Washington (state, United States)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Washington (state, United States)

Washington, state in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. It is bordered by Idaho (E); Oregon, with the Columbia River marking much of the boundary (S); the Pacific Ocean (W); and the Canadian province of British Columbia (N).

Facts and Figures

Area, 68,192 sq mi (176,617 sq km), including 1,483 sq mi (3,841 sq km) of inland water surface. Pop. (2010) 6,724,540, a 14.1% increase since the 2000 census. Capital, Olympia. Largest city, Seattle. Statehood, Nov. 11, 1889 (42d state). Highest pt., Mt. Rainier, 14,410 ft (4,395 m); lowest pt., sea level. Nickname, Evergreen State. Motto,Alki [By and By]. State bird, willow goldfinch. State flower, Western rhododendron. State tree, Western hemlock. Abbr., Wash., WA


The state comprises three major geographic zones. In the east, most of interior Washington is made up of the Columbia Plateau and the valleys of the Columbia River and its tributaries. Central Washington is dominated, and the state is divided, by the north-south Cascade Range. To the west of the Cascades lie coastal lowlands in the Puget Trough, Puget Sound and its many arms, and to their west the Coast Ranges, which in part form the backbone of the Olympic Peninsula.

The Interior

Washington's interior is a region of hard volcanic substructure, in many places scoured by glacial and river action, that is left largely dry by the shield the Cascades form against the Pacific winds; in some areas, as in the southeastern Palouse hills, loess deposits provide a basis for irrigated agriculture. The Blue Mts., an offshoot of the Rockies in the state's southeast corner, are one of the interior's few forested sections. The Columbia River enters the state from British Columbia in the northeast. After receiving the Spokane River from the east, it turns westward across the state and swings south at the foot of the Cascades, enclosing the Big Bend country. Near Washington's southern border, it receives the Yakima (from the west) and Snake (from the east), then bends westward again, forming the boundary with Oregon as it cuts through the Cascades on its way to the sea.

The Cascades

Washington's boldest physiographic feature is the lofty Cascade Range, rising to 14,410 ft (4,392 m) at Mt. Rainier. The Cascades block the eastward movement of warm ocean air from the Alaska Current, causing abundant rainfall to the west and semiarid conditions to the east. The valleys of the Wenatchee, Yakima, and other rivers flowing eastward from the mountains are important irrigated farming areas, while the Cascades themselves are the site of North Cascades and Mount Rainier national parks, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, several national forests, and noted ski resorts. Their scenery is a major tourist attraction. Mount St. Helens, on the west slope near the Oregon boundary, is the most recent (1980) Cascade peak to erupt.

The West and the Pacific Coast

Washington's coastal region is one of the wettest areas in the United States, receiving up to 150 in. (381 cm) of rain per year at high elevations; it is correspondingly heavily forested, especially with spruce, fir, cedar, and hemlock. Between the Cascades and the much lower Coast Ranges to the west lies the Puget Trough, a lowland heavily indented by Puget Sound, the site of Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, and most of the state's population and industry. The Coast Ranges rise to 7,965 ft (2,428 m) at Mt. Olympus in the Olympic Mts., within Olympic National Park. Along the Pacific coast, in the southwest, they are breached by two substantial bays, Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay. Puget Sound is filled with more than 300 islands, including the San Juan Archipelago and Whidbey Island; it is entered from the northwest through the Juan de Fuca Strait, from the north through the Strait of Georgia. Point Roberts, the northwesternmost portion of Washington on the latter strait, is the southern end of a peninsula that begins in Canada, and the area is not connected by land with the rest of the state.

Places of Interest and Cities

Visitors are attracted to Mount Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park, North Cascades National Park, Fort Vancouver and Whitman Mission national historic sites, and Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (see National Parks and Monuments, table). Mt. Saint Helens, which erupted in 1980, is now a national monument. Miles of apple and cherry orchards in the irrigated area just east of the Cascades create the spring landscape for which the state is famous. The rugged mountain slopes and grandeur of the Cascades draw climbers during the summer months, and in winter excellent snowfields near Seattle and Tacoma attract skiers. Olympia is the capital; Seattle, Spokane, and Tacoma are the largest cities.


Washington's water resources provide both irrigation and enormous hydroelectric power. The impact of the Columbia River on the life and economy of the state can scarcely be overestimated. In early days the river was a means of transport and a salmon-fishing field for many Native American tribes. Because of the steep drop from its origin to its mouth, the Columbia is one of the greatest sources of hydroelectric power in the world. Grand Coulee Dam—one of the world's largest concrete dams and greatest potential power-producing structures—and Bonneville Dam have been supplemented, on the river's upper course, by Chief Joseph and Rocky Reach dams (both completed 1961), Priest Rapids Dam (1962), and Wanapum Dam (1963), and, on its lower course, by The Dalles Dam (1957), John Day Dam (1968), and McNary Dam (1953), all shared with Oregon.

The dams on the Columbia's lower course were designed as power, flood-control, and navigation projects, whereas the dams on the upper course are integral to the Columbia basin project (with the Grand Coulee as the key unit), providing not only power and flood control but extensive irrigation to the Columbia Plateau. The Snake River in the east and the Yakima River in S central Washington also have important irrigation projects. Dams on the Skagit River (including Ross and Diablo, two of the world's highest) supply power to Seattle and the surrounding area.

Puget Sound is the heart of Washington's industrial and commercial development. It is navigable and has many beautiful bays, on which are situated such commercial and industrial cities as Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett. Seattle, an exporter and importer in trade with Asia and a gateway to Alaska (because of the protected Inland Passage), is a major U.S. city and a center for the manufacture of jet aircraft (as well as missiles and spacecraft) by the Boeing Corp. In recent years, computer software (Microsoft Corp. is near Seattle), electronics, and biotechnology have become increasingly important to the economy.

Washington's huge food processing industry is based on the state's diversified irrigated farming and dairying as well as on its abundant fishing resources. Salmon is the biggest catch, but halibut, bottomfish, oysters, and crabs are also significant.

Much of the land in E Washington is used for dry farming. Irrigation, however, has converted many of the river valleys east of the Cascades (especially the Yakima and Wenatchee) into garden areas. This region contains most of Washington's vineyards; from the 1980s the state has developed an important wine industry. Washington leads the country in the production of apples, sweet cherries, and pears and is a major wheat producer, chiefly in the hilly southeastern Palouse area. Washington is also a major producer of corn, onions, potatoes, apricots, grapes (including those made into wine), and other fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Cattle, dairy goods, sheep, and poultry are also economically important. Spokane is the commercial and transportation hub of the entire "Inland Empire" region between the Cascades and the Rockies, which extends into British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon.

Despite the vast semiarid expanse E of the Cascades, more than half of the state's area is forested, and the lumber and wood-products industry, so important in the early development of the state, remains one of its largest. Many of Washington's cities (among them Tacoma, Bellingham, Everett, and Anacortes) began as sawmill centers—Seattle itself was home to the original "Skid Road" —and lumber, pulp, paper, and related items are still among their major products.

Other important manufactures in the state are chemicals and primary metals, especially aluminum. Abundant water power and the rich aluminum and magnesium ores found in the Okanogan Highlands in the northeast part of the state have made Washington the nation's leading aluminum producer. Washington's chief minerals are sand and gravel, cement, stone, and diatomite. Gold, lead, and zinc are also found in the Okanogan Highlands. Tourism is an increasingly important industry.

Government and Higher Education

Washington still operates under its first constitution, adopted in 1889. Its executive branch is headed by a governor elected for a four-year term. The legislature has a senate with 49 members and a house of representatives with 98 members. The state sends 2 senators and 10 representatives to the U.S. Congress and has 12 electoral votes. Democrat Mike Lowry, elected governor in 1992, was succeeded by another Democrat, Gary Locke, elected in 1996 and reelected in 2000. Christine O. Gregoire, a Democrat, was narrowly elected to the office in 2004 after a hand recount. She had trailed after the first two vote counts, and the final count was challenged in court. Gregoire was reelected in 2008, and succeeded in 2012 by fellow Democrat Jay Inslee.

Among the state's institutions of higher learning are Central Washington Univ., at Ellensburg; Eastern Washington Univ., at Cheney; Evergreen State College, at Olympia; Gonzaga Univ., at Spokane; Pacific Lutheran Univ. and the Univ. of Puget Sound, at Tacoma; Seattle Univ. and the Univ. of Washington, at Seattle; Washington State Univ., at Pullman; Western Washington Univ., at Bellingham; and Whitman College, at Walla Walla.


European Exploration

Washington's early history is shared with that of the whole Oregon Territory. The perennial search for the Northwest Passage aroused initial interest in the area. Of the early explorers along the Pacific coast, Spanish expeditions under Juan Pérez (1774) and Bruno Heceta (1775) are the first known to have definitely skirted the coast of what is now Washington. Capt. James Cook's English expedition (1778) first opened up the area to the maritime fur trade with China, and British fur companies were soon exploring the West and encountering Russians pushing southward from posts in Alaska. In 1787, Charles William Barkley found the inland channel, which the following year John Meares named the Juan de Fuca Strait (after the sailor who is alleged to have discovered it). In 1792, the British explorer George Vancouver and the American fur trader Robert Gray crossed paths along the Washington coast. Vancouver sailed into Puget Sound and mapped the area; Gray, convinced of the existence of a great river that the other explorers rejected, found the entrance, crossed the dangerous bar, and sailed up the Columbia, establishing U.S. claims to the areas that it drained.

Early Settlement and Boundary Disputes

The Lewis and Clark expedition, which reached the area in 1805, and the establishment of John Jacob Astor's settlement, Astoria, both helped to further the American claim; but in 1807 the Canadian trader David Thompson traveled the length of the Columbia, mapping the region and establishing British counterclaims. After Astoria was sold to the North West Company in the War of 1812, British interests appeared paramount, although in 1818 a treaty provided for 10 years (later extended) of joint rights for the United States and Great Britain in the Columbia River country. The Hudson's Bay Company absorbed the North West Company in 1821 and, under the patriarchal guidance of Dr. John McLoughlin, dominated the region until challenged by the Americans in the 1840s.

Fort Vancouver, on the site of present-day Vancouver, sheltered American overland traders—particularly Jedediah Smith, Benjamin Bonneville, and Nathaniel Wyeth—and later the American missionaries, who were the first real settlers in the area north of the Columbia. Marcus Whitman established (1836) a mission at Waiilatpu (near present-day Walla Walla), which for a decade not only served Native Americans as a medical and religious center but also provided an indispensable rest stop for immigrants on the Oregon Trail. Meanwhile the British, although despairing of control over the area S of the Columbia, were still determined to retain the region to the north; the Americans, on the other hand, demanded the ouster of the British from the whole of the Columbia River country up to a lat. of 54°40′N. "Fifty-four forty or fight" became a slogan in the 1844 election campaign, and for a time war with Britain threatened. However, diplomacy prevailed, and in 1846 the boundary was set at lat. 49°N.

Native American Resistance and Territorial Status

Peace with the British did not, however, preclude Native American conflict. Partly as a protective measure, the Oregon Territory, embracing the Washington area, was created the following year; but in 1853 the region was divided, and Washington Territory (containing a part of what is now Idaho) was set up, with Isaac Stevens as the first governor. (The Idaho section was cut away when Idaho Territory was formed in 1863.) Meanwhile, some of the pioneers on the oregon trail began to turn northward, and a small settlement sprang up at New Market, or Tumwater (near present-day Olympia).

After word of the needs of California gold-seekers for lumber and food spread northward, settlers recognized the commercial potential of the Puget Sound country and poured into the area in ever-increasing numbers. Lumber and fishing industries arose to satisfy the demand to the south, and new towns, including Seattle, were founded. Meanwhile Stevens, who also served as superintendent of Indian affairs, set about persuading the Native Americans to sell much of their lands and settle on reservations. Treaties with the coast tribes were quickly concluded, but the inland tribes revolted, and hostilities with the Cayuse, the Yakima, and the Nez Percé tribes continued for many years. Over the years, Native Americans remained a small but significant presence in the state; in the early 1990s their population was over 81,000.

Gold, Immigration, and Statehood

Gold was first discovered in Washington in 1852 by a Hudson's Bay Company agent at Fort Colville, but the Yakima War was then in progress and it hindered extensive mining activity. In 1860 the Orofino Creek and Clearwater River deposits were uncovered, bringing a rush of prospectors to the Walla Walla area. The major influx of settlers was delayed, however, until the 1880s, when transport by rail became possible (the first of three transcontinental railroads linked to Washington was completed in 1883).

The population almost quadrupled between 1880 and 1890; although the majority of the new settlers were from the East and Midwest, the territory also absorbed large numbers of foreign immigrants. Chinese laborers had been brought in during the 1860s to aid in placer mining; after 1870 they were followed by substantial groups of Germans, Scandinavians, Russians, Dutch, and Japanese immigrants. By the time Washington became a state in 1889, the wide sagebrush plains of E Washington had been given over to cattle and sheep, agriculture was flourishing in the fertile valleys, and the lumber industry had been founded.

Although some agrarian and labor dissatisfaction with the railroads and other big corporations existed, giving rise to the Granger movement and the Populist party, the discovery of gold in Alaska in 1897 brought renewed prosperity. Seattle, the primary departure point for the Klondike, became a boomtown. Labor and election reform laws were enacted, and the primary, the initiative, the referendum, and the recall were adopted.

The Early Twentieth Century

The turn of the century brought labor clashes that gave Washington a reputation as a radical state. The extreme policies of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW; also known as the "Wobblies" ) proved appealing to the shipyard and dock workers and to the loggers, and in 1917 the U.S. War Dept. was forced to intervene in a lumber industry dispute. A general strike following World War I had a crippling effect on the state's economy; antilabor feeling increased, and the famous incident at Centralia resulted in bloody strife between the IWW and the American Legion. The alarmed and brutal reaction of management to radical labor policies produced a confrontational atmosphere that hindered the mediation until the onset of the lean days of the 1930s and the emergence of the New Deal.

Washington was an important center of the defense industry during World War II, particularly with the immense aircraft industry in Seattle and the Manhattan Project's Hanford Works at Richland. (Decades later it was discovered that the Hanford facility had leaked large amounts of hazardous radioactive waste in the 1940s and 50s.) During the war, the large Japanese-American population in the state (more than 15,000 persons) was moved eastward to camps, where they suffered great physical and emotional hardship.

Postwar Change and New Industry

In the postwar period military spending continued to pour into such facilities as the Hanford nuclear reservation and the Bremerton naval shipyard, as well as into Boeing's bomber production. At the same time, trade with Asia boomed. Since the 1970s, Washington has attracted a large number of firms moving from California to a more favorable business climate. These include computer software manufacturers and other high-technology companies. The increased economic diversification and stepped-up activity in high-tech industries have cushioned the impact of job losses in the 1990s from post–cold war cutbacks, especially in aerospace orders for Boeing. At the same time, industrial and residential growth has brought the state face to face with environmental issues, among them the effects of continued massive logging and the impact of dams on fish populations.


See E. I. Stewart, Washington: Northwest Frontier (4 vol., 1957); M. W. Avery, Washington: A History of the Evergreen State (1965); P. L. Beckett, From Wilderness to Enabling Act (1968); J. Olson and G. Olson, Washington Times and Trails (1970); J. A. Alwin, Between the Mountains: A Portrait of Eastern Washington (1984); C. J. Manson, Theses on Washington Geology, 1901–1985 (1986); J. W. Scott and R. L. DeLorme, Historical Atlas of Washington (1988).

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