Culture, History, Rural Living

Washington, PA, the First City Named For the First President

It’s hard for me to think of a particular place as my hometown:

I was born in Birmingham, England, one fall night in 1954.

I was raised in Northern Nigeria, and Kaduna, Kano and Sokoto are dear to my heart.

I lived in Boston for a year when my family came to the States. I am very clear that Boston is not my hometown.

For ten summers, in my misspent youth, I helped out and worked on fishing and lobster boats out of North Rustico, PEI.

For fifteen years, we lived in a suburb of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s a nice town. With great sports teams.

But, for the past thirty-six years, I have lived about eight miles away from the town I’m going to write about today, Washington, PA.

I even had to ponder this for a bit. After all, the closest municipal entity to us isn’t actually Washington PA, it’s Claysville PA.

Named for Henry Clay.

Although, for the first several years, as I tried to get things to grow in my garden, I thought it was named for the quality of the soil. After all, I thought, there’s a reason it’s not called Siltsville, Loamsville, or Sandsville . . .

Claysville has an fascinating history all in its own right, supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War, whereas West Alexander, just a couple of miles down the pike (the National Pike, Route 40, that would be) was ‘for the Republic, and was–legend had it–a stop on the Underground Railroad.

It’s an interesting part of the country, all right.

But, Washington, PA.

Or, as it is more properly pronounced around here, “Worshington.” Known, pretty much universally as “Little Worshington,” to distinguish it from that other Washington a couple hundred miles away.

And it does want to be distinguished, most of its residents being of the opinion, which I share, that the offensive part in the name of the football team belonging to that other Washington wasn’t that which referred to the dermal characteristics of Native Americans.

So, herewith, some distinguishing characteristics of my Washington:

The area which the present day city of Washington occupies was known in the mid-eighteenth century as “Wissameking,” or Catfish Camp. In 1781, the Pennsylvania General Assembly designated the surrounding region as “Washington County,” and named Catfish Camp/Washington as the county seat.

In 1791, Washington was Ground Zero for the Whiskey Rebellion, perhaps the first example of the newly-minted American people becoming fed up with their government and acting up as a result of it. As with a prior iteration of ‘troubles’ the problem was a tax imposed by the government, this time on the distillation of spirits. Although the locals eventually lost the fight, Washington is justly proud of its reputation as a bit on the fractious and independent side, and the Whiskey Rebellion Festival which has been held annually since 2012 has become quite the Summer event.

Washington is also the home of Washington and Jefferson College. W&J was formed in 1865, when Washington College in Washington merged with Jefferson College in nearby Canonsburg. Canonsburg has never forgiven its neighbor for ‘stealing’ its college (both Washington and Jefferson Colleges were founded in the 1780’s, essentially as part of the same organization), and the bad feeling has played its way out in several foiled business ventures continuing through the twenty-first century).

W&J is known as a good liberal arts school, with a very attractive campus, and a cordial relationship between town and gown. Notable alumni include William Holmes McGuffy (he of the Reader), astronaut and space pilot Joe Walker and (heaven preserve us), Roger Goodell (what he was doing at W&J, I have no idea).

Most unexpectedly though, W&J was a participant in the 1922 Rose Bowl (against the University of California, Berkeley). A college administrator mortgaged his home to pay their way, and because they could only afford to send eleven players, this was the last time that a football team, (this one under W&J’s coach “Greasy” Neale), played the same eleven players for the entire Rose Bowl game. W&J’s Charlie West was the first African-American to play at quarterback in a Rose Bowl, and W&J is also, unsurprisingly, the smallest school ever invited to participate in a Rose Bowl.

Berkeley was heavily favored to win the event, prompting one sportswriter to comment that “All I know about Washington and Jefferson is, they’re both dead.”

He shouldn’t have bet against them.

The ornery Little Worshingtonians played Berkely to a 0-0 tie, for the only scoreless Rose Bowl in the 113-year history of the event.

For the past seven decades, Washington PA has been at the heart of the Pony League, a baseball organization for kids who are too big for Little League but who are not ready for adult play. Over half a million participants play on hundreds of teams in hundreds of leagues, and the cream of the crop descends on Washington every summer for the championship. Unlike Major League Baseball’s World Series, the Pony League World Series does have an off-continent component, and since 2009 teams from Chinese Taipei and Japan have been included among the champions.

The Washington Wild Things fill the need for those who love baseball and who just can’t handle the journey to Pittsburgh unless absolutely necessary (and there are lots of us). The Frontier League team has been quite successful in its twenty-three seasons and has made it to this year’s championship series, which wraps up today.  (The series is tied 2-2 at the moment, with the decisive game to be played this afternoon, September 26, starting at 5:30PM.)

When Worshingtonians fall ill, they go to The Washington Hospital, recently more grandly named as Washington Health System. (Disclaimer: TWH was my employer for twenty years). In 1983, TWH implemented one of the first ‘electronic medical records’ for its inpatient population. In the 1990s, it had what may have been the world’s first all-digital cardiac catheterization laboratory, as it worked with the vendor to test and perfect the system. Not bad for a little hospital that has avoided, as much as possible, affiliation/smotheration by UPMC, Allegheny Health Network, or Highmark, and which actually means it when it says that it’s here for the community. May it live long and prosper.

And when Worshingtonians want to hear some music, they go to see the Washington Symphony Orchestra, a mostly volunteer community orchestra that’s not so bad (Disclaimer: I was on the board for years, left for a few, and–incredibly–they invited me back.). In typical bootstrap fashion, one guy decided, in 2002, that the area needed an orchestra, so he prevailed on a bunch of his friends, and his wife’s co-workers, and got on with it. The result is a rather delightful organization that’s found a formula that mixes pops and classics with an engaging and energetic conductor, and fills the better parts of an 1100 seat auditorium for every concert, with sellouts at Christmas. All this in a county that contains the McGuffey school district, at whom opponents “moo” when its football team runs onto the field at high school games. Whoever woulda’ thunk it?

I love Washington County. People are feisty and self-sufficient. Kids set up lemonade stands in their front yards, and as far as I can see, no-one shuts them down. Little old farmer men sell corn out of their pick-up trucks at the flashing red light intersection up the road, and no-one bothers them. Men and women get up every morning and go to work, just like they’re supposed to. Most folks don’t have a lot of money to throw around. People rarely fall for flimflam and con artists (you don’t read a lot of stories of old ladies being burglarized by people they let into their houses to paint the walls—the old ladies around here are more likely to point a gun at them and tell them to get off their lawn).

And although Washington itself has suffered somewhat in recent times, as have most cities its size from failed ‘gentrification’ projects, loss of jobs, the overweening ambitions of its politicians, and the death of most of the farming, manufacturing and industry that filled its coffers for centuries, and the incursion of opioids and a sense of desperation among the young, we’re all hoping for a comeback in the next few years.

You shouldn’t bet against us.

If you do, you’re almost sure to lose.

At best, you might tie.  And, in this day and age,  I’ll take that as a win.

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