This blog is long overdue for a listicle, and at last I’ve found a subject that has preoccupied me for quite some time: all of America’s Washingtons. And by Washingtons I mean municipalities named “Washington”. Having lived for a few years in the largest of these—our nation’s capital—I had no real idea how many other Washingtons there might be, but I was determined to find out, and to represent as many as possible with good imagery. The research itself—on all the Washington out there—wasn’t too difficult, but collecting the necessary photography is far easier said than done. It’s a task that might take years, given the smallness and remoteness of some of the results. So I’m left with a well-cultivated list, some good research, and a smattering of photos. Readers can fill in the rest.
What’s the big deal with Washingtons, anyway? Initially, I was convinced that Washington was as ubiquitous of a place name as “Springfield”—the archetypal town name appropriately immortalized by The Simpsons, which, in turn, has become almost as synecdochic for American-ness as Mayberry, even though the number of towns named “Mayberry” is comparatively few. But the fabled count that I hear for Springfields is 51—meaning there are more places named “Springfield” than states, and at least one state sneaks two of them. (Given that it’s fairly unlikely that Alaska or Hawaii have a “Springfield”, it’s probable that more than one state is getting sneaky.)
“Washington”, meanwhile, appears in American geography nowhere near as frequently as “Springfield”—few instances, in fact, given George’s outsized importance in American history. And though the most popular appellation in referencing our nation’s capitol is “DC”, rather than Washington (most likely to avoid confusion with Washington State). If one refers to “Washington” in a context based on municipalities, it is assumed the Washington referenced is our nation’s capital and most populous of all Washington municipalities.
But what about the others? It is indeed a common name for towns, but nowhere near as common as one might think. In fact, it’s a much less common name for a city, town, village, or borough than it is for a county. When it comes to US counties, “Washington” is indeed the top-dog: exactly 30 states have a Washington County. But in terms of municipalities, I’ve whittled it down to just 15 places, which will serve as the focal point of this article. And, for these Washingtons to qualify, they must fit within a few rules:
- They must be uniquely “Washington” and not anything else. Places such as “Mount Washington” or “Port Washington” or “Washington Heights” are not true Washingtons, since a state can have any number of them, so they are disqualified.
- They must be incorporated, meaning they have a municipal charter, their own set of laws, a council for creating new laws, and police power for enforcing them. Unincorporated Washingtons are just a loose settlement within a county and have no legal authority or uniqueness. A single state could easily have ten unincorporated Washingtons, but it can only have one incorporated municipality with the name.
- They must currently function as viable munis. If they are former towns that have depopulated to nothing (ghost towns), they no longer exist as Washingtons. They are former settlements. This list will focus on places that still exist.
- Townships (and all their permutations) don’t count. Although in a few states (Pennsylvania and New Jersey), townships operate with a charter of incorporation that resembles municipalities, they are not municipalities themselves and they are not unique, meaning one county in PA or NJ can have a Washington Township and so can another. Townships in these two states mostly preside over rural or formerly rural (now suburban) areas, which, in most states, would be unincorporated, but the constitutions of PA and NJ require all land must be incorporated with some form of local governance. The same principles apply in the New England States, where the term “town” functions much like a PA/NJ township as the basic unit of local governance; “Town of Washington” in those six states is not unique. Lastly, “town” in New York State is broadly synonymous “township” in the Midwest, where it is a minor civil division rather than a discrete form of local government—as is the case for townships in NJ and PA, or towns in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. So New York may have multiple “Washington” towns; they don’t qualify.
Nothing too crazy! That last rule might seem a bit thorny, but the others are simple—and, distilling everything to the basics of local governance, the exceptions make perfect sense so that municipalities get treated equally in this listicle.
Now, without further ado, I will begin listing the Washingtons from least to most populated, according to the 2020 Census.
15. Virginia: 86 inhabitants
The Father of Our Country might claim Old Dominion as his home state, but he doesn’t get a very meaty municipality named in his honor. This hamlet has never been big; at its peak from around 1960 to 1980 it had around 250 people. Though settled as far back as 1735, the settler families did not incorporate their holdings until 1796, when four landowning men petitioned the Virginia General Assembly to organize the rudimentary grid of six streets into a town named after George Washington, who had yet to finish his second presidential term at this time. Although the town’s website indicates that George did indeed plat the town in 1749 (back when he was a teenaged surveyor), the documents themselves indicating this are apocryphal. The town of Washington, however, remains confident enough in the veracity of an old survey (with streets named after the four landowners) that it brands itself “The First Washington of All”. No evidence exists that Washington ever visited the honorary community before his death in 1799.
Despite its meager population, this Washington is of outsized importance as a center of government, being the seat of Rappahannock County since it split from another county in 1833. Granted, Rappahannock is a county of fewer than 7,500 people, the eighth least populous of Virginia’s 95 counties. Overwhelmingly rural. And the town grew modestly, functioning primarily as a trading post up until official incorporation in 1894. Its proximity to mountains protected it from invaders but also prompted railway companies to bypass it, so it never industrialized—and thus changed little throughout the 19th century, acquiring the nickname “Little Washington” to distinguish it from the much larger national capital 70 miles east.
Viewing these photos divorced from their context, it’s hard to imagine how this smallest of the Washingtons can look so prim and tidy after having lost two-thirds of its population in the last 40 years. Businesses are as scant as one might expect for a village this size, but it features a disproportionately high number of inns and lodgings, including one Inn at Little Washington, a five-star hotel with a Michelin-ranked restaurant. The other storefront shops in Washington, at the time of this report, include a wine/chocolatier, a French restaurant, and a specialty bakery.
How does Washington, VA manage to attract upscale lodging/dining in a location so remote and shrinking in population? It doesn’t hurt that the entire town is part of a nationally recognized historic district; the design guidelines are stringent enough to preserve all surviving 18th century structures. More importantly, the town is one of a handful of organized settlements within a short drive to the entrance of the Shenandoah Valley National Park, which is an attraction of national interest, though particularly popular as a weekend getaway among wealthy residents in the Washington DC area, just a 90-minute drive to the east.
My suspicion is that Washington, VA has weathered its population loss elegantly, because it has transitioned from its original role as a rural outpost and seat of county government into a destination for wealthy vacationers. Precious few people live in Washington year-round; the charming Georgian architecture and colonial cottages are now the property of ultra-wealthy who live there just a few weeks each year, then rent the place out for the duration. The Inn at Little Washington, which opened in a former garage in 1978, helped galvanize Washington’s identity as a stopover site for rich vacationers eager to spend their daylight hours steeped in the natural beauty of the Shenandoah region. But since few people identify Washington as their primary residence, the population can continue to dwindle with nary a hint of abandonment. It is but one of many towns in this sizable belt of north-central Virginia land that has morphed into an upscale destination, catering to hikers and mountain bikers and folks who crave a weekend getaway in a fancy country manor. Just a few miles from Washington VA is the higher-profile town of Sperryville (unincorporated, population approximately 350), which offers about three times as much dining/shopping as Washington, thanks primarily to its visibility and proximity to nearby hiking trails. The Rappahannock County government workers no doubt live in various communities scattered around Washington, Sperryville, and thereabouts. As real estate prices continue to climb, wages for these county-level workers will possibly strain to meet affordability.
14. Arkansas: 94 inhabitants
I won’t have nearly as much to say about most of the other Washingtons, since they are nowhere near as easy of a trip as the one in Virginia. But, considering its size within a very rural state, the Washington of Arkansas isn’t quite as obscure as one might expect. Located in the southwestern corner, the closest major municipality is Hope (population 9,000), which is now the seat of Hempstead County. Washington, AR is ten miles to the northeast, with incorporated boundaries occupying a full square mile of land—about four times the size of Little Washington in Virginia.
But this makes sense: Washington was quite a bit larger in its 19th century heyday, having served as the initial Hempstead County seat after its 1824 founding, and functioning as a major overnight lodging site for settlers heading toward Texas, including Sam Houston, who reportedly planned an 1834 revolt that spawned the Texas Revolution the next year, all from a tavern in Washington, AR. This Washington assumed its largest role, however, during the Civil War: after the Union capture of Little Rock in 1863, the governor Harris Flanagin briefly moved the state government here, operating out of the Hempstead County Courthouse, effectively making Washington the state capital. It also served as the Confederate Army headquarters for Arkansas until the war’s end in 1865.
Formerly a well-known place throughout Arkansas, Washington receded in importance when a rail company built its line eight miles south, much closer to Hope, which didn’t yet exist during Washington’s founding prior to Arkansas’s statehood. Hope eventually became the county seat, and the construction of Interstate 30 in the 1950s further elevated Hope’s importance over Washington. In the late nineteenth century, Washington AR had close to 750 people; its population dwindled to 180 in 2010 and halved again in the subsequent decade. Despite its historic importance, Washington AR has not benefited from wealthy weekenders; if it hadn’t earned the status of a dedicated Historic State Park, this is one of the Washingtons that could dwindle into ghost town status. Even if it should continue to depopulate, the town’s most distinctive historic buildings remain protected as a museum campus conterminous with the square-mile municipal limits.
13. Nebraska: 129 inhabitants
At some point in the future, the next municipality in this array of Washingtons might receive a boost through its proximity to Omaha. The largest city in Nebraska is only about twenty miles away as the crow flies, and only takes about a 35-minute drive. And the town of Bennington, NE, formerly a village of several hundred people, has surged in the last two decades to over 2,000—almost certainly a product of Omaha-driven suburbanization.
But nothing that has transpired in the 21st century has prompted anything more than middling growth for this Washington. It owes its name to the county that surrounds it; Washington County precedes the municipality in its founding, having been part of the eight original dedicated counties under the administration of Thomas B. Cuming, an acting territorial governor in the 1850s. Washington the village owes its existence, like so many towns in the frontier Midwest, to the extension of a railway: the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad to be precise. It is not the seat of Washington County; that honor goes to the city of Blair, ten miles to the north—a municipality I coincidentally featured several years ago when exploring the defunct Dana College.
Unlike the even smaller Washingtons in Virginia and Arkansas, Washington, NE lacks an official website of its own, making it very difficult to gather any additional information. Washington County directly borders Douglas County, the most populous county in the state, containing Omaha. And Washington County is, predictably, part of the Omaha-Council Bluffs Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). Yet Washington County, just north of Douglas County, hasn’t seen any of the explosive growth one might expect for a suburban county of Omaha’s size—just inching upward slowly, having passed 20,000 people at the 2010 census. (This contrasts sharply with Sarpy County, just to the south of Omaha, which has grown steadily over the years and itself contains 200,000 people’s worth of Omaha suburbs.) As is often the case among villages in the Great Plains, Washington NE has fluctuated heavily over the years, with surges and losses in population that ultimately have averaged it at around 125 people for the last half-century. Unless Omaha’s suburbanization starts pushing northward for a change, I don’t foresee Washington, NE growing much in the years or decades ahead.
12. Oklahoma: 673 inhabitants
This Washington in the Sooner State seems to operate as an obscure satellite to Oklahoma City, much the same way the Washington in Nebraska does to Omaha. It’s a bit further away from the central city (27 miles), but the suburbanization patterns of Oklahoma City seem to be lurching southward a fair amount. McClain County, which contains this Washington, has doubled in population since 1980, claiming over 40,000 people in the 2020 census. Meanwhile, the town of Washington, as commonly characterizes small communities in the Great Plains, fluctuated in population a great deal through most of the 20th century, then picked up considerably in the last decade. It has more than doubled its 1990 population of 279.
Like the Washington of Nebraska, Washington, OK does not seem to have its own official municipal website. At least a few sites dedicated to Oklahoma history offer a featurette on Washington, but very little of great distinction. The general area has hosted a post office named Washington since 1904; incidentally, most research suggests that it was not named after the Father of Our Country. Rather, this Washington got its name through a Caddo tribal chief “Little Boy” George Washington, who lived in the area in the 19th century. Its other great distinction is that a biracial couple (white/Chickasaw-Choctaw) petitioned the federal government to relieve tribal restrictions near their land for the purpose of starting a townsite, which achieved approval in December 1907, the year of Oklahoma’s admission to the Union. The post office relocated to the townsite, making Washington the first community established in Oklahoma as a new state. Perhaps most importantly, of all the Washingtons so far, this is the first to have a clearly identifiable old commercial main street. Sure, it’s only a block long, and only on one side of the street, but the architectural pattern is unmistakable and is superior to numerous other towns of similar size.
11. Louisiana: 742 inhabitants
I lived in Louisiana for several years and had no idea of the existence of a town named Washington. In fairness, even in sparsely populated states like Alaska, the quantity of towns under 1,000 people is so numerous that only people operating a state-level bureau of rural affairs (or something similar) are likely to name most of them. Nonetheless, I am certain I drove right past this Washington many years ago, since it’s immediately adjacent to Interstate 49 and about 27 miles north of Lafayette, Louisiana’s fourth most populous city. More significantly, this Washington is a mere six miles north of Opelousas, the seat of St. Landry Parish (yes, Louisiana calls its counties “parishes”), and Opelousas is the core to its own Micropolitan Statistical Area, of which Washington is a satellite.
Fortunately, Washington, LA is large and prominent enough to have its own official town website. Settlers first arrived in the area in 1720 (twelve years before George’s birth), and the town achieved incorporation in 1835. According to the town’s website, this makes it the third oldest settlement in Louisiana. It began as an early trading post within the Opelousas district, back when Louisiana was still a French colony. After the United States made its Louisiana Purchase, Washington, LA capitalized on its placement along Bayou Cortebleau, allowing it to become the largest inland steamboat port between New Orleans and Saint Louis. Railroads eventually eclipsed the steamboat, prompting an eventual decline. This Washington peaked in population in 1910, with 1,528 inhabitants. A general downward trajectory has left it with half that amount in 2020.
I’m going to go out on a limb and infer that Louisiana’s Washington has underwent a vaguely similar trajectory to Arkansas’s Washington. It isn’t close enough to a major metro that it will likely turn into a weekend retreat for the urban wealthy; it has attempted to stave further deterioration by dedicating a portion of town (210 acres) as a historic district. I’d imagine this district primarily captures intriguing 19th century residences. While a few commercial buildings survive—including an interesting banquet and reception hall, the main street here is less cohesive than the one in much smaller Washington, OK. The town’s biggest claim to fame (notoriety) is for being a speed trap. The incorporated boundaries of Washington include a portion of I-49, Louisiana State Route 103, and the exit ramps that link to the two. It’s not the first small town I’ve featured that capitalized on its stretch of busy highway to collect revenue. No doubt if I had gone even 5 mph over the speed limit during my time on the road, I would have gotten to know Louisiana’s Washington a whole lot better.
10. Kansas: 1,071 inhabitants
Of all the Washingtons so far, this town ranks up with the Virginia one for remoteness. It isn’t particularly close to a single municipality that would likely ever achieve national recognition. The closest place is Manhattan, Kansas, almost 50 miles to the southeast. But even that medium sized city, best known as the home of Kansas State University, would require about a 70-minute drive. Washington, KS is the seat of its county (also named Washington), founded and dedicated almost simultaneously in 1860.
Although the city of Washington, KS has its own official website, it dedicates itself almost exclusively to municipal affairs. It offers a brief overview of amenities and attractions, but it defers any historical documentation to the Washington County Historical Society; historian work often takes place at the county level. And the society for this county right on the Nebraska line has a mere single page to its URL that it primarily dedicates to hard-copy archival material.
With this dearth of information, I can’t learn much more about Washington, KS—at least not enough to satisfy the level of research I’m willing to devote to this listicle project. Customary of the rural portions of the Great Plains—and most of the Great Plains is indeed rural—Washington city and county are both steadily losing population. The county as a whole seems in worse shape: it had nearly 23,000 people in 1890 and only 5,500 in 2020—a loss of over 80%. Washington, KS (the city) peaked in 1890 as well, with 1,600; its loss has been far more gradual. Since none of Washington County’s other municipalities is as big as Washington the county seat, it’s fair to deduce that mechanization and farmland consolidation simply translate to far fewer people employed in the county’s primary industry that serves this large county. As dour as these numbers seem though, it’s surprising there’s so little documentation on historic Washington, KS: the town has a very identifiable courthouse square center, with at least two blocks of nicely maintained main street architecture—better than any of the other Washingtons up to this point. And brick streets too!
9. Georgia: 3,754 inhabitants
With an emergent alpha city by the name of Atlanta, the Peach State may seem much more heavily urbanized than many of its predecessors: Nebraska, Louisiana, Arkansas. But Georgia is a very large state—the largest of the 13 Colonies in land area, at least by its current boundaries. And, after Atlanta, the prominent cities drop off quickly—metropolitan Atlanta absorbs almost 60% of the state’s population. Much of Georgia is still heavily rural, including the state’s Washington—about 95 miles east of Atlanta, and situated on US Highway 78, at about the midpoint between college town of Athens and Augusta, the state’s third largest city. Washington, GA is the seat of Wilkes County, which still claims fewer than 10,000 people. Washington is so pivotal to this spatially large county (large, at least, by Georgia standards) that most people refer to the town as “Washington-Wilkes”, which also helps distinguish it from any other place named Washington.
Incidentally, Arkansas isn’t the only one among these Washingtons to temporarily serve as its state capital. Washington-Wilkes had the same role, albeit during a different conflict. Colonist Stephen Heard established Heard’s Fort in 1774, and, three years later, the Georgia State Constitution declared Wilkes as one of the first eight counties in the state. The 1779 Battle of Kettle Creek, in southwest Wilkes County, drove Tories out of the young state, helping it assert its independence. Since Stephen Heard designed his Fort as a stockade, it made a suitable capital site during part of the Revolutionary War, for about a year in 1780 and into 1781, at which point the State incorporated Heard’s Fort as the City of Washington—the first community in the country to bear the name. Eighty years later, Washington, GA hosted the final Confederate Cabinet Meeting on May 4, 1865, thereby disbanding the Confederacy.
Washington, GA today boasts a fully developed downtown with a courthouse square and commercial buildings surrounding its central green. Many of these properties are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And according to the city’s website, this Washington boasts the highest ratio per capita of antebellum homes in the country. Despite these commendable distinctions, Washington does not seem to be able to reverse its general trajectory of population decline, down quite a bit from its peak of 4,662 people in 1980. At least Washington is faring better than the rest of Wilkes County, which has lost more than half its population since its peak of over 24,000 in 1920. Agricultural reform and the Great Migration of African Americans away from the South were major factors; this is a very rural part of Georgia, after all.
8. Iowa: 7,352 inhabitants
Many of these Washingtons have stood in the shadow of a neighboring college down; none, though, come so close as Iowa’s Washington—just 20 miles south of Iowa City, home to the Hawkeye State’s flagship university. Like Kansas, this Washington is a seat of government to a Washington County, named to reflect the county’s honorary stance. Unlike many other Washingtons, this one also appears to enjoy a general trend toward population growth. Nothing huge or radical, but the 2020 population of Washington, IA is greater than it has ever been. The county was at its population peak in 2020, through the growth has been a bit spottier. Then again, as agrarian as Iowa’s national identity may be, this portion of East-Central Iowa is relatively urbanized. Aside from Iowa City, just 20 miles further to the north is Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second largest city. And less than 60 miles to the northeast of Washington, IA are the Quad Cities of Davenport, Bettendorf (both in Iowa), Rock Island, and Moline (both across the river in Illinois).
Washington’s location is hardly megalopolis-worthy, and it is relatively far (over 25 miles) from a major interstate. Taking those factors into account—in addition to the fact that Iowa has nearly always been a slow-and-steady growth state—it’s a bit surprising that Washington has managed to resist so many economic vicissitudes. It’s one of the oldest settlements in Iowa, having been founded in 1839 to serve as the seat to its identically named county—seven years before Iowa’s admission to the Union. The city has a nicely designed official website, as one might expect with a municipality of several thousand people. But it’s surprisingly light on historic details, offering more of a glimpse at attractions and distinctive features to the small city, with an eye for tourists and visitors. From that metric, Washington, IA prides itself in the continued flourishing of its State Theatre, which has been showing motion pictures since 1897, making a Guinness World Record. Beyond that detail, the best I can find is from an amateur historian’s archived site, which indicates this region has depended more on the timber industry than the majority of Iowa.
Due to the scant online documentation of its history, interested persons will have to contact Washington County Historical Society directly to learn more about the area. The conventional courthouse square area appears well-preserved, and a number of structures surrounding its Central Park now comprise the Washington Downtown Historic District. Given the size and general indications of prosperity of this Washington—certainly compared to many others covered so far—it’s a bit surprising how light the historic resources area. Perhaps this is just one of the Washingtons where nothing of national interest or significance took place. It’s just chugging along nicely.
Recognizing that I am now halfway through the list of Washingtons and this article is getting long, I’ve decided to pause and will continue the final seven largest Washingtons in Part II. The next part will have more photos than this one did…I promise!