Chief Catfish of the (Kuskee) Delaware Indian Tribe was the first to settle on this land c. 1750. In 1769, David Hoge of Harrisburg bought three tracts in the region, and, in 1781, his son built a log house on the site of the present-day city of Washington. First called Bassettown for Hoge's friend Richard Bassett, the village was renamed Washington in honor of George Washington in 1784, and incorporated as a borough in 1810. The town was laid out in a grid pattern across rolling hills typical of the Appalachian Plateau. Located midway between Brownsville and Wheeling, West Virginia, Washington lobbied to be on the National Road. From 1811 to the mid-nineteenth century, the town thrived as a transportation hub, county seat, and college town. But it suffered from its relative proximity to Pittsburgh and from the rivalry between the Baltimore and Ohio and the Pennsylvania railroads. Washington achieved a rail connection to Wheeling in 1857 and to Pittsburgh in 1871 when the Chartiers Valley Railroad opened. Rail connections to Pittsburgh increased in numbers and frequency as coal, oil, and natural gas businesses grew. The Waynesburg and Washington Railroad (the “W and W”), a narrow-gauge line, joined the two county seats and operated from 1877 to 1929. Two distinctive rail stations from the turn of the twentieth century remain at the south end of the commercial district (ws8).
Washington Academy, later Washington College, founded here in 1787, was joined with Jefferson College in 1869 (ws4). A female seminary in existence between 1835 and 1875 prompted the names “Beau” and “Maiden” to be assigned to parallel streets four decorous blocks from each other (they ultimately do intersect on the west side of town). In 1879, a military academy, Trinity Hall (ws9), was added to the educational mix in Washington.
The town centered on the intersection of W. Beau and Main streets at the courthouse (ws1), one of the most beautiful in western Pennsylvania. Perhaps Washington's role as county seat and college town, its orientation toward Virginia, and the wealth from coal and oil stimulated the relatively sophisticated stylistic choices for its buildings. Many of the town's major buildings show an attention to detail and sense of style not apparent in nearby counties. For example, the Baird-Acheson house (1826; S. Main and W. Maiden streets) has a magnificent four-story, elliptical interior stairway. A unique collection of exuberantly styled frame Queen Anne houses along East Avenue and Grant, E. Wheeling, and E. Beau streets adds to the architectural eclecticism. Three c. 1890 houses with rounded turrets, wraparound spindled porches, and five square windows in their front gables (48 S. Wade Avenue, 411 E. Maiden Street, and 104 E. Prospect Street) are the work of an unknown local carpenter-builder, who adapted the designs from one of the popular architectural style books. The brown brick, six-story Washington Trust Building (6 S. Main Street), designed in 1902 by Frederick J. Osterling, hosted professional offices, a dime store, and the Elks Club, and with its ten-story addition (1921–1923, Jay W. Percowper), remains the tallest building in Washington. Percowper also designed the Art Deco Observer-Reporternewspaper offices at 122 S. Main Street. Although Washington's suburban sprawl now extends outward to the interstate highways, an older shopping district adjacent to the college and the courthouse remains vibrant.
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