongated and decidedly alligatorish mouth and is the only freshwater fish with a double row of teeth in its upper jaw. Alligator Gars tend to prowl shallow murky waters with their backs near the surface. Their scales are so tough, the early Indians used them as arrowheads. Again I must caution that the Alligator Gar is not native to Port waters, but has been found in the Ohio River. As our own Allegheny blends with the Ohio at Pittsburgh, it's not such a big leap to imagine the gigantic fish in our waters 'way back when' (pre-dams). As before, once the fish disappeared, a few typos here and there, several decades of indifference and voila!, the Gar became the Gator.


Theory #3: Hatched by Eric Knapp who operates the D9 Wrestling Website (www.leaguelineup.com/d9w), and who used the web to search out an answer.  His theory is similar to the first two but involves still a third beastie. Eric thinks the original mascot was the freshwater "Hellbender", the world's largest salamander (Hmmm, any connection to Salamanca?). These bad boys can grow to nearly 30 inches in length and are seriously ugly. They were once thought to have a venomous bite and could clamp down on an unsuspecting wader and not let go. This is NOT true. They are in fact harmless, if a little slimy and, oh yeah, ugly. What makes Eric think these are the original "Gators"? Only that two reputable websites he found (one of them www.eNature.com) say the alternate name for the Hellbender is...are you ready for this?...the Allegheny Alligator!


Further theories, explanations and information received from viewers:

David Kaziska:  I believe that sometime during my school years, there was an article in the school paper documenting the origin of the Gator as nickname. Most of those years there was no school paper, I would guess this was in 1977 or so when Eric Carlson and his buddies were running the paper with Mrs. Kaufman (the business teacher) as the paper's advisor. At any rate, I thought the name came from the nickname of Allegheny College, also the Gators. This begs the question, I know, where did THEY get the nickname then? I couldn't find the answer quickly on Google.



Patty:  My uncle (Wayne Caskey) says that he thinks that a sports writer (Johnny Nelson) (who wrote the sports page for the Bradford Era in the 30's) picked words that rhymed with the town name.  That may be just a guess, but he said they were called the Port Allegany Tigers at one point. That's the best I could come up with. 



Jason Falk:  I had heard the Hellbender theory before. I think it was Mr. Wilson in fifth grade told us this. I may be wrong about the source but that is not the first time I heard that theory.  


Dan Johnson:  The Port football team always played it's games at the old Arnold Ave. school (I think the original high school was located there). If you recall the field (playground when it was an Elementary school) was behind the old Arnold Ave. school next to Lillibridge creek, and was the lowest lying section of ground at the school. Being water seeks the lowest collection point, the field was generally wet/swampy and many  football games were played in swampy conditions, hence the logical name for the Port team was the Gators. Wives tale?.. maybe .... but that's the story I've always heard.  Dan adds: The one tidbit I forgot to include with my original explanation was the phonetic connection. In addition to the explanation (above) it has always been my belief that the name "Gators" was selected because phonetically it rolls off the tongue well .... Port Allegany Gators .... see, it just works. So in conjunction with the swampy field, it was a natural.



Ronni Plummer:  I don't recall when it was, but several years ago, I think in the Bradford paper, there was an article about how the mascot names came to be. I think most of the names were 'assigned' in the late teens or early twenties and that there was a sports writer at the time that came up with the various names as football rivalries came into fashion. The Gators were so named because of the Allegany/Alligator connection, perhaps because of the hellbender theory (would they also be called mudpuppies, or is that something different?) Initially, they were the Port Allegany Alligators which eventually was shortened to just Gators.

The Hubbers got their name from being the county seat or Hub of the county. When you look on a map, Smethport is "centrally" located with Kane, Bradford, Port and Eldred being the "spokes."

The Kane wolves, of course, got their name from being the location that timber wolves were most prevalently found in our area. I don't remember any of the other connections, but the aforementioned article had it broken down. I apologize for my lousy memory but its just the way it is. Of course, my memory is so bad, I might have imagined all of the above or remembered it totally wrong.  (Sounds alright to me Ronni! - doc)

Chris Petrisek: I can't remember which piece of material I was reading in Charles Catlin's files one afternoon in the library basement, but he attributes the name of the team of our high school to a writer for the Times Herald in an age long ago. The writer said that the name was a simple derivative off of 'Allegany'.  (Webmeister note: Mr. Catlin was a renowned Port Allegany historian)

Tom Weis:  I have no idea where the Gators moniker came from, but it is amusing to me that just last week my wife (who hails from West Texas) asked me how Port A got the Gators nickname. She too wondered if there were gators in the river. I told her it came from someone years ago who coined the term "Port Alligators". No proof whatsoever, but she bought it.

Bonnie Metcalf Pennington:  Graduating from Port in 1967 I have often wondered why the school mascot was a Gator... We do a lot of RVing and go to all Ga. football games. including the Florida Gators. We always play Fla around Halloween, and have a Halloween party so one year I wore my Gator jacket and no one could believe that a school in the North had a mascot of a Gator, I had a hard time explaining because I didn't know. So hopefully someone will come with the right answer....and then I will be able to tell them.

Amy Taylor Lewis:  I think when I was on the staff of the school newspaper back in 84/85, this was a trivia question we asked. It seems to me that Mr. Christensen, I believe, explained to me that "way back when" there was a football game and it was raining so hard that somebody made the comment that it was like playing in a swamp....... apparently like "gators" in the swamp. And I remember back in the early 80s there were signs all over the gym saying "welcome to the swamp".

Andrew Johnson:  I read your story on the website about the high school mascot name, and I'm sorry to inform you that I can't give any definitive proof, but I can offer you a very compelling theory that I have heard from a few sources. Port Allegany's mascot was originally the Tiger which, granted, makes no more sense than the Gator. However, this was because the high school was somewhat modeled after Princeton University, taking everything from it's school colors, to it's alma mater and school flower, to it's mascot from the University. The reason the teams are now called the Gators is where my memory doesn't serve me so well. I have been told, but given no proof, that a Bradford Era sports writer from the early 20th century gave many, if not most, of the area high schools their respective mascot names by simply referring to the teams as whatever animal or object he thought fit in his articles. Perhaps this is where Eric's theory takes over, as the sports writer could have given Port Allegany teams the name "Gators" because of this gator-like creature. This is only my understanding and I'm sorry that I cannot give any proof of this, but I thought I would share it with you anyway because I find it rather easy to believe that a newspaper journalist could have easily given different names to the high school teams around. I suppose these names would have stuck due to the fact that the only way people outside of the immediate area would have known of the high school teams is through the newspaper and would therefore refer to the teams as being whatever the writer of the articles called them. Anyway, take my story for what it's worth.

Josh Hatcher: I believe the Port Allegany Gators name is one of ETYMOLOGY... a "Bad Pun" if you will. "Allegany" shares beginning sounds with "Alligators". In fact, my children were afraid to go swimming behind Grandpa's house last summer, because they had heard it was the "Alligator River". Allegany -Limestone High School www.alli.wnyric.org/ in New York also shares the mascot of the Gator... I can only think it is for the same reason.

Now comes an illuminating email from a Port Allegany native, teacher, and coach Meg (Boudon) Hutton, who wrote in to relay a story from her youth. A story that may shed light on how snowbound students in northern PA became known as "Gators". Here is what she had to say:


  I  agree with the couple of others who wrote to relay the names came from a sports writer for one of the area papers a long time ago.  In 1974 our family was on a return trip from Colorado when we stopped for a sit-down lunch or dinner at a Howard Johnson's in Missouri (or somewhere between here and there). At the table adjacent to ours my father thought he recognized someone. The longer he watched the man the more he was sure he knew him, so he excused himself and approached the man at the neighboring table. A couple of minutes later he returned to our table with the man in tow. My dad introduced the man to us as the sportswriter who gave Port Allegany (and all the neighboring towns) it's mascot. The sportswriter did not deny the introduction my father had given him and visited with us for a few minutes, eventually giving each of us three teenagers a baseball-style sports cap (related to the Little League world Series) which I had for a long time. I never met the man again (he had been traveling too) but I will never forget the "chance" meeting somewhere out there in the middle of the country, far away from each of our respective homes. I have told the story several times about meeting the man who named Port Allegany the "Gators".  - Meg Hutton

    I have to admit this sounds a tad more plausible than having your team named after a two foot long salamander that looks like its ancestry included at least one Chinese Shar-Pei. 


    Reporter George Petrisek now asks an obvious question: "What is the earliest reference to Port 'Gators' in print?" 


    How about it readers? Any history buffs with a penchant for research out there? Inquiring minds want to know: Who was this journalist with the power to name teams? Was it the Era's Johnny Nelson as purported by Wayne Caskey? If so, when did he do it? And what about the references to Port Allegany Tigers and the Princeton connection? This sounds like a potential research project for a Port HS or college student. Let's hear from you. doc@portallegany.net