Bigger Washingtons (Part II): the remaining cities that honor George.

Continuing from where Part I left off, this article will explore the remaining 15 municipalities named Washington in the United States, the District of Columbia excluded.  Ranking them from least to most populous, the previous article covered the smallest eight; this will conclude with the seven bigger Washingtons, up to the most populous of all. And then I’ll briefly discover some of the analytical tools I used to sort out these bigger Washingtons from the similarly named dross.

7. New Jersey: 7,299 inhabitants

For a few years, I lived across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania but was not far at all from this borough in northwestern New Jersey.  My recent time in the area only allowed me to photograph Washington, NJ at night, but they turned out well enough.  Since this borough rests within Warren County (but is not the seat), it is technically part of an urban agglomeration whose primary cities are Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton, all in Pennsylvania.  Immediately across the Delaware RIver from Easton is Phillipsburg, a reasonably sized smaller city in itself (about 15,000)). Then Washington is east of Phillipsburg, across another twelve miles of mostly rolling countryside.  The Pennsylvania portion of this region is known as the Lehigh Valley, and it’s the third-largest metropolitan area in the Keystone State (behind Philadelphia and Pittsburgh).  Phillipsburg and Washington, NJ represent the eastern and far-eastern fringes of this important region.  And even though Washington feels like a small city in the midst of farmland, it’s not more than a 15-minute drive to an important metro.  And if the Lehigh Valley (with nearly 900,000 people) isn’t big enough, a 70-minute drive to the east will send visitors to a burg known as New York City.

In short, Washington, NJ is a quiet reprieve flanked by intense urbanization.

Main Street of Washington NJ: among the bigger Washingtons

Given that New Jersey is one of the thirteen colonies, it’s surprising this Washington—the first among the bigger Washingtons—doesn’t look all that colonial.  The less embellished façades could easily pass for a similarly sized municipality in Ohio or Indiana.  Washington the municipality (termed “borough” in New Jersey, as indicated in Part I) only emerged as an identifiable community within Washington Township around the Civil War, as a result of newly constructed transportation routes that prompted commerce in the area.  By 1868, enough people clustered in the area between the Morris Canal and the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad to prompt a Borough of Washington to separate from the township, like punching a hole.  It’s not a colonial settlement at all; by New Jersey standards, Washington is a toddler.  It reported 1,800 people in 1870, its first decennial census.

According to a historical summary on the borough’s official website, at least a few buildings within the municipal limits date from the 18th century; one structure from at least the 1750s is still in use today.  But Washington didn’t organize into a municipality until the mid 19th century, then grew steadily as a center for the manufacturing of musical instruments: mostly pianos, organs, and other keyboard variants that would constitute collectors’ items in the 21st century.  About the same period that these industries likely declined—when sound recordings stunted much of the demand for home music-making—Washington NJ avoided obscurity with the improvement of roadways for motorized vehicles, linking it much more strongly with Phillipsburg and the Lehigh Valley to the west.  With just a few exceptions, Washington NJ has generally grown slowly over the decades; it reported a population of 7,300 in the 2020 Census, its highest yet.

Washington NJ: among the bigger Washingtons

The borough has capitalized, perhaps not entirely intentionally, on a location that facilitates an escape from urbanization.  It’s much closer to Phillipsburg, Easton, and the Lehigh Valley than it is to New York City, but the slow expansion of Interstate 78 from the 1960s to the 1980s gradually enhanced Washington’s visibility; the borough sits about ten miles north of this important arterial linking New York City to eastern Pennsylvania.  By the end of the 20th century up to the present, Washington earns most of its stability to people escaping the hyper dense Hudson, Essex, and Union counties for the comparative verdure and low housing prices of Warren County.

The borough of Washington, NJ has relatively little room to grow; its boundaries are tight (just under two square miles) and most remaining green space serves parks or deliberate farmland preservation efforts, a common practice in the Garden State, which ranked number one for population density.  That said, Washington, NJ continues to grow, at least in part through efforts to revitalize and densify Washington Avenue, the commercial main street that I captured in many of my photos.  Here’s an obvious example of infill multifamily development (with first-level retail) that clearly dates from the last twenty years.

Development like this helps improve the quality and character of Washington’s commercial corridor, which isn’t terrible but is lackluster.  It features a few nice eateries and some quirky boutiques, but it’s not the most pleasant setting.  Washington Avenue is also NJ State Route 57, the primary east-west arterial.  The NJ Department of Transportation never devised a bypass highway, so all the busy traffic passes directly through the heart of the city.  Though SR 57 remains two-lane, it feels like an arterial: speed limits are higher than one might expect in a tightly knit municipality, and I have no doubt this curtails revitalization of Washington’s main street.

That said, it’s hardly blighted, and the fact that the community has retained its middle class over the years has helped it stave off a small business exodus.  Instead, downtown Washington, NJ offers the highest concentration of indoor recreation I’ve ever seen on an old-school commercial main street.

Gyms in downtown Washington NJ: among the bigger Washingtons

Washington Avenue hosts a locally owned gym, a jujitsu academy, an indoor soccer pavilion, a sports clinic, and a karate studio.  I’ll concede that these sort of establishments typically need a higher-than-average amount of floor space, which generally translates to lower-than-average commercial leasing costs.  But at least the majority of these old buildings have fully occupied first floors.  As Washington, NJ gets denser and ritzier—as I suspect will happen with more people fleeing the high housing costs of the close-in New York City suburbs—efforts to calm the traffic may make a stroll along the main street more pleasant, helping to attract businesses that cater to the increasingly upmarket demographic living nearby.

6. North Carolina: 9,875 inhabitants

The Tarheel State is competing with Georgia to best exemplify the “New South” characterized by rapid population growth and urbanization within a few centers of increasing technical sophistication.  But North Carolina is going about it very differently.  Georgia has earned its clout almost entirely through its alpha city Atlanta.  Conversely, North Carolina lacks a single metro of quite that size but has enjoyed booms more evenly distributed across a few beta-plus metros: Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill (the Research Triangle) are the highest profile, but the Piedmont cities (Greensboro and Winston-Salem) are certainly competing, as is the military town of Fayetteville, coastal Wilmington, and even crunchy-granola Asheville in the far-west Blue Ridge Mountains.  It’s rare to be more than 90 minutes drive from a major city in North Carolina, yet, much like Georgia, those areas not citified are resolutely rural.  This seems to characterize Washington, which genuinely is more than 90 minutes from any major city.

At least one of the bigger Washingtons seems to be vying with some of the smaller Washingtons for that “original Washington” honor.  North Carolina’s Washington proudly displays this the municipal website, and it’s likely that it genuinely was the first to officially take such a name.  First settled in 1770 at the confluence of the Pamlico and Tar rivers, yeoman James Bonner named his town “Forks of the Tar”, but upon the US declaration of independence six years later, residents renamed it “Washington” to honor the General.  It quickly grew as a supply port when larger port cities like Savannah (GA), Charleston (SC), and Wilmington (NC) faced threats of British siege.  It overtook Bath—the very first North Carolina settlement, 15 miles east of Washington—in population, and Beaufort County officials rechristened it as the seat of government before 1800.  Union troops immolated the town during the Civil War, and a mechanical failure devastated much of the downtown again in a 1900 conflagration  The city rebuilt amidst these setbacks and didn’t suffer any heavy population loss.

Today, the narrow, pedestrian-scaled Main Street of Washington NC may lack colonial architecture, but the commercial buildings still fall within a historic district that the City established in 1978.  Some structures from the late 18th century did manage to survive both major fires, and the small city supports old architecture befitting a town of its size; reconstruction efforts took place long before auto-oriented design became the prerogative.  The 2020 population of Washington, NC is its greatest yet; with few exceptions, most decennial censuses have reported growth, as is generally the case for Beaufort County as a whole.  Washington elevates the county to a micropolitan statistical area; meanwhile Greenville, NC (20 miles to the west) is the closest city of any reasonable size (population 87,500 in 2020); the economic activity is enough that Washington is a satellite within the Greenville NC metropolitan area.  (It is important not to confuse this Greenville with the better-known Greenville in South Carolina, which serves a much larger metropolitan area despite Greenville, SC being a smaller city.)  Given the desirability and population growth in both Carolinas, it’s probable that Washington, NC will eventually achieve higher visibility alongside its big sister Greenville.  As for Washington, SC?  That’s a story reserved for later in this article.

5. Indiana: 12,017 inhabitants

I grew up in the Hoosier State and return frequently, yet I’ve never visited this among the bigger Washingtons—the first to surpass 10,000 people.  Frankly, given its remoteness, it’s a bit surprising that Indiana’s Washington has gotten this big.  And, despite a few decades of setbacks, the general trajectory has been one of growth: 2020 Census is its highest population yet.  With Interstate 69 recently linking Indianapolis to Evansville, Washington Indiana now sits right off of a major interstate which, once complete, will provide uninterrupted access between Mexico to Canada—an economic development initiative that prompted Indiana to make the very controversial construction decision way back in the 1990s.  Daviess County, of which Washington is this seat, has grown in fits in starts but generally shows a trend toward increase.  Something is keeping this area active even though it’s still over an hour’s drive to Evansville—and was a fair amount longer before I-69 plowed a limited access highway through southern Indiana’s hills and farmlands.

The city’s official website is well organized but strictly offers municipal business; no real history or even an attempt to appeal to tourists.  Like several of the smaller Washingtons, Washington, IN defers to the Daviess County Historical Society, a fairly robust site that mostly steers visitors to the museum itself, located in Washington.  A historians’ blog offers specialized articles on a number of subjects, but nothing comes to light in the way of a historical overview.  To find that, I had to pursue an archived article from The Times Herald, Washington’s local newspaper.  The second settler in what was to become Daviess County founded what was to become Washington in or around 1801, naming the settlement Liverpool.  Various fortifications around Liverpool proved resilient both to Native American attacks and potential incursions from the British during the War of 1812.  After this second prolonged war with the British ended, a desire to sever all references to England prompted the renaming of Liverpool to “Washington”.  Official platting and design of Washington took place in the later half of the 1810s, though it remained a modest burg until the 1857 extension of the Ohio & Mississippi (O & M) railroad.  Over time, Washington became an essential depot for the O & M, spawning rapid growth of population in the last decades of the 19th century.  It had 8,500 people by 1900.

As is the case with most of the smaller and bigger Washingtons, the Indiana one has its share of historic properties, including its central business district, as well as homes dating from the 1840s.  More surprising is the absence of a conventional courthouse square structure, which is typical for Indiana county seats.  Instead, Washington features a multi-block main street, and the Courthouse is offset a few blocks to the north.  Most importantly, after scrolling through all these hamlets, Washington Indiana feels big, like a grid that stretches onward. It may take a full five minutes to drive through it.  As for its general trajectory of population growth, I’m going to go out on a limb and attribute it to an unusual feature to the region: 15% of Daviess County is Swiss Amish, meaning they speak a Low Alemannic Alsatian dialect as their first language, similar enough to Pennsylvania German that they likely understand it.  Shunning modernity even more than most Amish, I have a sneaking suspicion their high birth rate helps keep the region growing, even if they are more likely to live in unincorporated Daviess County than in Washington itself.  From what I can tell, Washington has not capitalized on Amish tourism in the same way that communities like Berne (also Swiss Amish) or Nappannee in northern Indiana have.  Washington will benefit from increased visibility with I-69 nearby.

4. Pennsylvania: 13,176 inhabitants

Multiple highways converge in southwest Pennsylvania, wrapping around this Washington like a mini-beltway.  I-79 and I-70 are the most important, but U.S. 40 (the old National Road) passes through as well.  And, as a motorist circumscribing this city 23 miles south of Pittsburgh, Washington, PA feels like a major place—like it has many, many more than 13,000 people.  Part of the reason is that the greater area is much bigger.  Municipal boundaries in Pennsylvania are much more constrained than most states, due to the constitutional provision that all land must be incorporated in cities, boroughs, or townships.  Washington is a small city surrounded by townships that cannot annex to grow further; annexation is unconstitutional in the Keystone State.  But the grid that began in the heart of Washington, PA—the essence of its Washington-ness, extends outside the municipal boundaries, so the urbanized area of Washington is probably closer to 30,000 people.  It’s the seat of a county that has over 200,000 people.  It’s a proper city and the hub to an urbanized area that undoubtedly owes some of its size to Pittsburgh nearby.

Washington PA: among the bigger Washingtons

Depending on where one stands among Pennsylvania’s typically lumpy topography, Washington, PA even has a skyline.

Skyline to Washington PA: among the bigger Washingtons
Washington PA: among the bigger Washingtons

The Washington County Courthouse feels mighty, but then it serves a much larger population than any of the bigger Washingtons this article has explored so far.

Courthouse in Washington PA: among the bigger Washingtons

And, as is typical of most municipalities in Pennsylvania over a few thousand, Washington has a long-established liberal arts school: Washington and Jefferson College.  Here’s the gateway entrance:

What Washington lacks, unfortunately, is very many indicators of prosperity.  Those tight municipal boundaries explain in part why it has the “bones” of a much bigger city.  But they aren’t the only explanation.  Though just under three square miles, Washington used to be twice as big as it is today; over 26,000 in 1950.   Settled in 1768, the Pennsylvania General Assembly dedicated the county as “Washington” in 1781—eight years before George’s presidency—after the area took on various provisional names: Dandridge Town, Bassett, Catfish Camp, as the official city website indicates in its all-too-brief synopsis.  After becoming a borough in 1810, railroad expansion helped Washington grow further in the late 19th century.  From that point until the mid 20th century, Washington, PA mostly grew through fossil fuels: an oil and natural gas field, then an accessory to the coal mines that dot the area.

Amidst many historic buildings—some civic, some private—the downtown of Washington, PA primarily but not exclusively hugs Main Street.  Alas, the decades of population loss (echoing the decline of coal and steel in the region) have taken their toll on the downtown.  What was probably a meaty business district in 1950 is not as cohesive as one might expect, though many fine buildings befitting a once-prominent city remain.

Washington PA: among the bigger Washingtons

Comparing this Washington to Indiana’s Washington unearths a bitter irony for both cities.  Washington, Indiana no doubt heralded the expansion of I-69 in the early 2010s as an economic development tool.  Yet here in Pennsylvania, the presence of two intersecting interstates—the same number of interstates that intersect in Philadelphia (PA’s largest city)—has created its share of roadside restaurants and hotels on the perimeter of Washington.  But despite hundreds of thousands of motorists skimming the outskirts of Washington, PA, it has not translated to a visible revitalization.  Washington, PA isn’t devastated; it has districts that retain a Victorian charm.  But it’s unlikely to reverse its population loss, meaning it will fall further down on this list of bigger Washingtons in the decades ahead.  Indiana and Iowa may soon surpass it. It’s the only one of the bigger Washingtons that is generally shrinking.

3. Missouri: 14,500 inhabitants

The map below proves it all: this Washington sits like a bundle of grapes, just out of reach from the stretching fingers of the St. Louis suburbs.  In due time, Missouri’s biggest metro—the Gateway City is 50 miles away—may fully encompass a place like Washington; the county itself is exurban within the Census-designated St. Louis Metropolitan Statistical Area.  At that point, Washington will likely explode in population.  But it isn’t a major growth node yet.  Though Washington is the largest city within Franklin County, it is not a county seat; both Washington and Franklin County were growing at a reasonably good clip in the last few decades of the 20th century but seem to have slowed in the 21st.  (Meanwhile, the actual Franklin County seat, Union, has long been smaller than Washington but has enjoyed steady growth since 2000 and may soon surpass the focus municipality here.)  Both Washington and Union feature eastbound highways that merge with Interstate 44, which meanders into the heart of St. Louis, right next to the Gateway Arch.

Though the current site along the Missouri River of Washington, MO initially supported some early Spanish settlements at the end of the 18th century, it wasn’t until 1814 (long after the Louisiana Purchase), when a ferry helped to link the two riverbanks, that the community assumed the name Washington’s Crossing.  Surveying for a town grid took place a little over a decade later, and, according to the city’s robust official website, the city officially incorporated in 1839.  By this time, it already received significant numbers of German immigrants, attracted to the agrarian fecundity afforded by the Missouri River Valley; one of Adolphus Busch’s brothers even founded a Busch Brewery (though not the Busch Brewery) in Washington.  The Pacific Railroad’s extension westward from St. Louis in the mid 1850s helped spur further growth.  The town’s strong support for anti-slavery Union causes made it a target for Confederate raids that were largely unsuccessful, resulting in a city that today boasts a sizable number of surviving 19th century buildings.  Industry simply didn’t decline that much, and Washington has reported a greater population with almost all decennial Census reports.

From what I can tell, Washington, MO today enjoys the expected economic health of an exurban community still within the radar of its closest major city.  It offers some very archetypal small-town curiosities: the historic epicenter of the zither industry and the corncob pipe capital of the world.  My guess is many people in St. Louis are familiar with Washington.  This contrasts Missouri’s Washington from those of Nebraska or Oklahoma, exurbs that do not yet seem to have achieved any widespread cogency.  This Washington has earned enough clout to get its own separate site catering to visitors, sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce.  And it has its own historical society, rather than relegating that responsibility to the County.  As a result, Washington, MO has the promotional infrastructure befitting that of a true city—a first among the Washingtons I have featured.  And it may rest more confidently on a path toward continued prosperity than any other Washington so far, abetted by the exodus from St. Louis, which, as I noted many years ago, has lost more population from its 1950 peak than even Detroit.

2. Illinois: 16,071 inhabitants

For the last two decades, Illinois has been one of the nation’s slowest growing states; in fact, it lost population in the 2010s.  But Washington, Illinois has not suffered this exodus from the Land of Lincoln; quite the contrary.  It is receiving huge numbers of new residents, exactly as one might expect from a suburb to Peoria, Illinois’ eighth largest city and a reasonably large metro in its own right (approximately 400,000 people in 2020), far enough away from Chicago that no amount of Chicagosprawl will ever likely reach it.  Washington, IL has grown nearly 50% since 2000, and it enjoyed double-digit percentage growth across most decades in the middle part of the 20th century as well.  What does this mean?  Washington wasn’t very big before the automobile became widespread: only 1,643 people back in 1920.  Unlike, say, Washington, IN, this Washington in Illinois has very little of a historic grid, since most of its growth took place in an era when grids were unfashionable,  The second biggest among the bigger Washingtons owes almost all of its growth to its proximity to Peoria, whose downtown is just an 18-minute drive away.

As Peoria has suburbanized, Washington has emerged beyond the sleepy town of less than 2,000 people.  It is not the seat of government to Tazewell County; that responsibility goes to Pekin, fifteen miles to the southeast.  Tazewell is the primary county absorbing Peoria’s suburban growth; Peoria itself is the seat to Peoria County, but the two counties are relatively close in population.  That said, Peoria—much like the state of Illinois as a whole—is not a region of considerable population growth; most evidence I’ve been able to find shows the region has been losing population for much of the 2000s.  The American Community Survey (ACS) estimates suggest the region has dipped below 400,000 in 2022-23.  That said, the City of Washington is absorbing a disproportionate share of the new housing starts in the region, if the last two Decennial Census reports are any evidence.  The region is losing people, but Washington, IL is growing.

The community wasn’t that big of a town before 1950, when the grid was the standard for urban development.  So most of its growth has been west of the gridded “old town” in the form of conventional suburban curvilinear streets with cul-de-sacs.  It still has an unusually oriented Washington Square (kind of a square turned to a circle, which is a phenomenon I’ve covered elsewhere in the past), and, despite being a small community until fairly recently, has an official website with a good overview, its own robust historical society, and a well-curated set of white papers that provides capsules of the city’s history in anticipation of its bicentennial celebration in 2025.  The settlement began with an industrious and fecund blacksmith named William Holland, hired by the government to teach his trade to the Native American population in the area.  He fathered 21 children with two wives, and helped prompt the initial name of the settlement as Holland’s Grove in 1833.  It organized as the renamed city of Washington a bit before 1840, growing modestly in subsequent decades through steam railways that linked it to Peoria, while interurban rail in the early 1900s solidified its role as a streetcar suburb.  Washington, IL continues to cultivate its image as a desirable suburban community through advanced multipurpose civic buildings like Five Points Washington, which fuses performing arts, special events, and physical fitness under one roof—the exact edifice one might expect a burgeoning suburb to build.  Even if Illinois and Peoria continue to decline in population, it is probable that Washington will grow in years ahead.

  1. Utah: 27,993 inhabitants

Those readers who are surprised by this number one ranking—putting the other bigger Washingtons to shame—you are not alone.  I was not aware that Utah had a Washington, yet it’s over 10,000 people larger than the second-largest in Illinois, which is also a fast-growing municipality.  Washington Utah shares its name with the county that contains it, though it is not the county seat.  That honor goes to St. George, a higher-profile community that has become in recent years the second-biggest settlement in Utah behind the heavily populated Wasatch Front that includes most of the Beehive State’s best known cities: Logan, Orem, Provo, Orem, and of course, Salt Lake City.  Southwest Utah in general and Washington County in particular have assumed the unusual regional moniker of “Dixie”, due in small part to the unusual importance of cotton as a cash crop among the original Latter-Day Saints settlers in the 1850s.  But, like most of Utah outside of greater Salt Lake City, it remained sparsely populated for a full century.  St. George was a modest place as recently as 1980, when the Census reported 11,350 (fewer than many of the bigger Washingtons referenced here), yet in 2020 it had 95,342 people and has probably edged above 100,000 since then.  

Washington, Utah has grown in accordance with its principal city, St. George.  Only five miles separate the centers of the two cities.  As indicated by the official city website, he “cotton mission” prompted by the LDS church in Salt Lake City initially incentivized 38 families to move to the southwest corner of the state to grow cotton, all of which originally came from the Southern US.  They named this very first settlement in the area “Washington” in 1857, predating the founding of St. George by four years.  Rumors had suggested that the soil was fertile and water abundant; even if this was true, the earliest days of Washington, UT were inauspicious: water-borne illnesses and floods stalled the new town’s growth.  The municipality fluctuated around 500 people for the next century.  As recently as 1970, it recorded a population of just 750.  The explosion began almost simultaneous with St. George, but since it was a mere hamlet in the days when communities built their downtowns along a walkable commercial core, Washington doesn’t really have a robust center: the intersection of Main and Telegraph does at least feature the Old City School and Museum and other essential civic buildings.

With few exceptions, though, Washington, UT seems to be mimicking Washington, IL’s approach to buttressing a civic identity (parks, mass transit, a multipurpose community center) —except much, much more so.  The second biggest Washington (a suburb to Peoria) still has a historic town square and some older homes nearby.  About 95% of Washington, UT’s growth has taken place in the last forty years, so it has almost entirely consisted of a suburban-oriented pattern that doesn’t endow it with an identity, a visible core, or a clear delineation from neighboring St. George.  However, with the population growth it has enjoyed and will likely continue to experience, the City can build that core anew; at least one corner of Main and Telegraph seems ready to support a mixed-use feature of monumentality that can plant the seed for a Washington that may, in a decade or two, become a place that the average person from Indiana, New Jersey, Missouri, or Pennsylvania has heard of.  It’ll be far bigger than all the other bigger Washingtons.

Catching the Straggler Washingtons

That rounds out the listicle content!  But there’s a lot of information that didn’t make it through my sieve.

I devised a few rules near the beginning of Part I, to avoid the total proliferation of bigger Washingtons.  I wanted to sift out the dozens of places named “Washington” that were not discrete municipalities, so that everything I assessed involved identical political subdivisions, sorted primarily according to population size.  Without those limiting rules, it would be easy to classify any unincorporated community (Census Designated Place), any township (called “town” in a few states), or any jurisdiction with the word Washington in it.  These rules also helped filter out Washingtons that have whittled down to nothing (a truly non-existent ghost town) or are unincorporated settlements that have so lost their identity that the US Census cannot confirm even a Census Designated Place (CDP) population, even if it calls them CDPs.  I have labeled these “vestigial towns”, which function largely as ghost towns except that they aren’t depopulated or abandoned; some ofter place named has simply subsumed the “Washington”. 

These limiting factors helped reduce the number of bigger Washingtons significantly, resulting the fifteen featured here in a massive two-part listicle.  If not for the criteria, however, the following stragglers would also count as Washingtons.

21. Texas (Washington-on-the-Brazos CDP): vestigial town

20. Rhode Island (village, akin to CDP): vestigial town

19. Mississippi (CDP): ghost or vestigial town

18. Alabama: ghost town

17. Arizona: (Washington Camp): ghost town

16. California (CDP): 137

15. Massachusetts (one town, Mount Washington): 160

14. Massachusetts (one town): 494

13. Ohio (Port Washington): 548

12. Vermont (one town): 1,032

11. West Virginia (CDP): 1,175 in Year 2010

10. New Hampshire (one town): 1,192

9. Maine (one town): 1,590

8. Connecticut (one town): 3,646

7. New York (one town): 4,522

6. Pennsylvania (Fort Washington, CDP): 5,910

5. Wisconsin (Port Washington): 12,353

4. Ohio (Washington Court House): 14,401

3. Kentucky (Mount Washington): 18,090

2. New York (Port Washington CDP): 16,753

1. Maryland (Fort Washington, CDP): 24,261

No Washingtons Whatsoever

Wikipedia has handily provided a nationwide map highlighting the 30 counties named “Washington”, only a few of which host the bigger Washingtons listed previously.  And some—Florida, Minnesota, Colorado for example—contain no references to the Father of Our Country at the municipal level.  Perhaps those 30 counties will form another listicle someday in the future, if I decide it’s interesting enough.  (The verdict right now is “Negative”.)  With so many Washington-named counties (the most common county name), numerous townships, and a great variety of towns, villages, and other unincorporated places, it is clear that George enjoys an elevated place in American commemorations—exactly as one might expect.  Yet there are still a handful of states that have no real political entities—county or municipal—named after the first president.  Sure, it’s fair to assume that these states have a creek, a field, or a municipal building, or certainly at least a few streets named after the man, but little else.  I’ve listed these from least to most surprising.

11. Alaska

The 49th State was a Russian acquisition not contiguous with the rest of the US, previously populated by remote peoples (Inuit, Aleut, Yupik) whose Eskaleut language family bears no relation to English or its Indo-European (primarily Germanic and Romance) derivation.  The state is also sparsely populated and lightly settled.  There just aren’t that many cities, towns, or villages.  Therefore, it is no surprise that Alaska has no bigger Washingtons. No Washingtons at all, for that matter.

10. Hawaii

From Captain James Cook’s arrival in the late 1700s to its annexation to the US as a territory prior to its 1959 admission to statehood, Hawai’i enjoyed more consistent European influence and occupation in a territory much smaller and densely populated than Alaska (“enjoyed” being a verb open to dispute).  That said, the English-speaking population did not dominate until quite late in history, making it unsurprising that the state has few references and no municipalities named “Washington”.

9. Washington

With the Evergreen State, it’s merely an obvious matter of linguistic redundancy to eliminate confusion.  It’s enough that this is the only state where Americans must routinely follow any reference with the word “State” to distinguish it from the most famous Washington “City” (the District of Columbia).  Having a city named “Washington” would only create confusion, even though Oklahoma and Indiana tread gingerly into similar semantic territory.  And let’s not even start with Kansas City. It’s no small relief that Washington State does not have one of the bigger Washingtons, or any village named Washington at all.

8. Nevada

Nevada is the only territory admitted to the union during the Civil War, a time period when George Washington’s legacy receded in importance amidst graver concerns.  (Kansas’s admission preceded the Battle of Fort Sumter by a few months; West Virginia consisted of counties that split from Old Dominion midway through the War.)  Part of Alta California until the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, the nascent Nevada Territory’s primary Indo-European language was Spanish until enough silver prospectors ventured to test their luck.  And after the depletion of silver ore in the late 1800, residents largely fled the inhospitable desert climate.  Nevada was among the least populous states for most of the 21st century; it still had fewer than 300,000 people at the time Alaska and Hawaii achieved statehood.  And many of its cities are barely 100 years old; Las Vegas is the only major US city not founded until the early 1900s.  The absence of a Washington is no great surprise.

7. New Mexico

Just as much Mexican territory as Nevada, New Mexico assumed the groundbreaking provincial name “Nuevo Mexico” until the US acquired it in 1848 through the same battles that ceded Alta California and most of the modern American Southwest to the US.  The slightly gentler climate and availability of water made Nuevo Mexico more appealing for agrarian settlement among Spanish and Mestizo groups while it was part of New Spain—more appealing, at least, than parched Arizona and Nevada.  New Mexico, as a result, had more mature communities than Arizona, Nevada, or Utah, and its sizable Latino population prompted the federal government to hesitate admitting the territory to the union until 1912 (47th).  I’ll admit I haven’t counted, but I’d wager New Mexico has a higher percentage of place names that are Spanish in origin than any other state.  Though not a heavily populated state in 2024, the higher level of Hispanophone settlements obviated the need or demand for a “Washington”.

6. North Dakota and 5. South Dakota

These two similarly named states may resent how often they get bunched together, and I’m guilty of it here as well.  But the fact remains that they comprised one large Dakota Territory until simultaneously admitted to the Union in 1889—partly in Minnesota territory before then, and largely within the Louisiana Purchase eight decades earlier.  (Only political machinations at the time prompted the creation of a North and South.)  Bearing that in mind, it’s less of a surprise that neither have a Washington; it would have been illogical (if not unlawful) for two municipalities to decide upon the same name within a single territory.  Thus, it’s somewhat surprising that neither have a “Washington”, though perfectly logical that both don’t.  Sparsely populated then as of now, the two Dakotas accepted the great American embrace in the second half of the 19th century, a time when the legacy of Abraham Lincoln lingered more powerfully (albeit controversially).  Tributes to Lincoln prompted the renaming of the Nebraska state capital (formerly “Lancaster”); South Dakota has a Lincoln County; North Dakota has a city named Lincoln.  (One important point: South Dakota had a Washington County for part of its history, from 1843 to 1943, but was then reorganized and merged into other counties to rectify financial issues.)  Washington just wasn’t a trendy place name at the time.

4. Wyoming and 3. Montana

I could have just as easily bundled these two mountain states with the Dakotas; at one time the United States did, since a good part of Wyoming and Montana belonged to Dakota Territory.  The back-room deals that determined the sequence of admittance to statehood are too laborious to cover in a listicle.  Suffice it to say, Montana and Wyoming belonged to a flurry of statehood admissions: six in less than a year.  The Dakotas preceded Montana by only a few days, while Washington the state came three days after Montana (all in November 1889), based largely on the federal government deeming the state constitutions adequately prepared.  Idaho (initially a larger territory from which parts of Montana Territory emerged) and Wyoming Territory achieved statehood eight months later, in July 1890.  Much like the Dakotas, I’m going to surmise that Lincoln was a more towering figure than Washington at the time; both states have a Lincoln County.  The greatest distinction for Wyoming and Montana is that they have a more conspicuously Anglophone American settler heritage and a comparatively smaller proportion of Native American population than the Dakotas.  Thus, they rate “more surprising” for not having at least a town named Washington. And the absence of any bigger Washingtons is no surprise for these four states, given how sparsely populated they all are.

2. South Carolina

Little to no research is necessary to declare South Carolina an oddity for not having a Washington, let alone one of the bigger Washingtons.  It’s one of the original Thirteen Colonies; no doubt many of its delegates were present when Washington took the oath of office at Federal Hall in New York City.  South Carolina elected him to both his terms.  (He was essentially unopposed, but no matter.)  I cannot conceive of any real explanation for why South Carolina would have no communities—no counties or municipalities—honoring the man.  North Carolina obviously does, and South Dakota has always been distinct and separate (unlike the two Dakotas).  My only guess is that a small village honored him at one point in time, it failed to flourish, became vestigial or a ghost town over 150 years ago, and was so insignificant that it got buried amidst more important events in South Carolina history.

  1. Delaware

The First State wins my award for “most surprising” not to have a place ranked among the bigger Washingtons, nor even a county.  It’s one of the original Thirteen Colonies like South Carolina, favoring him both elections (obviously).  Granted, it is a tiny state that has long been among the least populous and to this day has the lowest number of counties (only three total).  By virtue of having less land available to settle, there’s less of an opportunity to name a settlement “Washington”.  That said, I still think it’s stranger for Delaware to have absolutely nothing.  It’s significantly closer to the District of Columbia; some bold individuals commute from parts of Delaware to Washington, DC.  Furthermore, one of the iconic military maneuvers of General George Washington during the Revolutionary War was his crossing of the Delaware River—the same river that shares a name and the eastern boundary for the state.  Granted, the crossing happened on a portion of the river between Pennsylvania and New Jersey north of Trenton—hence the Battle of Trenton—but it’s still a tremendous surprise to me that searches for a place called “Washington, Delaware” yield nothing.

That concludes this mega-listicle.  From what I can tell, “Washington” achieved a certain clout as a naming tool, most powerfully from about 1790 to 1850.  At least a few of these smaller Washingtons claim to be the “the first” or “the original” and took the name before George Washington’s rather unexpected death at the end of 1799.  And the bigger Washingtons are not that big (yet), but have mostly achieved their size through suburbanization—through their proximity to larger cities within a metropolitan area.  Meanwhile, a few of the smallest Washingtons face endangerment through continued population loss; if not for historic district protections, they could become the next ghost towns.  (And even those protections aren’t a guaranteed defense.)

Obviously not one of the bigger Washingtons will ever compete with Washington, DC in size and prominence.  And, when it comes to those pesky Springfields, I can think of at least a few that are much, much bigger than the biggest Washingtons.  The Springfields in Massachusetts, Illinois, and Missouri are all a fair amount bigger than Washington, Utah.  Maybe, if I were to link this back to how The Simpsons originally prompted this massive study, I should devote my next listicle to answering another question nobody is really asking: where are all the Shelbyvilles?

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13 thoughts on “Bigger Washingtons (Part II): the remaining cities that honor George.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      ??? I’m at a loss as to your second reference here!

      Indiana, yes definitely.

      But Tennessee? I couldn’t find anything other than a Washington County. But not even a ghost town by the name.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        Sorry…I was thinking of Shelbyvilles. One in Indiana, one in Tennessee (and until I looked on Google a minute ago, didn’t realize there’s also one in Kentucky, one in Illinois, and one in Missouri). So a tight mid-continent cluster of states with Shelbyvilles.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Ah! You actually read this article all the way through. Yeah, Shelbyville was the anti-Springfield on The Simpsons, but I’d think there are other place names that better compete with “Springfield” for ubiquity and generic-ness: Plainfield, Greenwood, Westfield, etc. Or, the last names of other Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Monroe, etc.

          Basically the suburbs of Indianapolis. Which, of course, includes Shelbyville.

          Reply
        2. AmericanDirt Post author

          Come to think of it, there are quite a few Alexandrias too. It’s a bit of a stretch to consider the one in Indiana to be part of metro Indy. And, IIRC, Madison County has fought against its inclusion in the Indy MSA, but most recent assessments appear to put it back in the MSA and CSA. Which means Alexandria is another ultra-common municipal name in the Indy metro.

          Oh well, for quirky and unusual metro Indy towns, there’s always Ulen. (Though I discovered there’s an Ulen in Minnesota too. Darn it.)

          Reply
  1. Uri Kogan

    I would posit that most of the power of the name was used in places that were expanding during the late 18th and early 19th C, the western frontier of the 13 colonies. But DE place names were probably already pretty settled by then, no?

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I think you pretty much nailed it. A whole bevy of Rocky Mountain states were admitted to the union during the Gilded Age (esp. Cleveland and Harrison administrations), and commemorating places after “Lincoln” was much more popular at that point.

      The absence of a “Washington” in South Carolina and Delaware is very, very surprising to me though.

      Reply
  2. Chris B

    Washington PA feels much bigger than its population, partly because of the PA municipal boundaries freeze, as you point out. And no doubt because it shrank by 50% in the last 70 years.

    (You also know that it’s halfway between Philadelphia and your hometown. Been through there about a hundred times…and stayed quite a few.)

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      It’s hard for non-Pennsylvanians to understand how the Commonwealth’s constitutional requirement–that all land must be incorporated–effectively constrains municipalities: cities and boroughs equally. Two contiguous municipalities can consolidate, but it’s surprising how rarely it happens. I’m only aware of two boroughs merging, but the more practical consideration–where a borough consolidates with its surrounding township–happens less in PA than it does in Midwest states that lack a similar statutory requirement for incorporated land: Indiana, Michigan, and the like. Without reading into the finer points of the matter, I’m going to assume that the constitution makes consolidation extremely difficult, and I know that the constitution used to allow boroughs to annex land in townships, but the legislature issued a prohibition of this in the mid 1900s–about the same time PA’s cities could have benefited from annexing to capture the fleeing tax base.

      As a result of these constitutional provisions, Pennsylvania suffers two unusual distinctions: it has more municipalities than all but one other state (only Illinois has more) and virtually all of its cities and boroughs have consistently lost population over the last 50-60 years.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        Indiana has a statute encouraging town-township consolidation. Zionsville has been the most active, undergoing at least two such mergers.

        The law was a long delayed response to a report that suggested getting rid of Indiana’s 1004 township governments and consolidating their functions at the county level.

        Indiana townships have a trustee and an advisory board, the fiscal body. They have three responsibilities: fire protection, abandoned cemeteries, and “poor relief”. What it really is, is a farm system for local/state politics, which is why the Legislature didn’t take sweeping action to abolish them.

        Township level government made sense in an era when folks moved around on foot or with horse power. Today, not so much.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          I largely agree with this. Having seen how the absence of township governance works here in the Mid-Atlantic (at least south of Mason-Dixon), they can generally manage just fine. Besides, the most visible role for townships in a state like Indiana is school districts, even though districts are rarely conterminous with townships (except Marion County). Rather, districts typically consist of a cluster of townships or small municipalities, where the townships serve as the defining lines but have no other role whatsoever. As you said, the township’s role is basically relegated to fire protection, at least in terms of something that might matter to the average constituent.

          Maryland, meanwhile, only has school districts at the county level, meaning some of the largest districts in the country are all within the Old Line State. If a super populous county like Montgomery (over 1M people) has but a single school district, one might think it helps prevent the damaging perceived value differentials that come when two adjacent districts have very different socioeconomics. But, alas, it doesn’t really pan out that way. In MontCo, homes that are within the catchment areas for top-tier high schools are still worth much more than lower-tier high schools (and, in MontCo, “lower tier” typically means ratings of 7 out of 10).

          Reply

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