1890 census sized up our state, cities for first time | Taking Stock

By Tim Raetzloff | May 03, 2017

The Census of 1890 was the first for Washington after gaining statehood. Washington had been admitted to the Union less than seven months before as the 42nd state. Washington was the 34th most populous state, and the most populous in the Northwest.

Washington had a population of 357,232. Oregon had 317,704 people. Montana had 142,924. Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska weren’t yet states.

California had a population of 1,213,398 – the 22nd largest in the United States, and the largest in the West. California also had the largest city in the West: San Francisco, which was the eighth largest in the U.S. at 298,997 people.

Three cities were vying to be the largest in the Northwest. Portland, Oregon, was the largest at number 61 in the country with 46,385 people. Seattle was second in the Northwest at 70th in the country with a population of 42,837.

It may surprise you to know that Tacoma was third in the Northwest and 84th in the country with 36,006 residents. At that time, Tacoma genuinely believed it could become the most important city in the Northwest, which is hard to believe now, but would have been understandable then.

If Tacoma had been able to prevent the railroad from connecting to Seattle, it might have succeeded. As it happened, the population of Seattle increased 500 percent in the next two decades, and the contest was over. The arrival of the Great Northern Railway, the Yukon Gold Rush and the publicity of promoter Erastus Brainerd were pivotal to Seattle’s growth. Ironically, Brainerd moved to Tacoma later in life and died there.

Edmonds, Mukilteo, Mill Creek and Everett didn’t exist at the time of the 1890 census. All were located in unincorporated Snohomish County. The happening places in Snohomish County were the county seat, Snohomish, and the mining boomtown Monte Cristo. Within the following decade, Edmonds and Everett would be incorporated, the boom would peak in Monte Cristo, and Snohomish would lose the county seat, and its dreams of growth, to Everett.

The 1890 census was also notable because it was the first census to use an electrical-mechanical tabulator, which used punch cards, to calculate the information. Herman Hollerith, who had been an employee of the Census Bureau, was the developer of the tabulator.

His company was ultimately merged with other companies and formed the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. That name was not very catchy and the company was later renamed International Business Machines, today known as IBM.

Ninety years after the 1890 census, IBM would contract with a little-known Seattle area company to produce an operating system for its micro-computers. So, in a way, Microsoft Windows is a descendant of the 1890 census.

 

Tim Raetzloff operates Abarim Business Computers at Harbor Square in Edmonds. What he writes combines his sense of history and his sense of numbers. Neither he nor Abarim have an investment in any of the companies mentioned in this column.

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