The State of Washington

AT A GLANCE

Name: Washington is named after President George Washington
Nickname: Evergreen State
Capital: Olympia
Size: 68,126 sq. mi. (176,446 sq km)
Population: 7,170,351 (2015 est)
Statehood: Washington became the 42nd state on November 11, 1889.
Electoral votes: 11 (2016)
U.S. representatives: 9 (until 2016)
State tree: western hemlock
State flower: western rhododendron
State fish: steelhead trout
Highest point: Mount Rainier, 14,410 ft. (4,392 m)

Washington map

THE PLACE

Washington is a Pacific Northwest state located on the U.S. border with Canada. Washington’s location makes it a prime jumpingoff point for travel to and from Asia and Alaska by land, sea, and air.

Washington’s landscape varies greatly throughout the state. In the rugged northwest are the snowcapped Olympic Mountains, one of the least explored areas in the United States. The Cascade Mountains, which divide western and eastern Washington, are located in the south. These mountains, part of a chain that extends from Canada to northern California, include several volcanoes, such as Mount Washington from rain or snow, and as a result, the Columbia Basin to the east of the Cascades is semidesert. Rivers provide water for agriculture, except in the very southeastern corner of Washington, where the rich soil holds huge amounts of water.

The Rocky Mountains run through the northeastern corner of Washington. Between the Olympic Mountains and the Cascade Mountains lies Puget Sound, a large bay of the Pacific Ocean. Most of Washington’s population is concentrated near Puget Sound.

The Columbia River is the largest river in Washington and one of the largest in the United States. It provides water to many areas of Washington that are normally too dry for farming. Moist winds from the Pacific Ocean make the Olympic Peninsula one of the wettest places on Earth. The ocean also keeps temperatures in western Washington mild. Eastern Washington has warm summers and cold winters.

Facts and Firsts

  • Washington is the only state named after a U.S. president.
  • The most northwestern point in the lower 48 states is Cape Flattery, located on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
  • Mount Rainier, the highest point in Washington, is a dormant volcano that last erupted about 2,000 years ago.
  • There are more glaciers in Washington than in all other continental 48 states combined.
  • The world’s first revolving restaurant was built in Seattle’s Space Needle in 1961.
  • Starbucks, the world’s biggest coffee shop chain, opened its first shop in Seattle’s Pike Place Market in 1971.

THE PAST

A mild climate and an abundance of Pacific Ocean fish made western Washington a desirable home for Native American tribes. The first Europeans to reach Washington probably traveled up the Pacific Coast from California in the 1500s.

Spain, France, England, and Russia all claimed rights to the region during the late 1700s. Washington remained mostly unsettled until 1810, when British and American fur traders moved into the region. The United States was already an independent nation, but Britain contested the country’s northern boundary and claimed many of the northern lands, including Washington. The boundary was not officially determined until 1846, when a treaty set the present northern border of Washington.

The discovery of gold in present-day Oregon and Idaho brought many new American settlers to the northwestern United States after 1860, but settlement in Washington did not drastically increase until the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1883. The new railroad allowed Washington residents to ship cattle, minerals, lumber, and food to the East. By 1900, much of Washington’s dry land was being irrigated for farming. Wheat fields and fruit orchards replaced much of the state’s open cattle range. Gold rushes in Alaska around the same time drew additional settlers, and Seattle, which is located near Puget Sound, became a chief supply center and a major port city.

During World War I, Washington’s economy prospered as the state supplied forest products, food, and ships for the war effort. Although the Great Depression of the 1930s took a toll on industry, the state’s economic activities rebounded and hit a new high during World War II. Lumber and manufacturing industries provided ships, aircraft, and nuclear weapons to the U.S. military. In 1943, the U.S. government built Hanford Works in southeastern Washington as a site for nuclear research.

After the war, many workers stayed in Washington and found employment in new aluminum and aircraft factories. During the second half of the 20th century, lumber and agriculture became less important, and Washington grew more urban. In the 1960s, the Boeing Company, a major aircraft manufacturer, moved into the Seattle area and drew workers from all over Puget Sound. The tourism industry was boosted by the completion of the Space Needle, an observation tower built for a world’s fair in Seattle in 1962.

Washington suffered from a natural disaster in 1980, when the long-dormant volcano Mount St. Helens erupted. The eruption resulted in 57 deaths and caused billions of dollars in damage to southwestern Washington.

THE PRESENT

Washington is today a leader in many industries. The Microsoft Corporation and other software companies are located throughout the Seattle–Tacoma area. Boeing continues to manufacture airplane parts in Seattle and all over the rest of the state. The U.S. Navy’s shipyard in Bremerton is one of the largest shipyards on the Pacific Coast. Washington is home to Nordstrom, one of the largest clothing store chains in the United States, and Starbucks, the largest retail coffee vendor in the nation.

Timber is Washington’s most valuable agricultural product. Washington’s agricultural industry, although not as important as it once was, has benefited from better irrigation on the Columbia River, and about half of Washington is farmland. Wheat is Washington’s leading field crop, and only Idaho grows more potatoes. Cattle and dairy farms also dot the state. Washington grows more apples and pears than any other state.

State officials are working to address serious environmental problems caused by development in Washington’s industrial and agricultural activities. Some dams on Washington’s rivers that provide hydroelectric power and water for crops also prevent salmon from swimming upstream to mate, and as a result, Washington’s salmon population is in danger. Also, officials discovered in the 1980s that underground tanks at the Hanford Works research site were leaking radioactive waste and polluting the Columbia River. A cleanup plan was initiated in 1989.

Born in Washington

  • Carol Channing, singer and actress
  • Kurt Cobain, musician
  • Judy Collins, singer
  • Bing (Harry Lillis) Crosby, singer and actor
  • Merce Cunningham, dancer and choreographer
  • Frances Farmer, actress
  • Bill Gates, software executive
  • Jimi Hendrix, guitarist
  • Chuck Jones, animator
  • Gary Larson, cartoonist
  • Mary McCarthy, novelist
  • Robert Motherwell, artist
  • Patrice Munsel, opera singer
  • Seattle, chief of the Suquamish
  • Francis Scobee, astronaut
  • Hillary Swank, actress