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Washington State, USA

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Mount St Helens, Washington.

Washington State is the top left corner of the bit that most people call America: just south of Canada and just east of the Pacific Ocean. It should not be confused with Washington, DC which is the capital city of the USA and is on the east coast.

Some state facts:
Dimensions360 miles east to west; 300 miles high north to south
Area67,000 sq miles
Population6 million (2002 figures)
Became a state in1889
State AbbreviationWA
NicknameThe Evergreen State
State BirdWillow Goldfinch
FlagGreen with the official state seal in the centre

Two of Washington's largest industries are computer technology and aeronautics; the world headquarters for Microsoft and Boeing are located in the Seattle area. Washington is also well known for its apples and its fishing industry, while lumber, hops, pears, raspberries and livestock are a few of its other major products.

Washington was the birthplace of 'grunge', producing such bands as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Washington was also the birthplace of a number of well-known personalities including crooner Bing Crosby, guitarist Jimi Hendrix, animator Chuck Jones, cartoonist Gary Larson, composer Quincy Jones and blues legend Ray Charles.

Washington is the only state in the US to be named after a President.

The History of Washington State

Washington was a late addition to the United States. The USA was established in 1776 on the east coast of the continent, but this had little effect on the west coast. The whole Pacific Northwest region (Oregon, Washington and the area around Vancouver) was a mysterious unknown area to European settlers: the first-recorded European setting foot in Washington was as late as 1775. The area was initially claimed by both Spain and the United Kingdom, but in 1790 at the Treaty of Nootka, Spain conceded the whole Pacific Northwest to the United Kingdom.

British and American Fur-trading

The interior of the Pacific Northwest was explored in the period of 1790 to 1820, by such pioneers as Lewis and Clark, and John Thompson. A number of fur-trading companies set up trading posts, most notably the Hudson's Bay Company (British) and the Pacific Fur Company (American). Initially there was an agreement that the British would trade in the upper reaches of the Columbia River while the Americans would have the lower reaches. This accord didn't last long: in 1813, there were two trading posts in the Spokane area, one British and one American, in direct competition with each other. The biggest trading post in the Washington area was Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, now known as Vancouver, Washington. It was owned by the British.

In 1818, a treaty was signed between the USA and the British establishing the border between British regions (now known as Canada) and the US at the 49th parallel, but this only extended from the east as far as the Rocky Mountains. West of the Rockies, the area was to be shared between the British and Americans and the ownership to be sorted out later. The area covered by this agreement was known as 'Oregon1 Country' but included all of the present states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, as well as Western Montana and the province of British Columbia.

New Settlers

In the 1830s, some of the fur traders took to farming and the beginnings of a settled life took shape in Oregon Country. Many Americans started to head west from the United States (which at this stage consisted of more or less everything east of the Mississippi river) to seek a new life in the west. In 1840, the first wagons came over the Rockies and established the Oregon Trail; the trickle of new arrivals became a flood.

With the arrival of hundreds and hundreds of Americans into the area, the treaty was re-negotiated between Britain and America. In 1846, it was settled that the border between the US and Canada should continue along the 49th parallel all the way to the ocean. 'Oregon Country' was divided down the middle, the northern half becoming British Columbia. The British-owned Hudson's Bay Company withdrew into Canada, abandoning Fort Vancouver.

1847 saw the first sawmill set up on the Puget Sound and the beginning of the logging industry. Around the same time, the 'Indian War' was started between the white settlers and the local Native American people, resulting in many deaths. This war proceeded over the next ten years or so with many incidents. Eventually Indian Reservations were set up and white settlers were excluded from them.

In 1848, the American government took control of the American part of Oregon Country, calling it the 'Oregon Territory'. In 1852, the first white settlers sailed into Elliott Bay on the Puget Sound and created a settlement, initially at Alki but then moving around the bay a few miles. They called their settlement 'New York', but quickly abandoned this ridiculous name and it became 'Seattle', named after a local Native American chief.

Washington Territory and State

Also in 1852, the northern settlers of the Oregon Territory began to become restless. With the difficulty of travel in the area, the new territory was unwieldy. It was too difficult for northern settlers to travel to Oregon City, the capital, to make their wishes known. They voted to separate from the south, and in 1853, the Washington Territory was established with its capital at Olympia. This territory was bigger than the present state, extending all the way to the Rockies and thus including western Idaho and western Montana. With the creation of the Idaho Territory in 1862, the Washington Territory shrank to more-or-less its present size.

As railways came to Washington from about 1870 onward, the population grew and the inhabitants started to look for statehood. Washington was finally admitted to the Union as a State in 1889.

The Topography of Washington

The state is roughly rectangular and wider than it is high: the northern border is due east-west and divides the state from Canada. The eastern border is due north-south. The southern border is more interesting, being formed by the mighty Columbia River. The west end of Washington is the Pacific coast.

The Cascade Mountains are a chain of volcanic mountains which run north-south through the state and beyond, dividing it into two distinct areas - to the west of the mountains, the climate is a temperate oceanic one while to the east it is a dry continental climate.

The state is roughly divided into six different regions:

  • The Puget Sound Area - the Puget Sound is a long inlet of the ocean running north-south and connected to the Pacific at the north end. Most of the population of the state lives around the Puget Sound.

  • The Olympic Peninsula - to the west of the Puget Sound and separating it from the ocean, this is a mountainous sparsely-inhabited region which receives a huge amount of rain.

  • Southwest Washington - south of the Olympic Peninsula and the Puget Sound is a nondescript forested region with not much on view, but some good wilderness. At the southern tip of this is the city of Vancouver, WA.

  • Northwest Washington - this area to the east of the Puget Sound and bordering on Canada contains the city of Bellingham and the San Juan Islands.

  • Central Washington - separated from all the above by the Cascade Mountains, this region is much drier, with more extreme temperatures and is sparsely populated.

  • Eastern Washington - this is about one third of the state. It is mainly the basin of the Columbia River, with its main tributary, the Snake river.

Each of these regions will be described in detail. There is also a description of the mountains themselves, although they are not normally considered to be a separate region.

The Puget Sound Lowlands

The Puget Sound is a long body of water running north-south. It is connected to the ocean at the north end by the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which separates Washington from Canada. Along the length of the Puget Sound is a complicated system of inlets, bays, islands and lakes, which means that you are never far from water in this part of Washington. The Kitsap Peninsula is normally included in this area.

Around these inlets and lakes is where most of the population of Washington lives. Seattle, the biggest city by far in Washington, lies on the east side of the Puget Sound. It is famous for the coffee company Starbucks, the Space Needle (a futuristic looking observation tower) and TV comedy show Frasier. The Eastside is a collection of cities to the east of Seattle, including Bellevue and Redmond, and separated from Seattle by the long narrow Lake Washington. Redmond, the home of Microsoft, was a small town but with 40,000 working in Microsoft's headquarters, it is now quite a respectably-sized city in its own right.

There are numerous other smaller cities around the sound, such as Tacoma, Olympia (the state capital), Everett and Bremerton. Many of the towns and cities closest to Seattle, such as Ballard, Edmonds and Lynnwood, have been subsumed into greater Seattle as suburbs. All the towns around the Puget Sound are connected by a huge network of highways, bridges and ferries.

Seattle and the areas around the Puget Sound are famous for rain, but this may not be an entirely fair representation. Seattle has an average of 140 rainy days a year, which is more than most American cities, but the rain is usually a light drizzle. So in comparison with the sudden downpours common elsewhere in the US, Seattle actually receives fewer inches of rain per year than cities such as Chicago or Dallas. And if you talk to those who've recently moved to Seattle, what often bothers people most is not the rain per se, but the clouds - Seattle has an average of 226 cloudy days per year, and it is not uncommon to go for a month or more without sunshine during the winter. There's definitely a seasonal pattern to all of this, with the bulk of the clouds and rain coming between October and April.

The Olympic Peninsula

The Olympic Peninsula is a mountainous, sparsely-inhabited region surrounded by water. To the west is the Pacific Ocean; to the north, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which separates it from Canada; and to the east, the Puget Sound. As a result, the climate is wet, wet, wet; the wettest spots get more than 180 inches of rain a year (4.5m). A special ecosystem known as a 'temperate rainforest' has grown up here, with forests of Sitka Spruce and many unusual plants and animals. Such a climate was once common along the Pacific coast of North America but is now very rare, being confined to parts of Oregon and the Olympic Peninsula. Due the mountains, the region is very inaccessible, and there's not much for the casual tourist to see. The highest point is Mount Olympus, at 7,965 feet (2,427m).

The 57-mile Olympic National Park coastline is an area of stunning natural beauty and is an International Biosphere reserve, a World Heritage site, and a US National Marine sanctuary. The total National park area of almost a million acres (400,000 hectares) is mostly inaccessible except by boat or on foot, with over 95% designated as wilderness areas.

While much of the Olympic Peninsula is sparsely inhabited, the northern coast has several towns that draw tourists, including:

  • Port Angeles - the biggest town on the north of the Peninsula, and often a starting point for those exploring Olympic National Park.

  • Port Townsend - a restored Victoria era seaport, with Fort Worden as one of the leading attractions.

  • Sequim - unlike the rest of the Olympic Peninsula, Sequim tends to be quite dry and sunny. The biggest attraction in the area is Dungeness National Park, home of the eponymous crab, and also a great draw for birdwatchers.

The most common transportation to these towns from the Puget Sound area is via ferry.

Southwest Washington

South of the Olympic Peninsula and the Puget Sound, this is a region most people simply know as the empty stretch in the highway on the drive between Seattle and Portland. Off the highway, there are plenty of places to appeal to the nature lovers - good hiking spots, beautiful wildflowers, and uncrowded campgrounds.

It is hilly and forested, with very little population. The Pacific coast has some very long beaches, but nothing much to attract a tourist. Westport is only starting to be developed as a tourist resort, while Long Beach is an unattractive strip of burger bars and tatty accommodation.

At the very southern tip of Southwest Washington lies the city of Vancouver, not to be confused with the other, better-known city of Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada. This one was originally a Hudson's Bay Company trading post called Fort Vancouver and, like the Canadian city, is named after the explorer, George Vancouver. It faces the city of Portland, Oregon across the Columbia River.

Northwest Washington

To the north of Seattle lies the region known as Northwest Washington. Between the mountains and the sound lies a wide area which is mainly forested but has some agriculture as well. Here you will find the city of Bellingham (home to the Western Washington University).

At the mouth of the Puget Sound lie the San Juan Islands. This group of islands lies at the meeting place of three bodies of water: the Puget Sound to the south, the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the west, joining it to the ocean, and the Georgia Strait to the north, which separates Vancouver Island from the rest of Canada. The sea is abundant with wildlife and is famous for its three resident pods of orcas which can usually be seen near the islands. The only major town on the San Juan Islands is Friday Harbor.

The Cascade Mountains

The mountains themselves are not normally considered a separate region, but they deserve a mention. This range of mountains runs from north to south through the state and continues on south into Oregon. They are volcanic mountains and the youngest range on the continent of North America. The most significant peaks are Mount Rainier, Mount St Helens, Mount Adams and Mount Baker. All of these are tall enough to be covered with snow all the year around. Both Rainier and St Helens are active. Mount Rainier has that unique combination of glaciers on top of a volcano. It produces vast mudslides every few hundred years. Mount St Helens surprised everyone by blowing its top off in 1980, destroying huge tracts of land and spreading ash over the entire USA. Luckily, only 59 people were killed, mainly sightseers wanting to know what an erupting volcano looked like. It has also erupted a couple of times since 1980.

Both Mt Rainier and Mt St Helens have National Parks around them. Mt Rainier is only a few hours drive from Seattle, so it is within range for a day-trip. Mt St Helens is a bit further south so it would probably require a two-day trip. The 'Cascade Loop' is a tourist car trail of about 350 miles which starts in Seattle and takes in much of the more picturesque parts of the mountains, but doesn't visit the highest peaks. It would need about three days to do it justice.

Also volcanically active are Mt Baker, Glacier Peak and Mt. Adams. There is also the little known Indian Heaven volcanic field, located between Mt Adams and St Helens, which is an area of several dozen small shield volcanoes. (Shield volcanoes are very shallow cones caused by a very slow steady source of lava; they resemble a Viking shield).

The mountains get a lot of snow in the winter and plenty of rain in the summer. Total precipitation is in the range of 100 - 140 inches a year.

Not surprisingly, skiing is a popular attraction in Washington state. Most, although not all, of the state's ski resorts are along the Cascade range.

Central Washington

Central Washington is where the bulk of the agricultural action in the state occurs. Native American lands are also a major feature of this area.

Some of the larger towns in this part of the state include:

  • Leavenworth - a kitschy, Bavarian-themed folk village in the foothills of the Cascades, that almost wasn't. When railroad lines through the mountains shifted, the town nearly collapsed. Local business owners decided to turn the town into a tourist haven, styling every building near the business district in Bavarian style. Leavenworth is a popular holiday destination offering many recreational opportunities.

  • Ellensburg - the home of the region's university, Central Washington University.

  • Lake Chelan - a beach town in the mountains, and a very popular vacation spot.

  • Wenatchee - an agricultural area known for apples.

  • Yakima - another agricultural area, known for its wines.

  • Tri-Cities - Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland; this area is known mostly for the Hanford nuclear reservation which lies just to the north of the Tri-Cities.

Eastern Washington

Eastern Washington consists mainly of a giant river basin drained by the Columbia River and its main tributary, the Snake River. The climate is relatively dry with less than 25 inches of rain a year and in parts less than ten. The Cascade Mountains are tall enough to prevent the wet winds of the Pacific from reaching here. This also means that the temperatures are much more extreme than at the coast: much hotter in the summer and much colder in the winter. In the north of Eastern Washington are the Okanogan Mountains. In the Southeast corner, the Blue Mountains, lying mainly in Oregon, just peep over the border into Washington.

Spokane is the major city, lying near the eastern border. It is the hub of the inland Northwest. With about 400,000 people in its metropolitan area, it is the second biggest city in the state. Here can be found wineries, casinos, rollercoasters and scenic driving routes. Spokane was the scene in the early 20th Century of a bizarre fight between workers and preachers: The 1909 Spokane Free Speech Campaign. Outside of Spokane, most of Eastern Washington is very sparsely populated.

At one time Walla Walla in the southeast corner of the state was the largest city in the Washington Territory, now it is well known for its wineries and sweet onions.

The Columbia River is the one of the biggest rivers in North America and the biggest American river that flows into the Pacific. Rising in Canada, much of the river lies within Washington or along the border between Washington and Oregon. In the 1930s, an enormous project was undertaken: the complete damming of the river for electricity generation. The river is now a series of stepped lakes, with virtually every foot of fall harnessed for hydro-electricity.

The Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in north-eastern Washington is the largest concrete structure in the US. Nearly a mile long (1,592 metres), the dam is 46 storeys tall and took 12 million cubic yards (nearly 11 million cubic metres) of concrete to build. The hydro-electric facility providing irrigation and electric power is an awesome sight to behold.

1Strangely, the name Oregon comes from a mispronunciation of the same Native American word which was mispronounced a different way to give us Wisconsin.

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