Culture, History, Plain Speaking, Rural Living, Truth

Washington Pennsylvania, the First City Named For the First President

Today, September 9, 2023 is the two-hundred-thirty-second anniversary of the naming of a new city, built on federal land, as the capital of the still-very-young United States of America. The city was named after the country’s first President, and the District was named “Columbia,” a name still occasionally used at that time for the country itself, in honor of Christopher Columbus.  (Ah, those were the days.)

Thus, on September 9, 1791, Washington, D.C. took its place among the capital cities of the world.

But it was a georgie-come-lately compared to another Washington, this one in Southwestern Pennsylvania.  Since that one is closer to my life and my heart, that’s the one I’m going to write about today (so sue me for bait-and-switch):

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. Kaduna, Kano and Sokoto will always hold a special place in my heart.

I lived in Boston for a year when my family came to the States. I am very clear that Boston is neither my hometown nor a place of special value, either to me or what’s left of my heart.

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

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

Named for Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser.” (Whether or not you believe that greatness in compromising is a virtue is up to you.  I know only that the late Mr. Right didn’t hold much brief for Henry Clay.)

I will admit, however, that for the first several years I lived out here, and as I tried to get things to grow in my garden, I thought Claysville was named for the quality of its soil. After all, I thought, there’s a reason it’s not called Siltsville, Loamsville, or Sandsville . . .And yet, RWKJ abides.

Claysville has an fascinating history all in its own, supporting–without compromise–the South during the Civil War (as a matter of fact, Claysville was nicknamed “Little Richmond” after the capital of the Confederacy itself), 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 has it–a stop on the Underground Railroad.

It’s an interesting part of the country, alright.

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–founded by Presbyterian missionaries and later becoming competitors–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 McGuffey (he of the Reader), astronaut and space pilot Joe Walker and (saints preserve us), National Football League Commissioner 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  repeatedly made it to the years championship series.

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. Earlier this year (2023) The Washington Hospital announced an affiliation with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), one of the two behemoths controlling most of Western Pennsylvania health care.  It had to happen, I guess, and (IMHO) merger with UPMC is better than merger with the alternative.  But I’m sad.  I hope UPMC recognizes how lucky it is this time around, and that the small-town ambiance of the place doesn’t change too much.

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). 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 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 or sweep the chimney—the old ladies around here are more likely to point a gun at them and tell such shysters to get off their lawn.)

And although Washington itself has suffered somewhat in recent times–as have most cities of its size and demographic–from failed ‘gentrification’ projects, loss of jobs, the overweening ambitions of its politicians, 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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