Although Washington state was granted statehood in 1889, its history extends much further back. Many settlements formed in Washington and eventually evolved into towns and cities, primarily during the mid-1800s. Some of these towns are still around to this day, either as small quaint historical towns or booming metropolises.
As the 42nd state, Washington’s history is fairly new in comparison to many other states. However, in the right places, there is still plenty of historical value to be found in Washington’s oldest cities. Below are 10 of the oldest towns that are still inhabited in Washington state.
This town boasts the title of the first incorporated town in Washington state. The origin of the town’s name is actually quite disputed. Some say it was named after the Steilacoom tribe, others say it was named after a Native American chief named Tail-a-Koom. Regardless, the town was originally inhabited by the Steilacoom people before the arrival of settlers.
The town was settled by a sea captain from Maine and became known for its lumber exports. Due to it being the first city incorporated into Washington state, Steilacoom is known today for establishing many types of buildings for the first time in the state, including the oldest Catholic Church, the first Protestant Church north of the Columbia River, the first jail, and the first sawmill. The Steilacoom Historic District has a whopping total of 68 contributing properties.
Although this city is often overlooked by tourists, Oysterville is actually one of the oldest established towns in the state. The town started as an oyster fishing village, hence its name. The town has a tiny population of only 20 people but it is still registered on the National Register of Historic Places as the Oysterville Historic District.
This small town has several well-preserved historic buildings including a school house, community church (see above) multiple homes, and other buildings from before the 1880’s. The town’s cemetery is also a great place for history buffs as it is the resting place for many of the town’s found families, dating all the way back to 1858.
Named after the first permanent white settler in the Kittitas Valley, Thorp is a small town with a population of less than 350 people. The Yakima River canyon is located nearby and the area is generally well known for its untouched natural scenery. Today, Thorp is known for its state park and historic mill.
Despite the town’s small size, its history is quite rich. Before settlers arrived, the area was occupied by the Kittitas or Upper Yakama Tribe. The largest indigenous settlement in the Kittitas Valley was actually located only a mile away from where Thorp is today. After settlers came, a sawmill was established and the town boomed even through the Great Depression. The city is also known for its well kept cemetery which is known as one of the most haunted places in the state, supposedly home to the ghost of a Native American girl.
Renowned for its gorgeous scenery (one of the most beautiful cities in the PNW) and Victorian-era buildings, the city of Port Townsend was named after the bay it is located on. The bay itself was named in 1792 but it wasn’t until 1851 that European-American settlers arrived. The city was nicknamed the City of Dreams and the Key City due to how active and well-known its seaport was.
Many of Port Townsend’s historic buildings are well preserved as it is one of the few towns in the Pacific Northwest that was not greatly ravaged by natural or manmade disasters. The Port Townsend Historic District, famously known for its Victorian buildings, was founded in 1976 and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1977.
Located on the Swinomish Channel, La Conner was actually originally named Swinomish in honor of the channel it resides on. 2 years later, the settlement’s trading post was founded by J.S. Conner, who had the town’s name changed in honor of his wife in 1870. The “La” part of the city’s name is actually his wife’s first and middle initials.
Today, La Conner is a popular weekend spot in Skagit County. It is renowned for hosting the annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. The town hosts several events each year. The town is also directly connected to the Swinomish reservation on Fidalgo Island via a bridge.
Originally established as a fur trading post, the area currently known as Vancouver was only settled upon due to its desirable location west of the Rocky Mountains. The town was started as Fort Vancouver by Hudson’s Bay Company. Ironically, the town was not named after its initial fort. Vancouver was initially known as Columbia City but was renamed in 1855. Today, the city is a beacon of Washington’s military history.
For a brief duration, Vancouver was the capital of Washington before it was granted statehood. From the late 1850’s and onward into the next century, Vancouver was mostly used for army purposes. The city had its own barracks, which was the largest in its region and at one point had Ulysses S. Grant as quartermaster. Vancouver’s active participation in connection with the US military continued into both World Wars with their production of ships and use of multiple shipyards.
As the state’s capital, it is only fitting that Olympia is one of the oldest cities in Washington state. Originally inhabited by the Lushootseed-speaking peoples, the city of Olympia was first founded on 2 acres of land with a cabin. The city was named after its view of the Olympic Mountains. It was declared the capital of Washington Territory in 1853 and has remained the capital since.
Although Olympia was initially known for logging and oystering, its industries expanded to sawmilling and fruit canning in the 20th century. Today, visitors can visit the Bigelow House Museum, known as Olympia’s oldest surviving home, which dates all the way back to the 1850’s, or the Washington State Capitol which was built in 1912 and has the fourth largest free-standing masonry dome in the world.
It often surprises people how old Seattle is. The city feels so modern that it is hard to imagine it as anything other than the technology hub that it is today. Truthfully, Seattle had humble beginnings, starting with an unfinished roofless cabin and a campsite at Alki Point. Initially, Seattle was known for its booming timber industry.
Seattle’s success was halted in 1889 by the Great Seattle Fire which burned 29 city blocks but bounced back quickly with the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890’s. Iconic parts of Seattle like Pioneer Square and the Public Market date back all the way to the start of the 1900’s. Boeing was founded in 1916 under the name Pacific Aero Products Co., pushing Seattle toward its current notoriety in the aviation industry.
Named after an early pioneer, Spangle was marked as a settlement using a tree sapling named “Branchy”. The city expanded from just one family to a townsite by 1879. The city is surrounded mostly by farmland, specifically that of the Palouse. Although US Route 195 no longer runs through the town, there is still an old highway running through it that many road trippers use to this day as an alternative route to either take in the sights or avoid traffic in nearby Spokane.
Spangle is primarily known for its founding tree, which still stands to this day in the center of the town. Although the town is quite small with a population never higher than 350 people, the beloved tree “Branchy” is a fun hidden piece of history.
Located on Whidbey Island, Coupeville was originally inhabited by the Lower Skagit. They had three villages around the bay, the largest of which is now the site of Coupeville as we know it today. The area was initially named Penn Cove by Joseph Whidbey himself but was renamed in honor of Captain Thomas Coupe in the 1850’s.
Today, Coupeville holds the title of the first and only National Historical Reserve in the nation. It is part of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve which was established in 1978 and includes Fort Ebey State Park and Fort Casey State Park, as well as shorelines, beaches, parks, and trails. The historic waterfront district is especially popular for tourists and history buffs to visit with most of the businesses in that area operated by individual local owners.