Industrialization in the State of Washington

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The state of Washington has long been associated with certain industries, and there's a reason for this. In this lesson, we will explore the history of industrialization in Washington and examine the impacts of this change.

Industrialization in Washington

Think about Washington. No, the other Washington - the state, not the national capital. Trees, rain, Sasquatch sightings. When we picture the major industries of Washington state, there are a few things that may jump out: logging, whale watching, coffee. I'm sure there's a lot more, but my point is that when we think of Washington, certain industries come to mind.

We don't picture people living on small subsistence farms or churning butter by hand, and that's because Washington state, like the rest of the USA, has a fully industrialized economy. But how did this happen, and when? Well, let's take a look through Washington history and see how industry came to America's favorite cloud-covered state.

Industrial technology changed Washington history.


Believe it or not, the first major industrial push into Washington wasn't from whale watchers or coffee bean roasters; it was the railroads. In 1883, the Northern Pacific Railroad was completed, connecting Minnesota to Tacoma, Washington, and thereby connecting the state to major railways spreading across the country. Now, Washington had been settled by Americans for roughly 40 years by this point, but it remained somewhat isolated from the rest of the United States. The arrival of major railroads meant that people could move to the Pacific Northwest with ease, and they did. In 1880, the populations of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington together totaled about 283,000. By 1910, this same area had over 2 million people.

As Americans packed up and headed West (and North), they brought with them all of the industrial technology that had reshaped the East Coast's economy. So, the railroads brought people into Washington, they brought new industrial technology into Washington, and let's not forget that it brought money into Washington. Industrial economies rely on high amounts of investment, with the ultimate goal of producing high amounts of profit. The railroads brought investors and their money into the state, and an industrial economy began to take shape.

The Northern Pacific Railroad connected Washington to the rest of the United States.

Industrial Economies

Now, prior to the 1880s, Washington was not without industry. For several decades, the state had been very successful in the logging industry. However, this was mostly done using traditional sawmills, and on a relatively small scale. The introduction of a mechanized industrial mindset brought with it the newest technologies for cutting and processing timber. This, plus the fact that railroads meant that more timber could be shipped further across the country, led to a major boom in logging. In fact, by 1905, Washington was ranked as the No. 1 timber producer in the United States, and roughly 80 percent of investments into the state were focused on this industry.

Logging quickly became the main industry in Washington after the railroads arrived in the late 1800s.

Lumber quickly became Washington's primary industry, but it was far from the only one. New packaging and mechanized netting technology led to a boom in fishing industries, particularly in terms of salmon. Overall, Washington became seen as a land of unlimited natural resources, all waiting to be extracted by the next great industrial titan.

Social Consequences of Industrialization

The industrialization of Washington's economy brought with it more than a few social consequences. The dramatic rise in population and wealth, as well as the greater connection with ideas from the rest of the United States, diversified Washington's culture beyond farmers and laborers. The University of Washington, founded in 1861, flourished and grew, as did other public institutions. These people had a different approach to Washington's natural wilderness, and conservation efforts became an important state priority. In 1899, the state established its first national park, forever protecting Mount Rainier from being commercially developed.

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